DAYTON — Football is a game of benchmark victories for the Tongue River Eagles.
Friday, they lost their 16th straight football game — dating back to 2010 before their forfeited season in 2011 — 36-6 at the hands of Wheatland (2-0). But the commentary and the lessons learned after the final whistle for the Eagles (0-2) isn’t so much about scores or win-loss records.
“I liked the way that we were able to put a game plan together and stick with it,” head coach John Scott said after the loss. “We did have some things to get excited about — we are trying to coach 48 minutes of football without thinking about the score.”
The Eagles fell behind 23-0 by halftime, but found one of those benchmarks in the second half after Wheatland drove and scored to begin the second half.
Lane Dockery took back the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to score the Eagles first touchdown of 2013 — a nearly identical highlight to the Eagles first touchdown a year ago. In 2012, Lane’s older brother Tanner Dockery opened the Eagles scoring with a kick return for a touchdown in Dayton. Tanner was on the sidelines to watch his brother’s kick Friday, prompting Scott to joke in his postgame radio interview about teasing the elder brother about Lane being the faster of the two.
There are signs of that family atmosphere, a tradition, rebuilding around Tongue River football, along with a candid approach toward the process from their coach.
“We are going to be a pretty good punt team and a pretty good return team because we do get a lot of work on those two things,” Scott joked.
In the first half, Jaxn Kobza broke through the line and blew up a third-and-short play, eventually forcing a fourth-down incompletion. The short-yardage stop was a rare prize for what has been a young, undersized defense over the past two years.
“Those are the kinds of things we get excited about because we haven’t seen them,” Scott said.
The Eagles chased Wheatland’s mobile quarterback Critter Ruwart all day.
Ruwart threw three touchdown passes — 14, 49 and 54 yards — all in the first half, creating an early cushion for the Bulldogs.
“I don’t think they surprised us with anything, we knew we’d have to try and keep things in front of us, you’re in a situation where you want to apply some pressure, but you’ve got to cover some very good athletes that can get behind us, and they did,” Scott said.
Tongue River was led on offense for the second game by freshman signal caller Will Kerns who, while slight in stature, held his own Friday. Later in the game he played both ways, shoring up the Eagles at the safety position.
“I didn’t use him early defensively to try to spare him, but he brings some football-intuitive things, we knew we needed him back there to cover up some things man-to-man,” Scott said. “Offensively they were coming at him pretty hard, we wanted to protect him.”
Kerns took care of the ball for the most part, showing agility in rollout pass situations and intelligence in knowing when to get down.
Still, the Eagles had three turnovers, including a costly one in the third quarter that came after Tongue River safety Chase Linhart intercepted Ruwart following the Dockery kick return.
Momentum looked to have swung to the Eagles with the score 29-6, but they fumbled on the subsequent play. Wheatland then punched in the game’s final score on a one-yard run.
The Bulldogs had 13 penalties for 107 yards, and Tongue River’s defense, save for the two long passes, kept things in front of them, flying sideline to sideline until the final play.
“There’s no other way,” Scott said, pleased with his squad’s effort. “I think they’re digging down deep and finding out a lot of things about themselves.”
Pierce Jardine returned from injury and was all over the field defensively. The Eagles next week expect to get back senior quarterback Matt Yellowtail and senior lineman Matt Burchell — players they’ll need against a power-running Glenrock team that presents a different challenge than the one they faced Friday.
“I think they’re starting to pick up on angles, our tackling was much better today and we weren’t so high around shoulder pads,” Scott said.
“We’ve got some kids playing well about where above where they kind of should be and doing a heck of a lot more than I ever did at that level,” he said of the players who stepped up with the upper classmen injured. “My hat’s off to them.”
The Eagles play in Glenrock at 6 p.m. Friday.