Colton Kirkham rolled to his left, set his feet and surveyed the field.
Impervious to the stakes of the moment, North Platte's senior calmly lofted a pass down the middle of the field to find senior wide receiver Jaxson Carpenter behind the defense for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter of Saturday's Class 1 state semifinal. The Panthers could have opted to punt in the situation, could have ceded momentum to visiting Milan but instead took control of their own destiny on the way to a convincing 54-34 victory at North Platte High School.
Kirkham accounted for four total touchdowns — three rushing and the 34-yard strike to Carpenter on fourth and 9 to cap a 96-yard march with North Platte's lead sitting at a tenuous 12 points.
"When it comes down to it and you need a play, Colton is the guy to make that happen," said North Platte second-year coach Jared Quigley, who leads the Panthers into Friday's Class 1 Show-Me Bowl against Marionville (13-0) at Faurot Field in Columbia. "Coach asked me, 'Hey, do we want to flip the field? Do we want to punt?' I said let's go for it. I had a good feeling.
"We ended up having a big play happen."
This marks the second state title game appearance in North Platte's program history and first since taking home the Class 1A title in 1998. The Panthers have forged a stark turnaround behind a 12-player senior class, going from back-to-back winless seasons in 2020 and 2021 to a 6-5 campaign a year ago before earning their first district title since 2009 with last week's victory over Windsor.
Milan (11-2) took an early 7-0 lead, but North Platte scored twice in the final 1 minute, 1 second of the first half and on the opening drive of the second half to take control. The Panthers led by 19 once and 18 twice before Kirkham's final touchdown on a 24-yard keeper with 3:05 left in regulation provided the final margin of victory.
"It was a long journey," North Platte senior linebacker Chance Garber said. "From 0-20 for two years, it was hard, but we got some new guys and just sparked a fire in us. We got going; we just got going."
North Platte's first two drives of the second half ended with a 6-yard touchdown run from Kirkham and a 3-yard scoring plunge from sophomore running back Dylan Armstrong, his second of the game. The Panthers added two-point conversions after both and led 40-21 with 6:51 left in the third quarter.
However, Milan answered both with two of senior running back Carlos Cotto's three scores on the ground to keep pulling back within two possessions. His 6-yarder closed the gap to 40-28, and North Platte failed to field the ensuing kickoff. The ball rolled inside the 5, and the Panthers were forced to start at their own 4 while leading 40-28.
North Platte answered with what ended up a drive eating up more than 5 1/2 minutes. However, the Panthers faced fourth and 9 at the 34, only for Kirkham to come up with the key play that prevented Milan from holding possession at any point in the second half with a chance to close within one score.
"Colton, he's a stud; he's an absolute stallion is what he is," Garber said. "He just makes things happen, man — on his feet, through the air."
Up 46-28 after a missed extra point kick, North Platte nearly put the game away when Armstrong picked off a pass, only for the Panthers to fumble the ball back.
Milan came up with the second scoring connection between sophomore quarterback Hunter Reed and junior wide receiver Keaton Weter to close back within 46-34 after a failed two-point conversion. Kirkham's final touchdown came on the ensuing drive, and the clock expired with the Wildcats resigned to the outcome without enough time left for a viable comeback attempt.
With a steady snow pelting the grass, North Platte's players and coaches celebrated and soaked in the emotions in a unique late afternoon atmosphere.
"I'm really excited for the kids," Quigley said. "It's fun to just see them and the laughter, and the smiles, and the tears and everything that goes along with this. I'm very excited for them; I'm excited for our school and our community. It was a great game."
North Platte's offensive outburst came after a slow start and scoreless first quarter.
Milan's opening score came off of a Kirkham lost fumble. A 5-yard touchdown from Cotto came on an untimed down to finish the first quarter, but the 7-0 lead lasted less than 3 minutes. Kirkham hit senior tight end John Winkler for a 32-yard gain to set up a 2-yard touchdown run from senior running back Liam Servaes. The Panthers then took the lead at 8-7 on a two-point pass to Garber.
North Platte then came up with key stops on consecutive downs to fully seize momentum.
Stockbauer blew up a third-and-short sneak attempt with Milan senior running back Ahmet Niasse under center, and Kirkham came up from his safety spot to tackle Cotto after he bounced an attempt wide left on fourth and inches to cause a turnover on downs. Armstrong scored from 5 yards out on the ensuing drive, and he also ran in for two points to make it 16-7 with 1:01 left before halftime.
"Our defense responded," Garber said. "We fought all night, fought all night."
Reed hit Weter over the middle for a 58-yard touchdown on the next play, but North Platte answered in the next 46 seconds. Kirkham did all the work with completions to Winkler and junior tight end Westin Snook sandwiched around a keeper to move the Panthers to the 5 with 8 seconds on the clock.
After a timeout, Kirkham dropped back to pass but eventually rolled right and scored a touchdown on a scramble inside the right pylon. Garber's two-point run made it 24-14 at the break.
"When we gave up the big pass play for a touchdown, I knew there was a lot of time," Quigley said. "That's a situation we work two, if not three times per week every single week. We've been doing that all season long, so when it comes to us working a two-minute situation, I'm always comfortable with my guys out on the field."
North Platte went 6-for-6 on two-point tries, essentially adding an extra touchdown in the process. Garber scored three of them, while Armstrong ran for two. Kirkham also hit Snook for one in the second half.