New London has fallen
Rebels roll in postseason opener
Gladbrook-Reinbeck football coach John Olson knew his star players like Isaac Clark, Luke Riffey and Austin Vaverka would get their well-deserved accolades after Friday night’s 46-14 eight-man playoff opening win over New London at The Pit, but he instead chose to give the credit to a few of his team’s unsung heroes, from his interior linemen to his defensive coaches all the way down to the scout team.
“You’ve got Henry Mussig in front of (the skill position players). You’ve got Luke Sienknecht, and you’ve got Michael Boyd, but the glue of all that is Drew Eilers,” Olson said. “Drew Eilers is a guy who’s gonna block every single play. He’s gonna do everything — a little bit like Colton Dinsdale was for us. You remember that name, and that’s rare air a little bit to compare somebody to that guy who’s only a sophomore… (Eilers) is kind of our glue guy.”
The seventh-ranked Rebels (8-1) exploded for 405 yards of total offense and nabbed three defensive takeaways, pulling away from the Tigers (6-4) in the second quarter and coasting to the blowout victory despite New London scoring a late touchdown to interrupt the 35-point continuous clock rule. It was a bit of sweet revenge for Olson, who faced the eventual state champion Tigers in G-R’s first ever eight-man playoff game back in 2018 and suffered a tough loss after an explosive performance from running back Keontae Luckett.
“The only reason I think about that game coming in tonight (is) same coach on the sideline, and same team you never play,” Olson said. “So that’s the only memory we have.”
G-R struck first early in the opening frame with their longest offensive drive of the night, a 10 play, 68 yarder that ate up over four minutes of clock — including a key pass to Vaverka and an 18-yard Clark run — and culminated in a Riffey jet sweep touchdown run from two yards out on a third and goal. After a failed two-point conversion attempt, the Rebels led 6-0.
New London quickly struck back, however, when running back Blaise Porter wiggled his way loose and ran across the field for a 58-yard score, and he added a two-point conversion to give his team an 8-6 lead, the only advantage they would hold all night.
Vaverka, playing in his first postseason game since a blowout loss during his freshman year at GMG, responded when he took a handoff to the left and broke free for 48 yards to the New London 10. After the game, he recalled the stark difference between Friday night and the mood a year ago when the Rebels lost their playoff opener.
“Last year, I didn’t get to play (after transferring), but I still watched everyone cry after the first game. It’s just awesome to see people happy,” Vaverka said.
A face mask penalty on the next play moved the Rebels down to the four, and Clark called his own number on a keeper to retake the lead. After a Hudson Clark two-point run, the Rebels went up 14-8 midway through the first quarter.
The competing teams traded fruitless drives over the rest of the opening frame. The Rebels appeared poised to add to the lead early in the second quarter after Vaverka broke a 36-yard run down to the New London 11-yard line, but G-R would ultimately squander the opportunity on a fumbled handoff that senior defensive lineman Trent Wilkerson recovered in what seemed to be a huge momentum swing for the Tigers.
The short lived boost was interrupted when the Rebel defense made a huge play of its own: Riffey intercepted a tipped Dom Lopez pass near midfield and reclaimed possession for his team.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of eight-man teams that really focus on defense as much as we do, and I’m not at every practice so I don’t want to say to say that about every team. But I know what we do on defense,” Olson said.
G-R got down to the New London 11, but a stuffed screen pass and a blindside block penalty pushed the Rebels all the way back to the 33-yard line. They punted from there.
Once again, it was the defense that provided a much-needed spark as senior Caleb Egesdal picked off a Lopez deep ball and gave the Rebels the ball at their own 32-yard line. Facing fourth and three at its own 39, G-R was able to make lemonade out of lemons on a play where the ball appeared to be prematurely snapped to avoid a delay of game. Clark found Egesdal on a short pass, and he was able to maneuver his way to the New London 31-yard line.
On the next play, Clark broke a 26-yard run to set up first and goal, and two plays later, Riffey took another jet sweep into the end zone to push the lead to 22-8 after the two-point conversion.
Senior running back Boden Pickle made a key play for the Tigers when he walked the tightrope along the right sideline and ended up gaining 37 yards in the process, but offensive penalties derailed the potential New London scoring drive — ending in a Lopez prayer to the end zone that fell incomplete.
With 35 seconds to go before the half, the Rebels opted to take a chance at more points, and the gamble paid off. On the first play, Isaac Clark just missed on a bomb to Egesdal, but the second time was the charm as he found a streaking Riffey over the middle. After the receiver briefly juggled the pass, he regained control and emphatically sprinted into the end zone to push the game into blowout territory before halftime at 30-8.
G-R stayed in control throughout the second half and pulled off perhaps the play of the night in the third quarter when Riffey caught an Isaac Clark pass and made the lateral to a streaking Vaverka, who ran down the sideline for a 36-yard touchdown. A two-point pass to Hudson Clark made the score 38-8 in favor of the Rebels. After the game, Vaverka said they had only practiced the play a few times that week, and “half the time,” it was intercepted by a practice squad defender.
“It’s really fun. We work on stuff in practice, and it’s a lot of fun you know, trick plays and stuff. I mean, it’s a lot of fun to run,” Riffey said. “We executed it well, and it really got our sideline going too. So it was great.”
An eight-yard Isaac Clark run and Vaverka conversion made it 46-8 early in the fourth and triggered the continuous clock rule, but New London’s Reean Seberg punched in a three-yard touchdown to bring the Tigers back within the 35-point window about halfway through the quarter. Egesdal snagged one more interception to seal the victory for the Rebels, who were able to run out the clock and take a knee in front of their home crowd in Gladbrook.
Vaverka was the top individual rusher for G-R with 13 carries for 114 yards, and he also finished with three catches for 59 yards and a score. Isaac Clark ran 16 times for 96 yards and two touchdowns, and he also completed 10 of 20 passes for 148 yards and two scores.
The G-R defense made Lopez, who finished 4-of-11 with 17 yards and three interceptions, a non-factor in the passing game despite the fact that both Porter (10 carries, 120 yards, one touchdown) and Pickle (12 carries, 102 yards) went over the century mark on the ground.
“Our coaches do a really good job of preparing us. I think we have some of the best coaches in the state, and I mean, we work all week on defense and we just go, go go, eight guys to the ball, and I really think that helped us tonight,” Isaac Clark said.
The Rebels will travel to Jackson Junction this Friday to take on Turkey Valley (7-1) in the Eight-Player Round of 16 Playoffs.