PLAINVILLE — It was almost as if Tanner Copeland had developed a small sense of clairvoyance.
As if he knew that by Friday evening he was going to have a chance — make or miss — to produce a memory that will last him the rest of his days.
The senior for the Plainville High School football team spent extra time kicking at practice in the days leading up, and even took his reps to the south end of the field, somewhere he rarely practices at Plainville’s field.
“He said, ‘Coach, I never kick at that end of the field. I want to practice on this end,’ ” Plainville coach Grant Stephenson said.
Copeland’s crystal ball had a full charge, and the extra work paid off.
His kick — to the south post — with 4.3 seconds left Friday night sent Plainville to a come-from-behind 31-28 win in a thriller against Ell-Saline, a rematch of last year’s two-overtime win by Plainville in the Class 2-1A playoffs.
“I just knew I would have a chance coming into this game,” said Copeland, who thought all week about the fact he missed two kicks in last year’s playoff game. “It was kind of on my mind all week — practicing extra field goals for that reason specifically.”
Last season in the two-OT win, Copeland missed one at the end of regulation, then another in the first extra period, miscues that could have cost his Cardinals the game.
Not this time. In a hard-fought, nip-tuck battle that Ell-Saline tied up with 3 minutes, 29 seconds to play, the home Cardinals drove to the 27-yard line and faced a third-and-10.
“I was honestly hoping for (a touchdown),” Stephenson said. “It was just barely out of range.”
The third-down call went to junior quarterback Jordan Finnesy, who along with bulldozing back Jared Casey, had punished Ell-Saline’s front line all night.
Finnesy picked up about 5 yards. Before Copeland’s kick, Ell-Saline coach Terry King called a timeout. It didn’t phase him. The senior seemingly calm, punched it just over the bar from 37 yards for his seventh make of the season. It sent the home Cardinals and their fans into a frenzy.
Here’s the game winner for @copelandtanner pic.twitter.com/4b5fOFgXv4— Nick McQueen (@HDNmcqueen) November 3, 2018
“Lot of emotions in that game,” Stephenson said.
And rightfully so.
The momentum shifted back-and-forth all night. First, it was with Plainville. Finnesy had three long first-down runs on the game’s opening drive. Then Casey capped it with a 4-yard run to give the host the lead.
By the end of the first quarter, though, Ell-Saline led 14-7 with a long drive of its own, followed by a 10-yard fumble recovery by Luke Parks. It was the third turnover in about a minute of action — first Finnesy fumbling for Plainville, then Copeland intercepting a pass from Ell-Saline quarterback Nick Davenport, then the fumble that resulted in Ell-Saline’s lead.
At that point, Ell-Saline seemed to have all the momentum, using several short out route passes to sustain drives, testing Plainville at the corners all night.
Casey tied things up with a 15-yard run midway through the second quarter, but after a Plainville 15-yard penalty and punt in the final minute of the half led to a short field for Ell-Saline, the visiting Cardinals were able to go up 21-14 at the break. Davenport recorded his second rushing score.
After that, King said, the visiting Cardinals (7-3) — just like the beginning of the game — didn’t come out of the locker room with any momentum. Plainville (8-2) seized the opportunity.
“Our kids played hard, but we didn’t open the game with any energy,” King said. “And we didn’t open the second half with any energy.”
Plus, Plainville made a few defensive adjustments to tackle better on the corners.
“We just moved a couple guys around,” Copeland said. “We knew the defensive backs would have to come up big.”
Plainville tied the game when Finnesy ran in from 3 yards at the 6:58 mark of the third quarter. Just over five minutes later, Finnesy found the zone again — this time from 4 yards — and Plainville regained the lead.
Each of the scoring drives was all Finnesy and Casey in the ground game.
Casey finished the game with 202 rushing yards and Finnesy 138.
“They kind of left some spots open in the middle,” Stephenson said. “It wasn’t howe we expected them to line up.
“We made about six new plays at halftime to be able to block.”
Sometimes, it seemed, Casey didn’t need the blocks. He ran over defenders and jumped over defenders. He even was penalized in the fourth quarter for leaping over a defender on his way in for a tackle.
“He’s a load,” King said of the 225-pound junior. “And he’s a load when you have (Finnesy) in the backfield. If you take Casey away, he runs it. It’s a tough assignment.”
Ell-Saline, despite losing a big weapon in the pass game in Sawyer Kramer (7 receptions, 113 yards) to injury, didn’t go away. Davenport went to the ground, taking the visitors 74 yards in a little more than four minutes. He ran in from 8 yards to tie the game. He had 56 rushing yards for the game, most of it coming on the game-tying drive.
“Davenport is just such an incredible athlete,” Stephenson said.
Early it was with his arm, and he almost doomed Plainville late with his legs.
Finnesy, though, made sure Ell-Saline left too much time on the clock. He and Casey went to work on the final drive, covering 46 yards before Finnesy’s third-down run and Copeland’s game-winner in the closing seconds.
The boot sent Plainville into next week’s 1A sectional round as it will play host to Elkhart (9-0), a 53-10 winner over Inman in other regional action. The winner gets either smith Center or Sedgwick in the sub-state championship.
“We love playing in front of our fans,” Copeland said. “This is huge.”