EL DORADO — Down by one point, under two minutes left, and no timeouts remaining to stop the clock.
That was the bad news for the West defense as they took the field with 1:48 remaining in the Shrine Bowl on Saturday, but the good news was East was backed up on its own 4-yard line. And West coach Marc Marinelli had given them the license to sell out.
“We were either going to make a play or they were going to break one,” Marinelli said. “But either way, we were going to force something to happen.”
Three plunges forward would have likely been enough to drain the clock to effectively end the game, but the East team hadn’t taken a single snap under center and they weren’t about to start on the final series.
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So on the first play, quarterback Brandon Mlekus (Frontenac) took the snap four yards behind the line of scrimmage in the shotgun and was immediately pummeled — first by Peerlus Walker (Derby), then by a host of others. He barely escaped a safety, making it out to the half-yard line.
On the second play, Mlekus once again lined up in the shotgun and the West team once again sent eight defenders streaking at him. This time, the snap was wide of Mlekus. He scooped the ball off the turf and tried to find an escape out of the left corner of the end zone, but Zach Helbing (Mulvane) and Tanner Orand (Eisenhower) foiled those plans.
Somehow, some way, the West side had conjured the safety it needed with exactly 60 seconds left on the clock to produce a 22-21 victory at BG Products Veterans Stadium in El Dorado and one of the wildest endings in Shrine Bowl history. It was the first win by the West team since 2014.
“We needed to make a play and I thought about the (Shriner) kids, so I knew I had to step up and make that play to win the game for my team,” Orand said. “Couldn’t have done it without everybody doing their part. Winning the game on a safety like that was definitely the highlight of my high school career.”
The safety set off a raucous celebration on the West sideline, as players and coaches alike chest-bumped, high-fived, and screamed in celebration of their improbable path to victory.
“We told them all week to play to the whistle,” Marinelli said. “That’s exactly what they did.”
The play sealed a MVP-performance from Helbing, who also intercepted a pass in the first quarter and registered eight tackles in front of his soon-to-be coaches at Butler.
“You can’t even really imagine winning a game like that, let alone actually doing it out there,” Helbing said. “That was an amazing one, for sure.”
Another future Grizzly who excelled was Derby’s Peerlus Walker, who finished with two sacks and seven tackles.
“I don’t think people understand how great of an athlete that guy is,” Marinelli said. “There was one play where we dropped him back into coverage on a zone blitz and he actually made the tackle on the screen pass. He’s somebody you always have to account for.”
“It felt good playing here on my future home turf,” Walker added. “I just wanted to play good and I felt like I did that. It felt good putting the pads on one last time before college.”
For others, the game offered players a chance to rewrite the ending to their high school careers.
“I didn’t get to end my high school career the way I wanted to with a loss to Collegiate, so to be able to end it this way with a win felt pretty good,” said Trinity lineman Ben Adler, who will play at Kansas State. “It was like a roller coaster of emotions. I’ll remember it the rest of my life.”
Bishop Carroll’s Sam Nance will also remember Saturday and the past week for the rest of his life. It was a special night for him, as he put on the pads and helmet for the final time in his career. In August, Nance will attend Kansas State — just as a student.
“It’s sad taking that thing off for the last time, but I won’t ever forget this experience,” Nance said. “I came into this thinking it was just an all-star game, but then I realized it really is more than a game. It was breath-taking that this was my last game on the biggest stage and to win like we did. I’ll never forget it.”
W—Kaden Davis 41 pass from Jacob Murray (run failed)
W—Zach Esau 1 run (Ben Murray pass from Esau)
E—Cuttar Huss 18 pass from Dalton Cowan (Bryce Steffens kick)
E—JJ Letcher 73 run (Steffens kick)
E—Brandon Mlekus 3 run (Steffens kick)
W—Dylan Foos 7 pass from Esau (run failed)
W—Safety (Mlekus tackled in end zone by Zach Helbin, Tanner Orand)
Rushing—West: Kody Gonzalez 16-64, Jacob Murray 10-40, Ethan Richardson 3-25, Zach Esau 4-6, Peyton Hill 3-4, Team 1-(-2), Layke Heimerman 1-(-9). East: JJ Letcher 2-75, Corey Thomas 7-49, Brandon Mlekus 19-36, Dalton Cowan 7-8, Hunter Browning 1-2, Tomas Stringer 2-0.
Passing—West: Jacob Murray 10-18-1-132, Zach Esau 5-12-1-85, Ethan Richardson 2-4-2-20. East: Brandon Mlekus 10-17-1-98, Dalton Cowan 5-10-0-36.
Receiving—West: Dylan Foos 6-59, Kaden Davis 5-95, Jack Reifschneider 3-38, Kody Gonzalez 2-46, Jovon Baldwin 1-(-1). East: Corey Thomas 5-32, JJ Letcher 3-39, Cuttar Huss 2-39, Kamaren Wilson 2-13, Tomas Stringer 1-16, Greg Martin 1-(-1), Hunter Browning 1-(-4).