ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
It was the kind of season opener you’d expect for a team with numerous first-time starters: lots of penalties and minimal offense.
But one constant of a Marion team coached by Grant Thierolf is intensity on defense. In the end, it translated into a hard-fought 7-6 victory at Nickerson.
“It took us awhile to get in sync,” Thierolf said. “There’s no way with a squad the size we have that we can simulate the speed of an actual game in practice.”
After winning the coin toss, Marion deferred its option and kicked off to the Panthers. Five plays later, Nickerson was forced to punt.
The Panthers narrowly averted disaster when a bad snap sailed over the kicker’s head. But he recovered the ball and got the punt off.
That play embodied the difficulties Nickerson would have in its kicking game the remainder of the night-a problem that possibly cost them the game.
The teams traded possessions until David DeForest mishandled a Panther punt, giving Nickerson the ball on Marion’s 27-yard line.
But four plays later, Jeff Richmond picked off a Jacob Unruh pass on the Warrior 3-yard line to end the scoring threat.
Several Warrior drives were thwarted by penalties.
“We had some returning guys who did a lot of good things last year and played hard last year, but we really only had Dale (Vogel) and Tyson (Heidebrecht) at the same position they always played,” Thierolf said. “We just need to maintain our concentration.”
The game remained scoreless until Nickerson’s Jarrett Bauerle intercepted a Josh Kelsey pass on the Warrior 21-yard line with 10:17 left in the half..
After a procedure penalty on the Panthers, Unruh scurried into the end zone on the next play to put Nickerson on top 6-0.
The extra-point kick sailed wide right, keeping the score at 6-0 and signaling the Panthers’ anemic place-kicking game.
Neither team threatened the remainder of the half, although Marion’s Russell Ploutz recovered a Jason Collier fumble on the Warrior 31-yard line in the last minute before halftime.
After the first two quarters, the Warriors had accumulated just 58 yards rushing and 23 yards passing.
“We were fortunate to be where we were at halftime,” Thierolf said. “We really didn’t deserve to be there because we hadn’t done anything.
“Nickerson played awfully well, and I thought they had a nice game plan against us.”
Marion took the second-half kickoff and proceeded to march downfield. But a Kelsey fumble on the Panther 21-yard line stopped the drive.
Nine plays later, Nickerson punted again and this time Marion’s drive was successful.
A 20-yard pass from Kelsey to Richmond, followed by a 16-yard run by Kelsey and a 13-yard run by Nelson had the Warriors knocking on the Panthers’ door.
Nelson then burst the final 18 yards into the end zone to knot the game at 6-6 with 4:57 left in the third quarter. Heidebrecht’s kick split the uprights and Marion led 7-6.
“It took us a half to get our kids used to seeing what they were seeing,” Thierolf said. “We didn’t really change our offense-I guess we did change our formations and our plays some.”
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers mounted another challenge. Starting at its 33-yard line, Nickerson reeled off 46 yards in three plays to move to the Warrior 21-yard line.
After the next three plays yielded nine yards, Nickerson’s lack of faith in its place kicker prompted the Panthers to run the ball on fourth-and-1 from the 12.
But big Dale Vogel plugged the hole with one of his team-leading 11 tackles, stopping the Panther runner in his tracks and giving the ball back to Marion with just 7:40 remaining.
Marion then mounted a time-consuming drive that took the ball all the way to the Panther 40-yard line. But on fourth-and-1, a bad exchange between the center and quarterback resulted in a fumble that Nickerson recovered with 2:42 to play.
With one last shot at victory, and aided by a questionable pass-interference call, Nickerson moved the ball inside the Warrior 20-yard line. But a pass on fourth-and-1 fluttered harmlessly to the turf in the final moments, preserving Marion’s 7-6 victory.
“I was proud of our kids and how they reacted to adversity,” Thierolf said. “They just bowed their necks and played ball.”
Even with a slow first half, the Warriors amassed 253 total yards in the contest compared to 247 for the Panthers.
Kelsey (14 carries) and Nelson (15 carries) both gained 82 yards on the ground and Kelsey completed four of 14 passes for 73 yards.
“I thought that was a pretty solid opening game for both of them in their new positions,” Thierolf said. “With Josh at quarterback, I know we’re going to get better and throw the ball better. We saw glimpses of that tonight.
“We just have to get our protections down and get into a rhythm.”
Marion was victimized by four fumbles-losing two-and two interceptions while intercepting one pass and recovering one fumble on defense.
“This wasn’t a league game, but it’s nice to win,” Thierolf said. “It proves this is a solid league and we’re going to have to play hard each and every week in order to sustain what we’re doing.
“I’m pleased, but I would have been pleased either way just because of the way we played the second half.”
Coming-Marion will host Halstead (0-1) Friday night in a Mid Central Activities Association Mid Division game that starts at 7 p.m.