It was a dark and stormy night, “Senior Night” for Jefferson, but few J-Hawks fans braved the rain to watch their last game of the season. By halftime, Bucs fans outnumbered the home team crowd. They watched, huddled under umbrellas, as Belvidere rolled over Jefferson, 35 – 12.
The Bucs wasted no time moving downfield. Mitch Hendrickson took the opening kickoff down to the J-Hawks 16 yard line. The Bucs starting lineup was different than in weeks past as four graduating seniors got the call. “They’ve been working hard this year, sticking to the program, showing up for practice every day,” said Coach Hearn. “They deserved the start.” On fourth down and short yardage, quarterback Jason Fiske handed off to senior Tony Schanna to get the first down. Cliff Paul ran in from the five yard line on the next play for the Bucs first touchdown. Chris Barta’s kick was good and Belvidere had a 7 – 0 lead. The J-Hawks started their first possession with good field position, starting on their own 43 yard line. However, the Bucs defense didn’t even allow them to get to midfield. Belvidere took over on downs. Brandon Smaha, Mitch Hendrickson and Jason Fiske all contributed long runs, but the rain began to take its toll. The Bucs were its first victim. On first down at the J-Hawks 10 yard line, they fumbled the ball. Scott Erickson recovered for Jefferson. However, they didn’t keep the ball long. On second down, the J-Hawks fumbled a bad handoff, but managed to recover for a loss. On the very next play, quarterback Joe Herron connected with the Bucs Kelly Njos who returned it for a touchdown. The point after was good and the Bucs were up by 14.
The center of the field turned into a muddy mess, trapping both teams like quicksand. The J-Hawks fumbled the kickoff return, but recovered. Belvidere took over, but Jason Fiske threw an interception on first down. Two plays later, Herron was unable to take a snap from his center and fumbled. Belvidere recovered and kept the ball ten seconds before fumbling a bad snap of their own. Jefferson fumbled again and the Bucs grabbed it. They managed to hang on to the ball to score on the first play of the second quarter on a Fiske pass to Ryan Vetter. Coach Hearn blamed the game balls, “Only one had a good set of laces. The other two were almost impossible to get a grip on once they were wet and muddy.” Chris Barta didn’t seem to have any problems though. He kicked the extra point to put the Bucs up 21 – 0.
Running back Michael Herron put the J-Hawks on the board, taking a flip in the backfield 62 yards in for their first touchdown. Cliff Paul blocked the extra point. That was the last time Jefferson threatened in the first half. They continued to put the ball on the ground, fumbling twice in their next possession. Michael Herron went to the air and threw an interception to Chad Radke on the Bucs 16 yard line. The Bucs moved down the field on the strength of their running game. On second down at the J-Hawks 16, Andrew Breitbach picked off a Fiske pass. Jefferson was unable to move the ball and punted it away. Mitch Hendrickson ran it back to the 15 yard line of the J-Hawks with about a minute remaining, but Belvidere fumbled again. Erik Cunningham came up with it for the J-Hawks to end the half.
The sloppy play continued in the third quarter. Nathan Kays recovered a J-Hawks fumble and the Bucs put together a 39 yard touchdown drive. Cliff Paul ran it in from the 3 yard line for his second score of the night. Chris Barta kicked his fourth extra point and the Bucs were up 28 – 6. Fumbles continued to plague the J-Hawks with two drops on their next series. Kelly Njos grabbed a third fumble for the Bucs. Matt Barr took over as quarterback. Mitch Hendrickson and Brandon Smaha combined for 72 yards rushing, including Smaha’s 30 yard run to the end zone. Chris Barta’s fifth extra point made it 35 – 6.
By the fourth quarter, it was difficult to figure out which team was which. Now and then a brilliant white jersey would come in from the sidelines, flash like a beacon for a play or two until it was doused in mud. Coach Hearn says that everyone got to play. Matt Barr presided over the longest drive of the night that ate more than six minutes off the clock. The J-Hawks responded with another Michael Herron flash downfield, 38 yards for his second touchdown. The extra point was no good. In the end, Herron broke a school record for rushing yards in a single game and led the NIC-9 in total yards rushing this season. “He can have the stats,” said Coach Hearn. “We’ll take the win.” The Bucs got the ball back on the kickoff and ran out the last three minutes.
With the win, the Bucs finished a 6 – 3 season, good enough for a home playoff game Friday night against the Hononegah Indians. While the Bucs were already excited getting into the playoffs, taking on the Indians at home gives them some extra motivation. Hononegah beat the Bucs in their homecoming game, 13 – 12. The weather was a big factor in the loss, taking out Belvidere’s passing game almost completely. Coach Hearn says they have been practicing with footballs soaked in five gallon plastic buckets to simulate the conditions. “We’re also working on some plays we haven’t run all year,” says Coach Hearn. “We hope we can take them by surprise.” The game begins Friday night, 7:00 at Funderburg Stadium.