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CULVER â€” Seven yards, a few inches, one play.
Whichever numbers you measure by, Culver Community came up just short in a 26-21 loss to visiting West Central Friday.
Down five with less than a minute on the clock, the Cavaliers still managed to put themselves in position to win. Cole Flora returned a West Central kick-off 27 yards to put Culver on its own 41-yard line, and quarterback Collin Stevens ran a furious keeper 6 yards and was given an extra 15 for a late Trojans hit that sent him somersaulting over the water table on the Cavs' sideline. His subsequent pass to 6-foot-6 star receiver Micah Budzinski for 30 yards put Culver in a first-and-goal situation on the West Central 7-yard line with 46 seconds on the game clock, but the Cavs' final drive ground to a halt there.
First a pass to Budzinski up the Culver sideline went errant, then two passes up the middle to an open Sam Hissong fell just a few inches past the senior receiver's fingertips. Trojans linebacker Chantz Marlatt broke up a pass intended for Budzinski just outside the end zone to seal the heartbreaking loss for the Cavs.
"I just told the kids every one of us can look back and see some plays we just didn't quite make that we needed to," said sixth-year Culver head coach Andy Thomas. "We were inches away.
"Our kids were right there. I won't say we have too many things to work on, but we have a lot to work on. We're right there, it could've gone either way, and we just couldn't quite close the deal. I certainly don't feel good about it. It's a tough, tough loss."
West Central took the initial lead, but for most of three full quarters it was Culver's show, until a disastrous fourth quarter gave the Trojans the come-from-behind win.
West Central parlayed a fumble on Culver's opening possession into a touchdown and a 6-0 lead with the failed 2-point conversion as yeoman fullback Spencer Dobson completed a 2-yard scamper into the end zone at the 9:24 mark of the first quarter, a touchdown run he set up with a 95-yard run on the second play of the drive.
But Culver answered back with a seven-play, 60-yard scoring drive capped off by a nifty 52-yard catch-and-carry up the West Central sideline by Budzinski, and the ensuing Stevens PAT was good for a 7-6 Cavs lead at the 6:41 stop of the first frame.
Culver struck twice more within a 17-second span in the second quarter as Hissong dashed into the Trojans' end zone from 3 yards out with 37 seconds remaining in the half, and Allen Betts recovered the ensuing Cavalier kick-off at the West Central 29 to set up another Hissong TD, this time on a 14-yard completion from Stevens with 20 seconds on the clock. Stevens was good for both extra-point kicks, and Culver took a commanding 21-6 lead into the locker room at the half.
The score remained there until the deciding fourth quarter, when West Central rattled off 146 of its 301 total yards to score three times and grab the comeback win.
Less than a minute into the final stanza, Trojans back-up quarterback Dillan Rehn ran a 3-yard keeper into the Culver end zone with starting quarterback Zephaniah Conley sitting out briefly at the 11:01 stop. Culver went four and out as a fourth-and-one first down conversion attempt at the Cavs' 49-yard line failed to set up an eight-play, 50-yard scoring drive capped off by a Conley 9-yard run, which cut the Culver lead to 21-20 on the two-point conversion run from Dobson. When the Cavs went three-and-out on the subsequent possession, West Central took the lead for good with a 12-play, 61-yard drive culminating in another Conley sneak, this time from a yard out. This time the run by Dobson failed, but it was enough for the win.
Dobson finished with 175 yards on 15 carries as the Trojans outrushed Culver by a lopsided 301 to 51 yards.
"I think they just got it going in the second half," said Thomas. "They did what an option team is supposed to do. They have a player you have to tackle. In the first half he only got it six total times; one was a 95-yarder, and the other five were for 24 yards. In the second half, they committed to give it to him more and their quarterback did a good job when we pinched him."
While their running game may have left something to be desired, the Cavs' passing game looked solid as Stevens completed 10-of-16 passes with one pick for a pair of touchdowns. Buzinski led the receiving corps with 128 yards with one touchdown on six catches, while Hissong was good for 31 yards on two catches with another score. Culver's young team opens at 0-1 with the loss to potential Sectional 33 foe West Central. The Cavaliers will hit the road for South Central Union Mills next Friday at 7:30 p.m.
"The biggest thing for us this season is to move on from this," Thomas said. "Something like this can stay with you for a long time if you let it. We're going to find out what we're made of tomorrow and next week. This is devastating and it's going to test all of us to see if we're strong enough mentally to bounce back."
â€˘ WEST CENTRAL 26, CULVER 21
West Central: 6 0 0 20 â€” 26
Culver Community: 7 14 0 0 â€” 21
WC â€” Spencer Dobson 2-yd run (pass fail) 9:24
CC â€” Micah Budzinski 52-yd pass from Collin Stevens (Stevens kick) 6:41
CC â€”Â Sam Hissong 3-yd run (Stevens kick) 0:37.8
CC â€” Hissong 14-yd pass from Stevens (Stevens kick) 0:20.4
WC â€”Â Dillan Rehn 3-yd run (run fail) 11:01
WC â€” Zephaniah Conley 9-yd run (Dobson run) 6:04
WC â€” Conley 1-yd run 1:05 (run fail)
Rushing: 36-51; Hissong 4-24, Matt Hurford 6-10
Passing: Stevens 10-16-1 for 169 yds
Receiving: Budzinski 6-128, Hissong 2-31
First downs: 10
Penalties-yds lost: 4-36
West Central stats
Rushing: 43-301; Dobson 15-175
Passing: Conley 7-12-0 for 23 yds
Receiving: Rusty Disinger 1-43
First downs: 18
Penalties-yds lost: 13-99
Records: Culver 0-1, West Central 1-0.