Completing one of the most impressive three-year runs in 8-man football history, Exeter-Milligan parlayed 26 fourth-quarter points into a 40-26 victory over Anselmo-Merna in the NSAA Class D-2 State Football Championship game. The win at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Memorial Stadium was also the Timberwolves 26th in-a-row completing another 13-0 season this year after finishing undefeated last season and capturing the D-1 State Championship. E-M finished 12-1 in 2012 and took State Runner-up honors in Class D-1.
The Coyotes came to play on November 24 and scored first to take a 6-0 advantage. E-M came back with a Kyle Jensen one-yard score followed by a Sam Zeleny two-point conversion to lead 8-6. Jensen would finish the championship game with 187 yards on 37 carries and three touchdowns. Zeleny would go on to pass for two scores in the contest, which was played in freezing temperatures and in a gusty 26 m.p.h. wind.
The Timberwolf lead would be short-lived, as the Coyotes would score again late in the opening stanza to lead again at 12-8. The Coyote one-two punch of Troy Gilligan and Trent Geiser combined to rush for 118 and 112 yards, respectively in the State final.
With just seconds remaining in the opening half, Zeleny hit Derek Luzum with a 23-yard scoring strike. Luzum juggled the ball between two Coyote defenders before making the acrobatic catch.
“It hit me at first and I’m pretty sure I got it again before it hit the ground,” an excited Luzum said. “I caught it…it was bang, bang.”
Once again, Anselmo-Merna proved to be no walkover and scored on its second possession of the third quarter to move ahead again 18-14. But, using a direct-snap offense directly to Jensen, E-M would dominate the fourth period and score 26 consecutive points to win the school’s second State football title and cap an incredible 38-1 run. After a second Zeleny to Luzum touchdown strike, Jensen visited the end zone on Tom Osborne Field two straight times from 49 and eight yards out.
Quarterback Zeleny was the lead blocker on several runs for Jensen in the direct-snap package that the senior tail back labeled “the wild wolf formation.”
“We’ve practiced it a lot on offense and just haven’t had to use it,” Jensen said. “Sam made some huge blocks for me, too.”
Dustin Axline capped the Timberwolf scoring with a 21-yard touchdown scamper near the end of the final period.
“We kept pounding and pounding,” E-M coach Dean Filipi said. “We know against a good team, it sometimes takes awhile. Anselmo-Merna had some quick kids…some strong kids. They are a very quick, good team. But our kids, just with their attitude, to stay with it, I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
Filipi, who eclipsed the 200-win coaching victory plateau with E-M’s semi-final victory over Falls City Sacred Heart, noted Luzum’s catch to end the first half and the success of the ‘wild wolf’ were crucial in his team picking up his 201st coaching victory.
“That was nice (Luzum’s catch),” Filipi said. “We didn’t play well in the first half, but we were still ahead going into halftime. I knew once we got back to doing what we do well, we should be okay.”
Enter the ‘wild wolf.’
“It’s been something we’ve been practicing and wanting to do, but we hadn’t had to use it until today,” Filipi said. “We needed another blocker and it worked. It also made them change their defensive tactics some.”
Several Coyote drives into E-M territory were thwarted by fumbles which were caused by Timberwolf defenders stripping the ball. Jensen finished the contest with 16 tackles, while Jarett Maxson and Zeleny both logged a dozen stops. Dalton Zelenka was in on 10 tackles and Axline was credited with nine stops. Cameron White made eight tackles and Trevor Luzum was in on seven stops. Jensen and White both forced fumbles.
“Turnovers are always huge in games like this,” Filipi said. “Really, really big. They’re driving and get stopped. I loved our kids effort today…they just got after it every day.”
As usual, getting through the talent-loaded East side of the State D-2 play-off bracket was no cake walk, as the Timberwolves had to rally past both Humphrey St. Francis and FCSH to advance to Lincoln. In a rare, unlikely scenario, E-M was able to host all four of its State play-off games this season.
“We went through the meat grinder for sure to make it down here,” Jensen said. “Humphrey St. Francis was a very, very good physical team and we knew how tough Falls City (Sacred Heart) was already. It’s been a long, long run, but this is just the greatest thing ever…it’s just amazing.”
Reflecting on the seniors who were lost to graduation after E-M’s State championship last season, Filipi tried to sum up what win number 201 felt to him.
“It’s a great feeling of course,” the veteran coach said. “It was a challenge to pick things up from last year. We had a lot of new guys step up this year and play well for us. I really love these guys’ attitude of never ever giving up. It’s great for these guys to have this kind of success.”
Seniors on this year’s State championship team included Jensen, Luzum, Axline, Zelenka, Maxson, Brody Kresak, Zac Kroll, Broc Mueller and Samuele Colombo.