Thunderhawks advance to 8-man state championship game
The Wheatland-Grinnell football team has gone where no Thunderhawks team has gone before: the state championship game.
The Thunderhawks, who were playing in their first sub-state title game Friday night, scored early and often to beat visiting Victoria 42-30.
“It’s probably still a little surreal,” Wheatland-Grinnell coach Jesse Vincent said. “Got a definite task in front of us, play Axtell again.”
Fourth-ranked Wheatland-Grinnell (11-1) will play No. 1 Axtell (12-0) in next Saturday’s Eight-Man Division II state championship game in Newton. Axtell defeated Wheatland-Grinnell 62-16 in the season opener.
“We are a far different team now than we were then,” Vincent said. “I anticipate that they are, too.”
Axtell rolled past No. 2 Kensington-Thunder Ridge 46-0 in Friday night’s other semifinal. The Longhorns were unbeaten going into the matchup.
Third-ranked Victoria (10-2) had just one loss before Friday’s game. The Knights could not overcome a flurry of points in the first quarter, then a late TD just before halftime. Wheatland-Grinnell led 20-12 going into the second.
“The last three weeks I’ve tried to come out and not be conservative at all with my play calls,” Vincent said. “The rest of it is just guys making plays.”
Victoria closed within 20-18 with a TD with 3:18 left in the first half before the Thunderhawks made a play to strike late for a score. On fourth-and-11 from the Victoria 30-yard line, Wheatland-Grinnell QB Trey Vincent heaved the ball into the end zone, where his brother, wide receiver Jett Vincent, made the catch for a 28-18 lead with 35.7 seconds remaining before halftime.
“That was huge,” Vincent said. “Probably a little bit of luck between brothers playing in the backyard, throwing the ball up to each other.”
The late TD made it a two-score game at the break, not ideal against the high-scoring Thunderhawks.
“There were a couple things tonight that didn’t go our way,” Victoria coach Doug Oberle said. “Have fourth-and-11 right before half, critical play. We give up that play.
“A great job on their part in terms of execution,” he added. “I thought their quarterback played really well.”
Oberle credited the Thunderhawks, led all year by the Vincent brothers and running back Isaac Mendez.
“They have exceptional football players in the quarterback, the running back, the split (end),” he said. “I thought the complementary players played really well tonight.”
Victoria scored first in the second half to get within 28-24, but Mendez countered with a touchdown for a 34-24 Thunderhawk lead heading into the fourth.
Mendez scored again with 5:21 left in the game to make it 42-24, then Victoria turned the ball over on Jett Vincent’s 28th career interception, four off the state record. Victoria scored with five seconds left for the final margin.
“We had opportunities, plays to make, and we just didn’t make them on both sides of the ball,” Oberle said. “They did.”
Oberle praised his team, led by his seniors.
“I’m very proud of our seniors, great group of kids,” Oberle said. “To play in two sub-state championship games, a lot of kids would love that opportunity.”
For Wheatland-Grinnell, it’s next week and on to Axtell.
“That first week wasn’t representative of us,” Vincent said. “I’m glad that we kind of rebounded and had a decent season after that loss.”