NESS CITY — The Eagles didn’t win a district championship Friday night.

You wouldn’t know that by the Ness City High School football team’s reaction following its game against Jetmore-Hodgeman County.

And rightfully so.

After all, the Eagles erased an early 20-0 deficit, rallied to take the lead twice, then held a powerful Longhorn team in the waining seconds on fourth down to secure a 28-26 win.

“It’s amazing. We knew we could play with anyone,” Ness City senior Landon Reinhardt said, shortly after the Eagles had stopped the previously unbeaten Longhorns just inches away from a first down and another chance to score late. “Just to come out here and prove ourselves — it’s incredible.”

Of course, it didn’t look that way from the start. Hodgeman County — which still ended up the Eight-Man Division I, District 6 champion via three-way tiebreaker — looked the part of the No. 3 ranked team in Eight-Man Division I. The Longhorns went to junior Eli Salmans early and often and had a 20-0 lead at the 4 minute, 35 second mark of the second quarter.

Eagles’ senior quarterback John Pfannenstiel already had thrown an interception and the Eagles had turned the ball over on downs at the Longhorn 5-yard line.

“It just took a whole team effort,” Pfannenstiel said of the Eagles’ eventual rally. “It was more just we needed to get our stuff together and wake up — trust each other and we’ll be able to do it.”

Enter junior Easton Seib and the passing game led by Pfannenstiel. Two minutes after falling in a 20-0 hole, Pfannenstiel engineered a long drive that was capped by an 24-yard touchdown strike to Seib at the 2:41 mark.

“Being down 20-0 and then coming back — Our kids just didn’t give up, so proud of that,” Ness City head coach Marc Cowles said.

The Eagles continued to spread it out in the second half. Pfannenstiel hit senior Andres Rios for 29 yards to keep the opening drive alive, then ran in a score from 3 yards to pull the Eagles to within four. A few minutes later after the Eagles forced a turnover on downs, Pfannenstiel went to the air again, finding Reinhardt over the middle for 24 yards in the end zone for the Eagles’ first lead.

Ness City ran the ball just enough, Cowles said, to give Pfannenstiel a chance to make some big plays, and the receivers delivered.

“We had confidence in how we could pass it,” Cowles said. “We ran the ball great against a really good defense, and we knew it had to be more than just go out and throw the ball 60 times.”

Near the end of the third quarter, it looked as though disaster had struck. Salmans scored his third rushing touchdown to give Hodgeman County the lead, 26-22, then on Ness City’s first play, Pfannenstiel was picked off for the second time to end the third quarter.

“I was upset, at first, we had a miscommunication on that,” Pfannenstiel said. “I thought ‘I have to rally these guys.’ If it doesn’t start with me, we aren’t going to pull this out.

Hodgeman County went on the offensive behind (Quarterback Isaac) Salmans and (Eli) Salmans. The Longhorns with a lead chewed up the first five minutes of the final quarter. But, the Eagles got the defensive stop they needed backed up on their own 20-yard line.

“When you gain 5 yards at a time, it gets tough,” Reinhardt said of the running style of Salmans and the Longhorns. “We just knew if we stayed with it, sometime it was going to go our way.”

Eli Salmans torched the Eagles’ defense for 49 carries for 270 yards and three scores, but was stopped short on fourth down.

Pfannenstiel got another shot and in just two minutes drove Ness City down the field, and eventually hit Seib on a spectacular catch-and-run from 34 yards to put the Eagles back on top. l

Reinhardt, who made a habit Friday night of name-dropping big players like the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald, likened Seibs play to Albert Wilson, the former Kansas City Chief. He’s lesser known, but makes the play.

“He wears No. 12, and he’s a little bit unknown because of 6-4 (Reinhardt) and 6-2 (Rios) on the field,” Reinhardt said. “Whenever he gets out there, though, and can make a play, he’ll do it.”

Seib caught just two passes for 58 yards, but both went for scores. Pfannenstiel finished 8 of 14 for 161 yards and three scores with two interceptions, while senior running back Angel Guzman had 10 carries for 75 yards.

After that it was all about defense, and Hodgeman County nearly broke through.

The Longhorns ran the clock all the way down to 49 seconds and faced fourth-and-1 from the Ness City 5-yard line, and opted to go with Isaac Salmans up the middle. Ness City made the stop. After a measurement, the Eagles’ defense erupted into a frenzy.

“Such a good feeling to be able to get a win (for the seniors) and get another home game,” Cowles said.

Ness City was able to pick up a first down and run out the remainder of the clock.

The win still left the Eagles in second place, but forced a three-way tie among them, the Longhorns and Spearville — all at 4-1 in district play. The Longhorns took the title on point differential. Ness City will play host to Macksville (4-4) on Thursday in the Eight-Man Division I state bracket. The winner likely will face top ranked and unbeaten Claflin-Central Plains in the regional round.