KEARNEY — They played before, at the end of September, and Overton handed Pleasanton its first loss of the season.
When they play again at 6 p.m. Monday at Overton, only the winner will move on, earning the opportunity to play for the Class D2 state championship at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln.
“It’s something at the start of the year you have a goal to get to,” Overton coach Paul Heusinkvelt said. “A trip (to Lincoln) would just solidify all the work we’ve put in since the third and fourth grade. ... They’ve had this dream for a while and hopefully we can make it happen.”
Overton has made the trip to Lincoln four times, winning the 2006 state championship in Class D1.
The Bulldogs have reached the semifinals twice, losing to Chambers in 2007 and Hayes Center in 2009. They redoubled their efforts last year after failing to qualify for the playoffs.
“Last year in November, when we were going around to watch all of these playoff games, the kids saw that and they knew what they had to do if ... they just wanted to get to the playoffs,” Pleasanton coach Ricci Westland said. “They had to change some habits in the weight room and work together as a group.”
Pleasanton came out with a high-octane, pass-oriented offense that spread the field and stressed the defenses. It worked until that collision with Overton on Sept. 27. That night, Overton’s ground game produced a victory as quarterback Ryan Johnson and running backs Elijah Heusinkvelt and Ryan Lauby running for more than 100 yards apiece.
That was not the backfield set as Overton lost its first two games of the year to Elm Creek and Kenesaw. At that time, Elijah Heusinkvelt was the quarterback.
“We played two great games against Elm Creek and Kenesaw. We just fell short of what we needed to do,” Paul Heusinkvelt said.
He moved his son to running back because “Elijah is a little more powerful and sees the hole a little better and he does a great job running.”
Heusinkvelt needs and Lauby have surpassed the 1,000-yard mark with Lauby leading the way.
“He had a year we thought he was going to have. He had a great year last year breaking 1,000 yards. Now he’s probably going to break 1,500,” Paul Heusinkvelt said.
As a team, Overton is averaging 284 yards per game and 5.6 yards per play on the ground. But they’re throwing fewer than four passes per game.
When they played in September, Overton built a 16-0 lead, forcing Pleasanton to play catch-up the rest of the way.
“They’re too good a team to fall behind,” Westland said.
Pleasanton lost the next week, too, to Elwood, and the Bulldogs realized they couldn’t rely strictly on a passing game, especially as fall turned into cold, blustery winter nights. So they developed a running game, which culminated in Kessler Dixon’s 200-yard rushing performance in the quarterfinals against Twin Loup.
“Pleasanton’s going to try to run the ball a little more,” Paul Heusinkvelt said. “But I still think you’ll see their passing attack try to get us back on our heels.”
Pleasanton quarterback Jakson Keaschall is averaging nearly passes and three touchdown passes per game. Tyce Westland has 44 receptions for 841 yards and 11 touchdowns and Dixon has 53 catches for 682 yards. Freshman Treven Wendt, who missed four games, has 34 catches for 531 yards.
Dixon has been the main running threat with 716 yards and 13 touchdowns as the Bulldogs’ offensive line has mastered the art of power blocking to go with their pass blocking.
Pleasanton improved on defense as well.
“We’ve tweaked our defense a little ... changed some alignment and changed some personnel. It’s been beneficial through the playoffs as the kids have grown more confident with it,” Coach Westland said.
The Bulldogs also gained confidence along its road in the playoffs, beating eight-man stalwarts Kenesaw and Twin Loup. Overton’s road to the semifinals included wins over previously undefeated Garden County and Central Valley.
Who will win likely will come down to football’s two T’s — trenches and turnovers.
In the trenches, Overton has the defending state heavyweight champion wrestler, Kien Martin.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with. There’s a lot of lineman who probably get tired of seeing him throw them around,” Heusinkvelt said. “He’s done a fantastic job. I would 100 percent say he’s one of the best linemen around this area.”
“We have to be tough, very tough, with their kids up in the trenches,” Westland said. “They are just a dominant, powerful running team. Those kids run the option perfectly. You have to carry out your assignment and you can’t delay your assignment. If you’re supposed to get to the quarterback or get to the pitch man you have to be there immediately. You can’t hesitate at all or they will capitalize on it.”
If Pleasanton can disrupt the timing, that could be the key to success.
“This one’s going to come down to turnovers and who has the fewest turnovers. ... The guy who’s putting the ball on the ground the most is probably losing the battle,” Heusinkvelt said.