Playoff games always bring a heavier element of nerves.
So when Burnsville found itself trailing by touchdown at the half, shutout, without much of anything at all to show for itself offensively, there was admitted concern amongst the ranks of the Blaze fighting for its playoff life.
That concern, however, wasn’t shared by senior defensive back Isiaah Harston. The only thing he felt, was hunger to make a play when it counted.
“We’ve always been a second half team,” he said. “That’s just who we are. We are conditioned (to) wear teams out.”
Understanding the need to make something happen to ensure the continuation of his senior season, Harston and Burnsville got the rallies they needed on all three sides of the ball to surge past a Stillwater team that had given them early fits.
Senior captains Jackson Martens and Jake Shepley each accounted for touchdowns, and the majority of the Blaze offense that ignited in the third quarter after a dormant first half.
Though it was Harston on special teams that likely dealt the deathblow to the Ponies with a blocked punt that set up Burnsville inside the 10-yard-line, leading to the game-winning touchdown in the Blaze’s 21-14 victory over Stillwater in Class 6A opening round playoff action.
Harston broke the huddle with confident, if not prophetic words geared towards his fellow Blaze seniors in that same spot.
“Before the play, I told DeShawn (Wallace) that we were going to get this,” Harston said. “I knew it would change the momentum for good. It also gave us a lot of hope.”
It capped off a tale of two halves for the Blaze, who struggled through the first 24 minutes in which it possessed the ball for just a third of the time, and had just one first down compared to 10 for the Ponies.
In the third quarter, Shepley helped ignite the Blaze offense with a highlight reel catch on the second play of the half to finally get something going. A long post pattern pass downfield, the ball hit traffic with a pair of defenders, as well as Shepley and his younger brother, Marcus. After bouncing around, Jake caught hold of it and raced towards the end zone for a 51-yard TD that set the groundwork.
“I lost it in the lights and I couldn’t really see it,” Shepley said. “Then I saw my brother get a piece of it and tip it, and next thing it’s in my hands.”
The score tied the game 7-7, and laid the first kernel of what was to come.
“Coming back to the sideline after that, things were completely different,” Shepley said. “Everyone was hyped. It changed the momentum.”
In the comeback, Burnsville made minimal shifts from its identity, instead, remaining true to itself. As the game unfolded, opportunities came up and trepidation never took hold.
For a Blaze squad that has won 80 percent of its games (16-4) during this season and the last, a winning mentality is taking hold.
“Those big plays shifted things, and that’s what good teams do,” Blaze head coach Tyler Krebs said. “Good teams continue to grind and find a way, and we were able to take advantage of a couple opportunities.”
No one hit the panic button.
“I think four or five years ago, there might have been some of that,” Krebs said. “But this group now, they believe we can win any game. It makes for a big difference in that mentality. Nobody panicked, and then we made a couple plays, and you could feel the energy and momentum shift.”
Stillwater, who owned the first half with ball control and an effective ground game, fell victim to some bounces, most notably Shipley’s circus catch and Harston’s blocked punt, was left with a series of ‘what-ifs.’
Jackson Dunleap finished with 93 yards and a touchdown for the Ponies, who fell just short.
“Their big plays were two-to-one, and we needed one more,” Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said. “It’s tough…they beat us by seven points.”