With one final shot at the end zone, and the Black Hills High School football team looking for its first win of the season, coach Kirk Stevens had a simple message.
“This is what everyone plays for, right?” he said. “The literally last-second play. We can be the heroes and win this game.”
Junior quarterback Ethan Loveless took it a step further in the huddle, assuring his teammates the Wolves would not fail.
Loveless hurled a ball into the end zone, and senior Kade Weitzel hauled it in for a 10-yard touchdown as time expired. The sideline erupted as Black Hills upset Capital, 22-20.
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That was Week 2.
Black Hills (4-2, 2-0 Class 2A Evergreen Conference) has won three of its four games since, all in similar fashion: With late-game heroics and then a roaring celebration.
“We just all believe in each other at that time,” senior Wyatt Rollman said. “We come out and know if we don’t execute right here we’re going to lose this game. I think that’s what drives our team to fire on all cylinders and believe in each other, and come away with the win.”
The Wolves’ last five games — including wins over Capital, Prairie, Centralia and Aberdeen — have all been decided by six points or less.
Black Hills evaded a late comeback from the Falcons in Battle Ground, recovering an onside kick attempt with less than a minute to play, holding on to a 3-point lead.
The following week, Evergreen of Vancover handed the Wolves a late-game loss on a 1-yard touchdown plunge in the final two minutes.
Centralia took the Black Hills to overtime its league opener, but the Wolves held the Tigers on the 1-yard line. Junior running Jaden Toussaint then scampered for a 3-yard score to secure another Black Hills win.
And last week in Aberdeen, the Wolves drove into the red zone with less than two minutes remaining, and junior Taylor Simmons punched in the winning touchdown.
Stevens often jokes with his players that, if he had hair to begin with, he wouldn’t have any now after all of these nail-biting wins.
“It’s his signature line,” senior lineman James Tobin said, smiling.
But just how do the Wolves keep pulling off these thrilling victories?
“That’s kind of been the question of our team,” Rollman said. “When it comes down to those last few minutes of the game, suddenly it clicks. We can drive down the field and score on anyone in our league, and stop anyone on defense. I think it’s just a matter of focusing and executing at the right time.”
“It brings us to a sense of urgency, and makes us come together as a team,” Tobin added.
Practicing the two-minute offense a few times per week has helped too, Tobin said. And the Wolves have started to master the concept Stevens is teaching — just keep the ball moving, get out of bounds and get first downs to stop the clock.
“It makes a difference,” Stevens said. “We’re finding ourselves in those positions. People understand the use of the clock and it builds trust between teammates, and teammates and coaches, where they kind of know what the plan is and what we do.”
Because Black Hills has a younger team — many of the players that led the Wolves to the state playoffs the past two seasons have graduated — some of the late-game theatrics are a result of earlier miscues. Stevens credits his defense for keeping games tight, and the offense for rallying and putting games away at crucial times.
“We move the ball a lot, but we’ve struggled at different times, and struggled at scoring,” Stevens said. “But, they’re a resilient team, and a tough group. When it really counts, they get focused and are able to go down when we need it the most and score.”
Stevens and his players agree, the experience in late-game situations, and the ability to capitalize on them, could give the Wolves an advantage moving forward.
“I think we’ve been there done that, so it’s not panic,” Stevens said. “We’re used to it. If we keep games close, we’ve got confidence that we can make something happen.”
Can the Wolves keep the late-game win streak going? This week presents perhaps the biggest challenge yet, when eighth-ranked W.F. West (5-1) visits Black Hills at Tumwater District Stadium.
“If we can get to that spot this Friday with W.F. West, if it’s a close game in the fourth quarter, I truly believe we can come away with the win,” Rollman said.