Climbers foil Cougs in final minutes

Every play in a football game is important.

If the Central Kitsap High School football team didn’t believe that before last Friday night’s Narrows League Bridge Division game against Shelton, the Cougars sure did afterward.

The Highclimbers scored two touchdowns in the game’s final 1 minute, 4 seconds for a come-from-behind 27-21 victory at Silverdale Stadium. The loss not only spoiled CK’s Homecoming, but it crippled any chance the Cougs might have of ascending to the postseason league playoffs.

“We had our chances,” whispered the Cougars’ second-year head coach, Mark Keel, slumped against a shower wall in the funereal postgame locker room. “We didn’t execute. We talked about how every play in a game is important, and we learned that lesson tonight.”

Then there was Shelton, which was a few plays away from suffering its first division defeat. Every play the Highclimbers needed to make, they made.

First, they drove 69 yards to a touchdown that, by all rights, should’ve tied the game, Dan Moore bulling into the end zone after catching A.J. Mell’s pass from 14 yards out. But a penalty on the first point-after attempt moved the ball back 5 yards, and Anthony McCarty’s ensuing try was mistimed and kicked into the backsides of his own linemen.

The Cougars still led. If they could fall on the onside kick they knew was coming, they would pull off their second straight division victory of immense proportions (following a 21-13 upset of South Kitsap the previous week).

But Shelton made each play count. McCarty’s onside kick was right up the middle, where blockers cleared any nearby Cougars out of the way and Gordie Philpott fell on the ball at CK’s 48.

Mell hit McCarty for 13 yards and Brandon Dahl for 33. The leaping Dahl made his catch after the ball was tipped by perfectly positioned Cougar defender Ray Cotinola.

When Ryan Patterson slipped over right tackle from the 2 on the next play, the Climbers had the lead, and the Cougs had just 41 seconds to fashion a comeback.

All of CK’s fireworks, however, had been used up during the halftime Homecoming festivities. The Cougars managed one first down before starting quarterback Jake Higgs was shaken up while being sacked. His replacement, sophomore Michael Custer, threw a desperation pass that was picked off by Dahl with five seconds left.

Even though the Cougars knew the game-turning onside kick was coming, Keel admitted they weren’t ready for the way it came.

“We knew they’d do it, but we didn’t know they’d kick it right up the middle like that,” Keel said. “They did it just the way you’re supposed to. It was a big play for them.

“You never really expect a team to be able to execute it (against you),” Keel said of the onside play. “I think our guys were wondering, ‘What just happened?’ I know I was.”

The Cougars used some good fortune and some plain ol’ good football to erase a 14-7 second-quarter deficit.

The good fortune came just before halftime, when McCarty fumbled Peter Van Datta’s punt. The loose ball was kicked back toward Shelton’s goal line and recovered by CK’s Will Gray less than a yard out. Higgs snuck it over on the next play for a 14-all tie at the break.

After stopping the Climbers’ first drive of the second half, the Cougars went 65 yards in 13 plays, all on the ground, for the go-ahead touchdown. Blake Berryman — who finished the game with 243 yards on 30 carries — was the workhorse, but Tommy Driver Jr. swept the left side and sped around the corner for the final 9 yards.

Berryman’s yeoman effort (30 of the Cougs’ 39 rushing attempts) wasn’t lost on Keel.

“He understood that we needed first downs,” Keel said of the pile-driving senior. “He went out and got them.”

All 10 of CK’s first downs came via the rush, and all came on Berryman carries.

“I really thought we were in control of the game,” Keel said, “right up until the onside kick. Then they got the big play, and it changed everything.”

Five different Shelton runners totaled just 116 rushing yards, but Mell made up for that shortfall with a 13-for-21 passing performance good for 212 yards. Dahl caught five of those passes for 69 yards.

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