Garden Plain’s advantage in size and strength proved too much for the Marion football team last Tuesday, as the Warriors absorbed a season-ending loss in the bi-district playoffs, 49-14.
“We knew it was going to be a challenge coming in,” coach Grant Thierolf said. “Garden Plain is historically a very good football team and they played that way tonight. They’re big, they’re fast, they’re good, they’re disciplined and they just do a lot of things right.”
Marion completes its season with a 4-6 record.
“It really was an up-and-down season,” Thierolf said. “We didn’t win consecutive games this season. It’s just one of those things where we have to get more consistent and work hard to get to that next level.”
Marion hung in with the Owls for the first half, making a statement with a drive-ending red-zone fumble recovery on Garden Plain’s first possession.
But the Owls wouldn’t make anything easy for the Warriors, intercepting a pass from Marion quarterback Zac Robson near midfield to halt any plans of scoring off the Garden Plain turnover.
Instead, the Owls marched downfield and Dylan Clark dashed in for the 27-yard touchdown run with just over five minutes left in the first quarter.
After a Marion three-and-out, Garden Plain pounded the ball up the middle and took advantage of a Warrior facemask penalty to put together a 58-yard touchdown drive, capped by another scoring scramble from Clark with 12 seconds left in the quarter.
The undersized Warrior defense could find no answer for the Owls in the second quarter. Garden Plain took over on downs at its 31-yard line and then scored when Ethan Balestracci scooted in from five yards for 21-0 lead with at 6:08 left in the half.
“Defensively, our inside wore down a little bit because we didn’t stop them at all,” Thierolf said. “They’re running 200- to 300-pounders and their quarterback’s 200 pounds, and they just run a lot of big people at you.”
Robson and senior running back Brody Carroll teamed up on the Warriors’ next possession to spark a drive that ended with points on the board.
Carroll returned the kickoff to the Marion 37, and moments crossed midfield to the Garden Plain 44-yard line.
Then Robson took over, shooting the gap to the Owl 28. The Warriors then pulled out a trick play used earlier in the season with great success. Robson pitched the ball to running back Caleb Williams, who reversed and threw a lateral it to wide receiver Jacob Harper.
Putting his baseball pitching arm to good use, Harper lofted the ball 26 yards into the waiting hands of James Jones for Marion’s first score at the 3:34 mark. An extra point from Grif Case made it 21-7.
But the Owls had an answer.
On second down, Garden Plain quarterback Caleb Arnold eluded the Warrior defense and ran 70 yards for a touchdown with 2:30 remaining in the half.
Robson and Carroll once more joined forces to gain yards on the ground as the clock wound down and benefited from a pass-interference call.
On a second-and-5, Robson hit Harper with a strike in the middle of the end zone for the score with 8 seconds left. The Warriors went into the locker room trailing, 28-14.
Unfortunately for Marion, the Owls came out in the second half and played lights-out.
Shutting down the Warriors with a three-and-out on their first possession, Garden Plain scored just four minutes into the third period on a Balestracci run.
“The second half, they just came out and dictated things and wore us down,” Thierolf said. “Good teams do that.”
The Warriors drove into Garden Plain territory, but an interception on the Owl 10-yard line set up another Garden Plain score.
Fullback Denver Doyle pounded away at the Marion defense and Balestracci sealed the deal with a two-yard scramble to make it 42-14 margin with two minutes left in the quarter.
Robson ran for four first downs in the ensuing possession, but a dropped handoff on a fourth-and-goal with 10 minutes left robbed the Warriors of the score.
Garden Plain scored the final points minutes later when Arnold completed a long pass to Michael Panek on Marion’s 32-yard line to set up a seven-yard touchdown run by Doyle at 8:54.
Robson spearheaded Marion’s the offensive effort, completing three passes for 15 yards and a touchdown, as well as rushing for 145 yards on 24 carries.
“I thought Zac Robson played a great ball game,” Thierolf said. “That’s a tough thing to come in and be expected to guide a team that had been moving the ball very well (under injured quarterback Taylor Heidebrecht).”
Backing up Robson was Carroll with 61 yards on 11 carries. Harper had three catches for 15 yards and a touchdown, as well as completing a 26-yard pass to Jones for a score.
“We just appreciate the heck out of our 11 seniors and how hard they worked,” Thierolf said.
“They came a long way from being a junior-high team that didn’t win a game to being pretty competitive in our league and in our area.”