SHERIDAN — Senior quarterback Matt Yellowtail’s football career hit a high point Friday in Dayton.
In fact, all six senior Eagles players accomplished something that may have not been thought possible for a program marred in losing for so many years, chiefly after last year’s winless campaign. Friday, the Eagles won their final home game of 2013, taking a 14-6 homecoming triumph over Wright. It was their first homecoming victory since 2006. Even more, it was a win earned by way of a quality, team performance on both sides of the ball.
The Eagles won their first game in three years two weeks ago in a 12-0 battle with Moorcroft — that win came two weeks after Yellowtail returned to the field after starting the year sidelined with an injury. The relief of winning is still fresh for the small community.
“It was the ultimate high really,” Yellowtail said. “It felt good knowing all that work paid off and really just the morale of the whole town seemed up. People telling us good job, people were just excited. I feel like the spirit of the school overall is just really improved. You can’t have homecoming without football, or really any fall sports without football. It dictates everything.”
Friday’s win was even more of a step, coming out on top of a stalemated, scoreless second half over a team that defeated the Eagles 21-8 a year ago.
The Eagles out-gained Wright 250 to 113, holding the Panthers scoreless after the first quarter. Head coach John Scott was pleased with a result that had escaped the Eagles last year in his first season as coach, winning a game they were capable of winning.
“When we didn’t come up with one of those last year, that showed we hadn’t quite gotten the kids to believe in this, but this gives us something. There’s a couple games we won that we should have,” he said. “That’s a real positive thing to win the games that you think you should win.
“Now, the next one is how to get through somebody you don’t think you might get, but you’ve got to take care of the first step,” Scott continued. “These two wins help validate that for us, we can overcome things.”
The Eagles trailed 6-0 after an 11-yard pass from Kodiak French to Brandon Collen. But from there, the Eagles were able to shut down the mobile French, and put two scores on the board themselves, which proved to be enough.
Lane Dockery broke through on the following drive, brushing off tacklers and finding paydirt from 30 yards out to take a 7-6 lead. The next score came on a play that perhaps typified the Eagles growth as a program. Battling penalties that nearly stunted their second drive, Yellowtail faked a hand-off to Dockery, bootlegged to his right and found Chase Linhart on a post pattern, Linhart hauling in the throw across the goal line. It was a play that might not have developed fully last year, but one that was completed to perfection Friday.
The celebrations are a little louder for the Eagles these days, players making up for lost time with smiles on their faces, as was the case when Linhart was mauled by his teammates in the end zone.
“Matt’s just been champing at the bit, this is his senior year, he didn’t get the great start on it, and he’s just been throwing the ball well in practice…we had worked on it,” Scott said. “Everything we threw was pretty much off playaction, and so it helped that we got the run game going and he just connected on it. For the kids it was like, ‘hey it does work against somebody other than our scout team.’”
Yellowtail quickly credited his team. Early in the fourth quarter, he tossed an interception on fourth down but the Eagles defense stood tall.
“I just cleared my mind and removed the hype,” Yellowtail said of the throw. “I’m just having fun right now. I trust my teammates. They stepped up and saved us in the second half when I made a mistake and it feels good to know how cohesive we are right now.”
Tongue River’s defense forced two turnovers, blanketing a Panthers passing game filled with rollouts and screens as they allowed just 38 yards to French throwing. Defense was the story of the second half, as the Eagles fumbled on the first play out of the locker room, but then forced a Panther three and out.
Scott said they didn’t have to do much blitzing, a change from when they played Wright in 2012, compensating in pass coverage where as last year they were caught on their heels by Wright’s passing game. Friday, that wasn’t the case. Eagle defenders flew sideline to sideline, blowing up screen passes and staying back on rollout passes. Yellowtail grabbed an interception, tip toeing along the sideline in the first quarter, and Lyons put the game away with his pick along the same sideline to stop Wright’s last drive in the fourth quarter.
“We practiced with our base package that we’ve had, sometimes it comes back very similar to two weeks ago (against Moorcroft), if you know where to be where to position yourself…we didn’t have guys out of position, we lined up where we needed to line up. It goes back to that confidence that you build,” Scott said.
The Eagles close the season against stout Newcastle and Big Horn teams, but they’re letting this one sink in for now.
“The first win, we were saying, ‘let it out, but how do you act,’ and this one it comes more down to feeling ‘why do you work hard, why do you play hard,'” Scott said. “You don’t have to say a whole lot, when you’re winning, it comes natural and let’s just go enjoy it….It’s great for them, and it’s great for our freshmen to be a part of this, see it and know that there is a recipe.”
For the players, the words used to describe finally winning as seniors are even fewer than that.
“It’s just sweet, it’s so sweet,” Yellowtail said, the happiness clear on his face, smiling.
“Waiting so long, it feels good, and knowing we’re paving the way for those young guys, it’s so sweet. It really is.”
Wright – 11-yard pass from Kodiak French to #42
Tongue River – 30 yard rush by Lane Dockery 7-6
Tongue River – Matt Yellowtail 25-yard pass to Chase Linhart
Brennan Kutterer 2-17, Lane Dockery 15-97; Dillon Lyons 10-34; Tyler Kane 10-31
Matt Burchell 1-8
Kutterer 2-15; Chase Linhart 1-25, TD, Lyons 1-14, Burchell 1-7
Yellowtail 5-11, 61 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Defense: Kutterer five tackles, 2 assisted; Matt Burchell five tackles, two assisted, Pierce Jardine five tackles, two assisted; Dillon Lyons INT.