By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
It was a strange situation for Central DeWitt after its regular-season football finale Friday night.
The Sabers beat Class 3A No. 7 Marion — previously unbeaten in District 6 — to gain a share of the district title. But the 17-16 victory left the Sabers third in the tiebreaker (point differential) and now they face a playoff opener on the road against Manchester West Delaware. Marion earned the top seed and Solon — which beat Benton Community 63-0 on Friday — took the two spot.
“We’re district champions, and no one can take that away from us,” Sabers senior quarterback Mitch Green said. “We start with West Delaware and we probably would have had to play them at some point, so it might as well be now.”
The Sabers (6-3, 5-1) knew the scenarios coming into the game. A win by 11 or more and they had the top seed, a win by 5-10 and they’d be the two seed and anything else would leave them as the three seed. Still a win meant sharing the district title. Late in the third quarter, it didn’t look very likely that any of those would happen.
Marion (7-2, 5-1) got a second rushing touchdown from Andrew Davis to take a 17-7 lead with 43 seconds left in the quarter, but the Sabers weren’t done.
Jake Feldpausch returned the ensuing kickoff for an 84-yard touchdown to pull Central DeWitt to within two points.
“We had a big momentum change with Jake Feldpausch’s kick return,” Green said.
“It kind of rejuvenated us and got back to where we wanted to be,” Central DeWitt coach Mike Miller said.
Marion fumbled on the kickoff return and Chase Kraklio recovered it for the Sabers on Marion’s 34. Central DeWitt ran seven times and Green hit Chris Keitel for a 9-yard gain — Green rushed for 14 yards and Keitel 11 on the drive — to get the ball down to Marion’s 4.
It was fourth down, so Miller sent in the kicker — freshman Keegan Lass — and he kicked a 22-yard field goal to put the Sabers ahead 17-16.
“We went to our bread-and-butter and moved the ball,” Green said. “Keegan Lass is our freshman kicker, just put in there this week, and that was awesome for him.”
Central DeWitt forced Marion into a three-and-out on its next possession and took over at its own 31 with 5:54 left. The Sabers knew they needed a touchdown to host a first-round playoff game.
The Sabers got a first down, but then faced fourth-and-9 at its own 48. Miller said he was going to call a timeout, but one of his assistant coaches warned him it was the team’s last.
“It ain’t gonna matter, if we don’t get this,” Miller said. “I need to get the play called.”
So with 2:55 left, Miller called “Red Bronco Fire.”
“Austin Lechtenberg, he’s a go-to receiver,” Green said. “He’s a really athletic kid and has great hands. He burnt their (player) with his speed. That’s how we drew it up. I floated it up to him and let him make the play. That’s all on Austin.”
The pass went for a 32-yard gain and the Sabers had a first down, 20 yards from the end zone.
Keitel ran on the next three plays and gained 9 of his 67 yards. On fourth-and-1, Green kept the ball but could not add to his team-high 81 yards.
“I messed up huge there at the end,” Keitel said. “I ran the wrong way. I heard the play call wrong. We could have gotten that yard. We could have gotten the seven points. We could have gotten the second seed and homefield. I just had a mental lapse.”
Central DeWitt forced Marion into another punt, which the Indians did with 6.7 seconds left. The Sabers were forced out of bounds near Marion’s 40 after time expired, giving them the win, but a road postseason opener.
“There’s a lot of good things that you need to focus on with this ball club,” Miller said. “That’s what we want to do. We feel like moving forward, regardless of seed, if you want to be the best in the state, you have to beat everyone. That’s how we’re going to approach it.”
And giving Marion its first district loss and stopping its six-game win streak is big, according to the Sabers.
“It’s a big confidence boost,” Keitel said. “I think we’ll make a (postseason) run. We’re a good team.”
Green said the Sabers had a good feeling before the game started.
“We knew this game was for us,” Green said. “We knew we were the most physical team. They may be bigger, but we play a little bigger. We like to be a little rough on the field, play to the whistle everytime, nothing stupid though.”
It showed at the opening, too. Marion received the opening kickoff and fumbled on its first play from scrimmage. Hunter Wagener recovered the ball for Central DeWitt on Marion’s 13. Green scored on the Sabers’ first play on a designed quarterback run, giving Central DeWitt a 7-0 lead just 16 seconds into the game.
“That was a big momentum change,” Green said. “That was great. It’s great when our defense can get us the ball right there in that field position and we reward them with a touchdown.”
Marion scored the next 16 points, but the Sabers prevailed.
“We got our backs against the wall, but we overcame that adversity,” Miller said. “We got down and we kept coming back. I think that says a lot about our kids’ character. I’m extremely proud of them. It’s a great experience for them. They’ve accomplished a lot.”
But with the postseason starting in four days, the Sabers don’t have a lot of time to savor the win and a share of the district title.
“We’re going to hopefully stay in (the postseason) for a while,” Miller said. “You’ve got to enjoy (the win) for a little while. (Saturday) we’ll put the hard hat on and grab our lunch pail and get back to work.”
CENTRAL DEWITT 17, MARION 16
Marion 6 3 7 0 — 16
Central DeWitt 7 0 7 3 — 17
CD — Mitch Green 13 run (Keegan Lass kick), 11:44
M — Andrew Davis 3 run (run failed), 4:37
M — FG, Dalton Ott 30, 0:01
M — Davis 14 run (Ott kick), 0:43
CD — Jake Feldpausch 86 kickoff return (Lass kick), 0:27
CD — FG, Lass 21, 8:29
RUSHING — Marion (36-134), Andrew Davis 11-81, Trev Biery 12-50, Tyler Gunderson 4-21, Colton Mowry 2-5, Brandon Hornback 1-3, Trevor Hardman 6-minus-26; Central DeWitt (47-166), Mitch Green 19-81, Chris Keitel 17-67, Jake Feldpausch 5-16, Austin Lechtenberg 6-2.
PASSING — Marion, Hardman 8-11, 120 yards; Central DeWitt, Green 7-12-1, 101 yards.
RECEIVING — Marion, Quinn Cannoy 3-92, Jordan Cole 1-14, Ethan Herren 1-7, Davis 1-7, Mitch Ross 1-0; Central DeWitt, Lechtenberg 4-59, Keitel 1-8, AJ Smith 1-5.