Baker wide receiver Clarence Clark knew he wasn’t supposed to, but couldn’t resist anyways: He looked back.
Charging down the sideline with seconds remaining in Baker’s NAIA semifinal game against Eastern Oregon, Clark knew there was a chance he was about to cap an improbable comeback for the Wildcats.
Just one quick turn of the head. Then, nothing but green space in front of him, and the mob of fans in orange who prematurely tried to rush the end zone.
With 38 seconds on the clock, Clark galloped into the end zone, putting his undefeated Baker squad up in the NAIA national semifinal game against Eastern Oregon. Moments earlier, Eastern Oregon had held a 41-24 lead with 5:35 remaining. Now, there was only madness in the end zone at Baker’s Liston Stadium, after this 77-yard scamper from Clark for the 45-41 victory.
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“The safety wasn’t really rolled over top of him and the corner was pressed up, so I figured I’d go ahead and take a shot,” said quarterback Logan Brettell, a Blue Valley graduate. “Clarence is the fastest dude on the field at all times … and you saw him blow right by him.”
Clark had this take: “Oh my goodness. Get in the end zone,” he said. “As a receiver you never really know how close somebody is behind you, and I kind of peeked. … Sometimes that’s bad to look back, because they might be right there. But they weren’t. And we’re going to Daytona.”
With the win, Baker, 14-0, cemented its spot in the NAIA national championship game, Dec. 17 against Saint Francis (Ind.) in Daytona Beach, Fla. It’s the first title game Baker has been to since 1986. Saturday was its first semifinal appearance since 1993.
By any predictor, by any drop of common sense, surely this game had been over half a quarter earlier.
Baker was down 41-24, inside five minutes remaining. The Wildcats’ offense, powerful all season, had stalled. Brettell had just dropped to his knees on the sideline, ripping his helmet off after throwing his career-high third interception. That pick led to Eastern Oregon’s last touchdown and the three-score deficit for Baker.
The crowd at Liston Stadium had grown quiet. A magical season was drawing to a close.
But Brettell regrouped and led a drive that pulled Baker within 41-31 at the 4:13 mark, after his touchdown pass to Damon Nolan.
Baker’s defense forced a three-and-out. Then Eastern Oregon botched the snap on its punt, and Baker’s Indie Allen charged through the line to bring the punter down at the 7-yard-line. Brettell found Cornell Brown in the end zone on the next play to pull within 41-38 with 3:15 remaining.
“We had a lull; we went to sleep for a while,” Baker head coach Mike Grossner said. “This team thrives off momentum. We lost it for a long time. Once we got it back, we had a chance.”
After another defensive stop from Baker, the Wildcats took possession with 47 seconds remaining. Brettell launched his 77-yard bomb to Clark, and chaos ensued. Several players on Baker’s sideline dropped down on all fours. Clark and others on the field ran along the back of the end zone, imploring fans to stay off the field, to avoid a penalty.
Eastern Oregon had one last chance, but Baker again held.
“That’s the beauty of a good, explosive football team,” Grossner said. “You’re never out of it, as long as you’ve got the ball in your hands.”
It was the kind of resilient finish representative of Baker’s program over the past couple of seasons. Grossner himself is a cancer survivor, and missed only two practices during the extent of his recovery, which was wedged into the 2014 season. During that year, the team also lost defensive tackle Sione Maumau to suicide. Baker finished 8-3 that season, and has tried to maintain that resiliency ever since.
“In 2014, we went through a lot of adversity, whether it was injuries, coach with cancer, one of our players committed suicide,” Clark said. “That was hard. Last year was our building year, and this year we finally did it. But we’re not done yet.”
Bretell, too, spoke of the adversity.
“It hit me right after the game,” he said. “I was in shock after we won and I started crying, just because there was so much adversity, so much work, so much sacrifice, and it’s finally paying off. That’s just the most rewarding feeling in the world.”
Northwest Missouri advances to Division II semifinals
The Northwest Missouri Bearcats dominated Harding (Ark.) on Saturday in Maryville, Mo., and advanced to the NCAA Division II national semifinals.
The Bearcats, ranked No. 1 in Division II, improved to 13-0 with the 35-0 victory.
The four teams — which will be re-seeded before games next Saturday — in the semifinals are Northwest Missouri, Ferris State (Mich.), North Alabama and Shepherd (W.Va.)
On Saturday, Northwest Missouri held the Bisons to 119 total yards and four first downs.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, totaled 418 yards of offense. Quarterback Kyle Zimmerman connected on 30 of 42 passes for 340 yards with a touchdown.
It was the second time in program history that Northwest Missouri played Harding. The Bearcats also beat the Bison 35-0 in 2012.
Washburn downed in Mineral Water Bowl
Washburn lost to Bemidji State (Minn.) 36-23 in the Mineral Water Bowl on Saturday in Excelsior Springs, Mo.
The Ichabods, who committed five turnovers in the game, finished the season 7-5.