Typically known for their raucous home atmosphere, shouts merely sputtered from beneath the handful of umbrellas left watching the Piper Pirates earn another playoff bid Friday night after defeating favored Atchison 38-21.
Yet, as bucket loads of water streamed down the bleachers and onto a frigid field, there was an odd feeling of normalcy on the victorious home sideline. Everything about the upset win was atypical of the program Chris Brindle has built at Piper, but then again, that seems to sum up his 2015 squad.
“You know, our whole program is built on trying to get better every week so we can make the playoffs,” said the long-time head coach, who told his team after the game this was one of the most satisfying victories of his entire career. “We’ve overcome some things this season with guys going down and getting off to the start we had. Then tonight, we come in down eleven because we knew before this one even kicked off that we’d have to win by eleven to advance and so, just to see these players fight. I just don’t think our guys wanted this to end.”
Entering the regular season finale, it was opposing head coach Jim Smith’s potent offense that was supposed to be the headliner. A ground-based attack carried by the legs of dynamic senior quarterback Wykeen Gill and junior running back Parker Welch, Atchison entered Friday night’s game averaging 47 points per game. But with Welch struggling with illness and a Pirate defense balanced enough to contain Gill, Smith called an audible and aired things out.
On the game’s second drive, Gill was able to find Bryce Enzbrenner for his first touchdown on the night and before halftime, the 6-foot-1, 183-pounder would add two more including an impressive 29-yard rainbow reception, which saw the Atchison captain roll from the pocket and toss across his body to his favorite target, falling out of the back corner of the end zone. Heading into the half, Atchison still clung to a 21-15 lead, but after Enzbrenner suffered a concussion early in the third quarter and was unable to return, the Redmen’s undefeated magic simply ran out.
“We got dinged up there,” said a heartbroken Smith outside the locker room after his team’s lone loss of the season (8-1) became their last game of the season. “One game can’t make a season and I couldn’t be more proud of the guys for how hard they played, but this is a tough pill to swallow.”
“He’s just a fantastic player,” added Smith on his star quarterback who continuously gave extra effort to attempt a comeback. “He has great vision and sees the field well. He was our go-to guy all year and it was a pleasure to coach him.”
With Gill’s abilities weakened without regular weapons surrounding him, the Pirate defense stopped Atchison cold, not allowing a single score in the second half.
“After halftime, even though it was still cold, we came out there and wanted to hit them as hard as we could,” senior Collin Beebe said on the defensive effort. “Practice we’ve been doing a lot of full contact and tackling stuff, leverage drills, and taking people to the ground. I think that’s something that’s helped us in these games and will help propel us forward.”
With the door open for the Piper offense to take control, senior quarterback Keelon Vann consistently put the pigskin into the chest of undersized workhorse Sterling Owens.
“Our line played with a lot of heart tonight,” said Owens, whose combination of speed and balanced allowed him to bounce off tackles, most notably on the final scoring drive eight minutes remaining that sealed the deal for Piper. “We knew we had nothing to lose and they had something to lose, so we were busting holes open and I just ran through them.”
A spirited flame still burning within the hearts of a physical Pirate lineup as their cleats splashed through puddles on the way into the locker room for a postgame celebration, Piper is once again advancing into the 4A-I postseason. Considering the unconventional start to 2015, winless (0-4) until September 25, it’s been a finish this group continues to embrace and build upon.
“They grew a bunch and have had to be mentally tough, which is tough for 17 and 18 year olds,” finished Brindle on a group that finished 4-5, clinching second place in the district behind Basehor-Linwood. “In high school, you have to develop during the season because of game experience and so we had to just stick with that even when I’m sure the guys were hearing that Piper had ‘fallen off’ or whatever, but they stuck together and supported each other.”
“A lot of people had doubt in us,” echoed Beebe before looking ahead at what’s to come in November. “But I think no matter what, we think we can win. That’s it – we can win.”