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Wild win for La Crosse in Oakley

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

OAKLEY - The La Crosse High School football team trailed Oakley by one point with 22 seconds left in a Class 2-1A second round game Friday night. The Leopards faced fourth-and-goal from the Plainsmen 5-yard line. La Crosse had one timeout and Oakley called two before the snap.

During the break, Leopard assistant coach Andrew Schroter estimated La Crosse ran through "six or seven plays."

Schroter, in the press box, then said the Leopards should have a cluster of wide receivers to the left side, run a bootleg to the right and find senior Marshall Jay coming off the line as the backside tight end. La Crosse had never run the play this season.

"The tight end is going to be wide open," Schroter said.

Jay snuck behind Oakley 6-foot-6 junior Mason Scheetz and caught the touchdown pass from junior Jack Garcia for a 12-7 lead. After the kickoff, the Plainsmen ran a perfect hook-and-ladder to the La Crosse 22. Then, senior Taylor Yohe knocked down Oakley senior quarterback Darius Herl's last-second pass in the end zone to secure the victory.

"My assistant coaches did a heck of a job," coach Jon Webster said. "It was a total team effort and that's what makes me so proud of this win."

La Crosse moved to 11-0 and will play host to the Class 2-1A sub-state championship game against 10-1 Meade, the fourth straight year the teams have matched up in the playoffs.

"It's just the greatest feeling in the world," Garcia said.

Oakley ended the season 8-2 and completed coach Randall Rath's career with Plainsmen football. Rath finished 125-53 in 16 years as head coach and spent 24 falls with the program.

"Meant so much," Herl said. "Proud of the tradition here for the success in football. It's tough to see him go like this."

Oakley's public address announcer read Rath's accomplishments over the loudspeaker at the end of the game. Webster called his team over to midfield to salute Rath.

"I just didn't do a very good job as a coach," an emotional Rath said. "I thought we were better than that. I am going to miss (the players). I am proud of them. Not one play won the game, not one play lost the game. Hold your heads high. It's been a fun run. I don't know what to say. I am speechless. I am very disappointed in our mental part of this football game, the whole game long. Not just at the end, the whole game long."

Oakley had Kansas' No. 1 scoring defense with just 39 points allowed, while La Crosse ranked fifth in the classification at 134 points permitted. For the first three-plus quarters, no team scored. Oakley blocked a punt in the first quarter and recovered at the Leopard 34, but couldn't score. Just before half, Herl had a 65-yard punt return TD called back because of a block in the back.

In the third quarter, La Crosse moved the ball to the Oakley 18 once and stopped the Plainsmen on fourth down at the Oakley 38 on another possession. Neither time resulted in points. Junior nose guard Ryan Kuhn led Oakley with four tackles for loss, three for sacks.

Garcia finished 10 of 19 for 97 yards, a rushing score and a passing TD, while Jay rushed 15 times for 99 yards. Senior Key Keller led Oakley with 19 carries for 69 yards.

"With two great programs like this, the defense is going to come out in both of the teams," Garcia said. "The score didn't surprise me at all. I knew they had a sturdy defense, and I knew our defense was going to come to play."

La Crosse finally broke through after Garcia picked off a pass and returned it to the Oakley 38-yard line.

On fourth-and-goal, Garcia scored from seven yards out for a 6-0 lead with 6:26 left.

"We knew that when we went to that formation, they were only having six in the box," Garcia said. "We knew we could block six with our seven or eight that we had in the box. Coach told me just to put my head down and get across. I listened to coach."

Oakley scored 49 seconds later on a 1-yard run by Keller and a Herl kick. The Plainsmen set up the score by a 20-yard kickoff return from senior Austin Baalman off a squib kick, an 11-yard run from senior Oscar Macias and a facemask penalty.

"Our kids had composure," Webster said. "They walked up and said, 'All right, let's pick it up.' Let's do what we need to do to be successful. That's what's really great about these kids. We have such great leadership."

Then, La Crosse moved 65 yards in the next 5:07 to set up the fourth-down play. The Leopards had run cluster many times throughout the season.

La Crosse tried something different with the bootleg and backside tight end pass.

Garcia called the play a "tendency breaker" to keep Oakley "off guard." The Leopards thought with Oakley's pursuit, Jay could get open. Oakley had two outside linebackers take the slant away and the corners had the fade route. Instead, Garcia rolled out to the right and lofted the pass to a wide-open Jay.

"We probably had the best coverage we could put on them in the end zone," Rath said.