POCATELLO — Three times in four years.
That’s how many times the Oakley High School football team took on Prairie in the 1A Division I state playoffs. That’s how many times Oakley lost to Prairie in the playoffs, too.
For the fourth time in five years, the Hornets and Pirates met again. This time, the outcome was finally altered.
Oakley scored on the second play of the fourth quarter to take its first lead since the first half, and its defense stood its ground, leading the Hornets past the top-ranked Pirates and into the state title game with a 26-22 win Friday night at Holt Arena.
“It’s pretty sweet,” Oakley head coach Kade Craner said. “Last year, we felt like it was a step back from the state title game, losing in the semifinals. We just happened to get the same team that put us out last year, and we got it done.”
Neither offense got going in the opening stages, with three punts and a turnover on downs keeping the score at 0-0 through most of the first quarter. Finally, as it would all game, the defense stepped up for Oakley (9-2), which is ranked No. 3 in the state media poll.
Prairie senior quarterback Spencer Schumacher’s under-thrown pass went straight into the hands of Oakley senior Austin Bedke, who returned it 11 yards to the house, giving the Hornets an 8-0 lead.
Another Prairie turnover — a fumble near midfield — led to another Oakley score, as junior quarterback Chandler Jones found senior Travis Barnard wide-open on fourth down for a 17-yard touchdown. Thanks in huge part to its defense, Oakley led 14-0 less than three minutes into the second quarter.
“Defense wins championships,” Craner said. “In our program, that’s what we talk about, and that’s what we feel. We felt like we had a pretty good game plan to go against them.”
Bedke said the Hornets are a “huge momentum team,” and he thought they were going to start rolling. Instead, the Pirates found their groove.
Two Schumacher passing touchdowns sandwiched a 55-yard kick return for a touchdown by Oakley junior Josh Nyman. The third Schumacher strike gave the Pirates a 22-20 lead going into the half.
“We let them back in, which we shouldn’t have,” Bedke said.
Neither team was able to score in the third quarter, but the momentum they crave swung back into Oakley’s favor the moment the “3” switched to “4” on the scoreboard.
Deep in its own territory, Prairie turned to the gunslinging Schumacher, but, put under pressure, the senior sailed a short screen pass straight into Barnard’s hands on the first play of the fourth quarter. On the next play, Jones took a keeper in from 11 yards, giving Oakley a 26-22 lead.
All its defense had to do was hold strong.
On Prairie’s next drive, Nyman came up with an interception.
Prairie had two more chances to put together a game-winning drive. Both times, the Pirates came face-to-face with a fourth down. On both of those fourth downs, they went after Oakley senior cornerback Jake Pulsipher, a player Schumacher had burned through the air earlier in the game.
Both times, Pulsipher knocked the ball out of the intended receiver’s hands.
“They got me a couple times at first,” Pulsipher said. “I had to make some adjustments and play the way I knew to play.”
With each pass batted away, the Oakley bench exploded in celebrations, as Pulsipher and his teammates attempted to pump up the rowdy Oakley crowd. Pulsipher described those moments as “unreal.”
“That’s what good football players do,” Craner said. “Make plays when the plays are there. Jake Pulsipher made some great plays.”
The Hornets were able to run out the final 58 seconds of the game, as senior quarterback Tate Cranney, who had been ruled out for the season, was sent out by Craner to take the final knee to end it. Cranney said the opportunity to do that meant the world to him, and he was just thankful his team could get him there.
To get him there, the Hornets had to finally get the Prairie monkey off their backs (quarterfinal losses in 2014 and 2015, a semifinal loss last season). They did so in dramatic fashion, coming from behind to finally knock off the Prairie program that has ended their season so many times.
Craner said they can’t celebrate too long, as they know that whichever team they face next week — Valley or Wilder — won’t be easy to beat. However, Bedke was still able to reflect on a special night that gives him, Pulsipher, Cranney and the rest of the Oakley seniors one more game in their careers.
“It was crazy,” Bedke said. “I loved every second of it. I’m so proud of the team and how we came together.”
Wow. An unsportsmanlike conduct on Prairie’s two-pointer pushed their kick back. The Pirates kicked it short and Josh Nyman took it (what looks like) 55 yards to the house. Great blocking ahead. #oakleyhornets up 20-7 at 6:46 2Q. #idpreps pic.twitter.com/NoUhIK7xaJ— Sean Whooley (@swhooley27) November 10, 2018