The last thing Rochester coach A.J Easley’s wife told him before he left for Centralia to face Shelton and Aberdeen in a Kansas Tiebreaker Monday was to trust his gut instinct.
Shelton had just lost to Aberdeen, 14-6, in the first game. Now, facing Shelton in Game 2, a Warriors’ win over the Highclimbers would secure them the No. 3 seed in the 2A District 4 playoffs and give Aberdeen the fourth seed. A Warriors’ loss would pit them in a do-or-die match against Aberdeen.
Shelton, which had beaten Warriors 37-13 earlier this season, scored on their first drive Monday against Rochester to go up 7-0. The Warriors got the ball next and it did not look good from the get-go, beginning with a false start and 5-yard penalty on their first snap. A 3-yard run by Talon Betts’ made it third and 12 before QB Landon Hawes lofted a perfect pass to a wide-open Garren Smith who took to the endzone untouched for a 27-yard score.
Trailing 7-6, Easley needed to make a decision to either tie it up with a PAT kick and head into the second overtime round, or take a gamble, go for two and clinch a playoff spot.
“As soon as Garren scored, I asked (Brad Quarnstrom) up in the booth, ‘one or two?,’” Easley said. “He said, ‘I can’t tell you what to do.’ I said, ‘We’re going for two.’ I just had a gut feeling. My wife was right.”
As Rochester lined up to run their play, Shelton called a timeout in hopes of freezing the Warriors. Instead, it gave Easley an opportunity to look in his player’s eyes — and he saw hunger.
Hawes handed off to Betts, who found a crease up the middle and dragged two defenders on his back across the goal line and the Warriors’ stormed the field.
Betts, who has been the Warriors’ electric tailback all season, had just one thing running through his mind before the snap: don’t drop the ball.
“That’s exactly what was going through my head,” Betts said. “Head down, just bulldozing through that pile, I was going to score no matter what.”
Easley had all the confidence in Betts and an offensive line that has vastly improved throughout the year.
‘There was nothing that was gonna stop Talon and those guys from getting him into the end zone,” Easley said. “Fantastic blocking. We had an opportunity right there. I don’t know if this thing goes five, six, eight rounds, like, how long can we hang in there? We had our shot right there, and we took it.”
It was a rewarding moment for a Rochester team that went from just one win a year ago and only two the year before that. The Warriors had finished bottom of the league for four consecutive years until Easley took the helm last season. Now, they're heading to the playoffs for the first time since 2012. Before that, it was 2001.
Now they’re 6-3 overall and will play the Greater St. Helens League’s No. 2 seed, Hockinson, on Saturday at Battle Ground High School for a shot at a state playoff berth.
Easley said he’s proud of his team for not just making the playoffs, but for doing so by clinching the No. 3 seed in the league. The last time the Warriors made the playoffs, in 2012, they were the four seed and got smoked by Woodland. Now, they're looking to make some noise.
“It’s one thing to be in the playoffs, but for us to get the third spot, that’s huge,” Easley said. “Lots of teams will have that one good year and be the four seed and get beat by 60 and, not saying Hockinson is going to be an easy feat, but you get into that three spot and you start building more confidence. We’re not just the bottom guy that got in. We didn’t get in by luck. We fought our butts off to get here.”