Big plays help ROWVA sink Newman in first round

Comets fight back from early deficit, but Cougars pull away in second half

Newman’s Brady Grennan works for yards against ROWVA’s Gage Aldred Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023 in the Class 1A playoffs in Sterling.

STERLING – The Newman Comets recovered from just about the worst start imaginable to take the halftime lead in their Class 1A first-round playoff game Saturday afternoon at Roscoe Eades Stadium.

But No. 10 seed ROWVA/Williamsfield pitched a second-half shutout and hit a few big plays on offense to upset the seventh-seeded Comets 28-14.

Senior quarterback Riley Danner threw for 190 yards, senior fullback Spencer Brown scored all four touchdowns, and the Cougars defense limited Newman (7-3) to 20 net yards rushing.

“This was kind of the stuff we thought we’d be capable of doing all year long,” ROWVA coach Grant Gullstrand said. “We haven’t played a game yet where our offense played like this and our defense did too; we had a really good game plan, and our kids came out and were flying to the ball, playing physical.

“It’s usually been one or the other, and this week we put it all together. That’s what this team is capable of when we do that, and it’s just awesome to see.”

A high snap in the shotgun went over Newman quarterback Evan Bushman’s head on the first play from scrimmage, and ROWVA (8-2) recovered at the Comets’ 27-yard line. Danner converted on third down with a 24-yard pass, and Brown scored from 4 yards out for a 6-0 lead just 1:22 into the game.

The next four series ended in punts, then Newman put together its first long drive. The Comets covered 75 yards in 15 plays, and Brady Grennan crashed in from 1 yard out on fourth-and-goal; Ana Jungerman’s extra-point kick made it 7-6. The big play in the drive was a 37-yard pass from Bushman to Isaiah Williams on third-and-13.

But ROWVA answered immediately, as Danner pump-faked a pass out into the flat to Talan Hull and found a wide-open Brown streaking down the middle of the field for a 67-yard scoring strike and a 12-7 edge just 16 seconds after Newman had taken the lead.

“We really worked this week in practice on some trick plays – that 67-yard touchdown pass was one of them – to get the defense off-balance,” Danner said. “Everybody’s going to flow to our best player, Talan, and then we have a wide-open touchdown the other way. The key was just practicing those plays so when that moment arises in the game, we can execute it like that.”

The Comets responded, traversing 60 yards in nine plays – two of them 16-yard passes from Bushman to Williams – to set up Brady Williamson’s 3-yard touchdown run; Jungerman’s kick gave Newman a 14-12 lead with 2:16 left in the first half.

“Just kind of keeping our heads level, that was key,” Williams said. “Bad snap, get down early, what can you do? You’ve just got to bounce back as soon as you can, and remember it’s a long game.

“After the first few plays of seeing their corners and how they were playing us – they were playing super soft – we thought we’d take a couple shots, and it worked out.”

Starting the second half with the ball, the Cougars cashed in on their opening possession. Danner connected with Bryan Bertlshofer for a 47-yard pass on the first play, and Brown scored from 3 yards out three plays later for a 20-14 lead just 1:21 into the second half.

“We knew we’d be getting the ball to start the second half, so we knew we just had to handle our business and just do our thing on offense,” Danner said. “We scored, and that was good because it set the tone for the second half.”

“That’s how it’s been all year. I feel like we always start behind the 8-ball. Before you knew it, we were down today, but we fought back and were able to take the lead by halftime,” Newman coach Mike LeMay said. “Unfortunately in the second half, they saw something they liked and they exposed it right away, and defensively we were kind of scrambling a little bit.”

ROWVA drove inside the Newman 30 on its next series, but the Comets defense forced a fumble on fourth-and-1 and junior Joe Oswalt recovered it at the Newman 20-yard line. The Comets then drove to the ROWVA 39 before a sack and a delay of game penalty pushed them back and forced a punt.

Newman seemed to have forced a three-and-out on the Cougars’ next drive, but a fourth-down fake punt resulted in a 29-yard pass from Preston Schroeder to Hull. Seven plays later, Brown pushed into the end zone from a yard out to give ROWVA a 28-14 lead with 5:22 remaining.

The Comets drove to the ROWVA 24, trying to score and stay alive in the game, but Devonte Noel’s interception stopped that series, and ROWVA got a pair of first downs to run out the clock.

“It (stinks), but I know we’re a good team, and we’re going to fight to the end. That’s what we did, we just couldn’t come out on top,” junior linebacker Daniel Kelly said. “We haven’t really started off every game super strong, and this was one of them, but we fought back by halftime. It just didn’t really end how we wanted it.

“We fought to the end. We did some nice things, and we did some bad things, and we just ended up on the wrong side of it.”

Danner was 10-for-16 passing for 190 yards and the TD to Brown, who finished with 17 rushes for 60 yards and three scores.

Bushman was 12-for-22 passing for 158 yards, and Williams caught seven passes for 111 yards. Grennan had 27 yards on 14 rushes, while Carter Rude (14 yards) and Williamson (13 yards) each had three carries for the Comets.

“Offensively, we thought we had a little spark going a few times, but just kind of fell short on some stuff. I feel like that’s the name of the game for us this year, too. It kind of came back to bite us,” LeMay said. “I thought we were on a good trajectory going into the postseason, and those mistakes that we were able to come back from early in the season, we just weren’t able to today. That’s how the ball rolls. It sucks, it stings, but that’s football.

“I guess if there’s a silver lining, it’s the body of work we had this season. But this is a new season, and it sucks to be done so early, especially when the momentum felt right. I think we’re all disappointed, because we wanted to be able to keep going and playing together. Unfortunately it didn’t go our way, and I really hope that ROWVA does well going forward.”

The loss hurts, but Newman’s players and coaches know that one game doesn’t take away from what the team accomplished during the previous 9 weeks – which included wins over Rockridge and Rock Island, and tough losses against playoff teams in Princeton and Kewanee.

“This was a really fun season. All of us have really played together since I was a freshman and the seniors were sophomores, and I’ve played with most of them since we were in fourth grade, so we always had a good bond,” Kelly said. “We beat a 6A school; I don’t think that’s ever been done at Newman. There’s a lot to be proud of; we beat Rockridge, we hadn’t beaten them in awhile. I think for the future of this team, I think we’re going to be good. We’re heading down the right path, and as long as we get better every week and every year, we’ll be fine. It just sucks that we didn’t go as far as we wanted, but that gives us motivation for next year.”