KEARNEY, Neb. - Midway through the third quarter of Saturday's Shrine Bowl, receiver Nate Rogers of South Sioux City got behind the South defense and North quarterback Zach Martin lofted a perfect pass down the field to him. The ball slipped through Rogers' hands, robbing the North of a sure touchdown and kept the score locked at 3-3.
But Rogers would get his shot at redemption. With 10:40 remaining in the game, Isaac Aakre found the 6-foot-4 receiver with a back shoulder fade from 21 yards out to score the game's only touchdown and give the North a 9-3 victory.
"I dropped a couple ones before, but I knew they would come back to me," Rogers said. "Scoring there in the end took the weight off my shoulders."
The touchdown was one of the few displays of offense during the contest. The teams combined for 422 yards, only 114 of which came from the South. The North lost a pair of fumbles in the first half and the South threw a trio of interceptions in the second half.
The South team got on the board first, turning an Aakre fumble in the first quarter into a 25-yard field goal by Zach Decker. Aakre appeared to make up for the miscue in the second quarter when he found the end zone on a scramble, but a holding penalty negated the score. Nebraska walk-on Jordan Bellar missed the subsequent 37-yard field goal.
Bellar would get another chance a few minutes later. The North got the ball on its own nine-yard line with 4:47 left in the half and marched down to the South 16 in 14 plays, the biggest of which was a 39-yard pass to Rogers. Bellar connected on the 33-yard field goal to tie the game.
The score didn't change until Rogers' touchdown on the first possession of the final frame. The South passing game couldn't get any kind of chemistry going, as Luke McNitt and Najee Jackson combined to complete just six of their 20 passes and were picked off three times.
"I was very proud of our defense," North coach Mike Johnson said. "They played super."
But the South had a chance on its last drive. On third down from the North's 49-yard line, McNitt fired a pass to a wide open Tra-Deon Hollins, but the Central wideout dropped what likely would have been a touchdown. Tyler Wrice dropped another pass on the next play and the North ran out the clock from there.
The game ultimately came down to Rogers' touchdown catch. Johnson said he wanted to get the ball to the lanky receiver more often, but what Rogers did give them ended up being enough. The team had a plan when it got near the end zone and executed it to perfection.
"Get the tall man the ball," Aakre said.
- Dan Hoppen
Kavan steps up to the challenge
When Wahoo running back Tyler Kavan first arrived for the start of Shrine Bowl practice for the North team last weekend, he was admittedly a little unsure how he would measure up with some of the best players in the state from much bigger schools.
When all was said and done on Saturday, though, Kavan walked away as one of the best players on the University of Nebraska-Kearney field.
Rushing 14 times for a game-high 102 yards - 42 yards more than any other player - to help lead the North squad to victory, Kavan was deservingly awarded the game's Offensive Most Valuable Player. He also had three catches for 23 yards to end up with a game-high 125 all-purpose yards.
"It feels good, coming from a small school," Kavan said. "I was hoping to play with these guys and prove myself, and we came out and the o-line played great. I had some holes to run through, and it just feels great."
The only blemish on Kavan's otherwise great day was a fumble he committed in the first half, which the South team recovered. Kavan said he told his North teammates he would do everything in his power to make up for his mistake, and he certainly made everyone forget about it with his MVP performance.
"I usually don't fumble much," Kavan said. "I think I only had two all season, but they just kind of came across and hit me. I've got to have better ball security. I went back and told them I was sorry for it, and that since I fumbled, I had to make it up."
With his high school career now officially in the books, Kavan can now shift his full attention to the next step in his career at Morningside (Iowa) College. After earning two all-state selections and now a Shrine Bowl MVP award, there couldn't have been a much better ending.
"This is as good as it gets," Kavan said. "I really couldn't picture it ending any other way. It's just perfect."
- Robin Washut
Bazata proves his point
When Howells-Dodge defensive tackle Nathan Bazata accepted his invitation to play in the Shrine Bowl, he wanted to prove a point that 8-man players were more than capable of holding their own at the traditional 11-man level. He also wanted to show Nebraska's coaches what they missed out on by not offering him a scholarship.
The Iowa commit accomplished both of those goals in a big way on Saturday, as he racked up five tackles and completely controlled the line of scrimmage all day for the South team on his way to earning Defensive MVP honors.
"I really didn't hear about it until after the game," Bazata said. "I was talking to someone and I heard my name called, and I asked, 'What was that?' I had no clue."
What made his performance even more impressive was the fact that the Shrine Bowl was actually Bazata's first ever 11-man game.
"It was really no different than eight-man, just three more guys," Bazata said. "Same contact. I know a few kids were like, 'Oh, you're 8-man? What's that? How are you going to react when playing against the best?' I took that to heart, and I really made sure that they knew how we play in eight-man. It was pretty cool."
Saturday was just the first of three all-star games Bazata will play in this spring. Next weekend he is set to play in the Northeast Nebraska All-Star Football Classic in Norfolk, Neb., and the next weekend he'll play in the Nebraska-Kansas 8-man All-Star Game in Crete, Neb.
Even though he suffered a shoulder stinger in the second half that had his entire right arm go numb for a few minutes, Bazata said the way he and the North defense were able to keep the team in control for four quarters was a perfect way to cap off the first of many more 11-man games to come in his career.
"It was awesome," Bazata said. "The offense did great, but just had a little bit of mistakes. So did the defense. The defense had some mistakes too. But we came back and we were able to play better in the second half and get some points on the board. It was awesome."
- Robin Washut
***The estimated attendance for the game was listed at just about 6,100, which is close to capacity for UNK's stadium. To put that total in perspective, there were only a little less than 4,000 fans counted at last year's Shrine Bowl at Memorial Stadium.
***Offense was definitely tough to come by for both teams, as 25-30 mph winds kept the ball on the ground for much of the game. While the North team was able to rack up 308 yards of total offense, the South team managed just 114 total yards. Neither team passed for more than 100 yards, as there were only a combined 14 completions.
***The Nebraska walk-ons had relatively quiet games. Waverly's Erik Evans had the best performance of the group, finishing with seven tackles and a tackle for loss. It was a rough day for kicker/punter Jordan Beller, as he missed a 27-yard field goal in the first quarter and then an extra point after the game's only touchdown, and also had a 13-yard punt. Bellar did make a 36-yarder as time expired at the end of the first half.