BELLEVUE — Keystone coach Rob Clarico had everything he wanted, but his Wildcats couldn’t make one final play.
Bellevue was able to stop a pair of late Keystone drives, one that would have given the Wildcats the lead and one that would have given them a chance to tie, to pull out a tight 40-32 Division IV playoff football win at First National Bank Field.
A 19-yard C.J. Conrad touchdown reception pulled Keystone within 34-32 with 6:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The Wildcats’ 2-point conversion attempt failed, but after holding Bellevue to a three-and-out, Keystone got the ball back at its own 40-yard line with three timeouts in its pocket and 3:46 left in the game.
Austin Conrad rushed for 14 yards on second-and-12 to move the ball into Redmen territory, but three plays gained just 1 yard, forcing the Wildcats to go for it on fourth-and-9.
Junior Chase Gore broke into the Keystone backfield to sack quarterback Denny Szalai, giving Bellevue the ball back and seemingly ending the game.
However, sophomore Alec Foos scored on a 44-yard run, and when C.J. Conrad stuffed the 2-point conversion attempt the Wildcats had new life.
Keystone (8-3) moved the ball into Bellevue territory, but Szalai’s fourth-down pass to Conrad fell short.
“A lot of times teams making their first trip to the playoffs travel out west and it’s not pretty,” Clarico said. “We played well for four quarters and came within a hair of winning the game. Then we had a chance at the end to go down there and maybe tie it. I couldn’t be more proud of them. I thought this was the best game we played all year.”
C.J. Conrad, a University of Kentucky recruit, had a dominant performance. He ended the game with 13 tackles and a pair of sacks from his defensive end position, and caught nine passes for 114 yards and a touchdown.
“I thought C.J. played like a man on both sides of the ball,” Clarico said. “I think he was unblockable as a defensive end and they were holding him on practically every play. He still made a ton of plays.”
After Keystone opened the game with four passes to Conrad, Bellevue (9-2) made a defensive adjustment to take the short pass away. In the second half, the Wildcats found another play that worked.
“I was a little tired, I ain’t gonna lie,” Conrad said. “They started bracket covering me after I caught a couple early on. Finally we found a play, that Y-Stick, that crossed the defense up a little bit. And (Tyler) Polen was running like a man possessed. That really opened me up in the second half because they started to focus on him.”
In fact, Clarico it was that play that was taken away from his team in a critical situation.
“I think he got tackled on that last play, when it was fourth down and we ran that Y-Stick play,” Clarico said of Conrad on fourth down before Bellevue’s final touchdown. “Three people tackled him when we were throwing him the ball and there wasn’t a penalty called. That’s just what happens in football. It’s all part of the game but that’s the way (Bellevue) had to stop him tonight.”
Polen ended the game with 163 yards on 22 carries with a pair of touchdowns.
“Tyler’s a man,” Clarico said. “He’s been the focus of our offense all year, he has great vision and runs really low to the ground with power. The offensive line did a great job of opening up some holes for him and he really kept all of our drives alive.”
The Redmen rolled up 406 yards of offense. Freshman Bryce Ray rushed for 139 yards on 14 carries while Foos added 100 on 16 carries. Senior quarterback Triston Snezek threw for 231 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Still, the Wildcats had answers for nearly every Bellevue score.
“They competed all four quarters,” Clarico said of his team. “At halftime we talked about the Buckeye game, how we had the lead at halftime before struggling in the second half and Buckeye really took it to us. We said, ‘Let’s finish this,’ and I think they did.
“We played a great second half and either team could have won. It just wasn’t us this time. When you get in the tournament there’s only one team that’s going to win their last game, and it wasn’t us this time.”
Conrad, though disappointed, said he will remember this team forever.
“I love these guys,” he said. “Yeah, I’m moving on to the University of Kentucky, but playing with these guys, my brothers, will be the highlight of my career. I’m never going to forget this team and playing high school football with my best friends.
“I came out tonight and just didn’t want it to end. It’s unfortunate it did, but I just wanted to play for the person next to me. I thought we played well. We came up a little short but I couldn’t be more proud of our effort.”
Contact Mike Perry at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.