Kickoff returns doom Pirates:
Belgrade returns two for scores in quarterfinal win over Polson
POLSON – There was only one problem with Polson’s Tim Rausch powering into the end zone from a yard out with just over 2 1/2 minutes to play in Saturday’s State A football quarterfinal, helping the Pirates regain the lead against Belgrade.
It meant they had to kick off to the Panthers.
Matt Thibault, who had returned a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, took this one 92 yards for the winning score as Belgrade knocked off the fourth-ranked Pirates, 18-16.
“The kid had two great plays,” said Polson coach Scott Wilson, whose team had an eight-game winning streak snapped and finished 8-2. “He’s a great athlete, give him credit. I knew going in we’d have to contain their special teams, and I didn’t prepare our kids well enough.”
Belgrade, now 7-4, advances to a semifinal showdown Saturday at undefeated Billings Central, which improved to 10-0 after edging Dillon 7-3 in another quarterfinal.
Thibault’s two huge kickoff returns notwithstanding, Polson played an inspired game as both teams alternately battled, and tried to take advantage of, unrelenting 35 mph winds out of the south.
The Pirates – already without injured defensive back Trae Fouty – overcame the loss of their starting center, Riley Grogan, who broke a hand earlier in the week while rough-housing with a younger brother, and starting quarterback Vince DiGiallonardo, who suffered a concussion in the first quarter.
They survived some bad snaps between backup center Alex Havlovick and DiGiallanardo’s replacement, Kyle Bagnell. Belgrade’s offense never entered the end zone against the Pirate defense, even after one snap that sailed over Bagnell’s head gave the Panthers a first-and-goal at the 2-yard-line in the second quarter.
But the Panthers were momentum-changers of the highest order, and their defense stepped up after a bizarre kickoff of their own.
Rausch, who took a screen pass from Bagnell and scooted 57 yards to the 5 yard-line to set up his go-ahead score, had given Polson a 16-12 lead with 2:34 to go.
Thibault’s 92-yard return followed. He caught the kickoff – about the only one Polson didn’t squib-kick – and headed west, faked a handoff, and hid the ball behind his thigh with his right hand as he ran toward the sidelines.
Then he tucked the ball in and turned up field, evading several Polson tacklers and eventually outrunning the last two.
There was still 2:17 remaining after Thibault’s second touchdown.
Kicking off into the stiff wind, Belgrade’s kicker appeared to not contact the ball as well as he would have liked, and it flew high but not far – only about 8 yards – where another Panther grabbed it out of the air and fell forward just past the 50-yard-line.
After much discussion, officials ruled the ball had been illegally touched before traveling the required 10 yards. Belgrade was penalized 15 yards, and Polson had the ball on the 35, the wind at its back, needing just a field goal to win.
The Pirates gained only 4 yards on three plays, then got a big break when Belgrade was called for being offside on fourth-and-6.
But on fourth-and-1, the Panthers stopped Rausch about an inch from a first down with just over a minute left.
Polson got huge gains on the first plays of its first two drives. Joe Andrews scampered 49 yards on the Pirates’ first play from scrimmage, setting up his own 7-yard touchdown run.
Then, after Bagnell intercepted Thibault, Rausch scooted 45 yards to set up a 32-yard field goal by Bagnell that gave the Pirates a 10-0 lead.
Thibault returned the ensuing kickoff 84 yards for his first TD, and Kyle Hunter’s 25-yard field goal – after Belgrade couldn’t take advantage of that first-and-goal on the 2 – cut the lead to 10-9 at the half.
A 30-yard field goal by Hunter with 4:41 to go in the third quarter gave the Panthers their first lead, 12-10.
Both Andrews and Rausch had 100-plus-yard days, with Andrews carrying 21 times for 109 yards and Rausch getting 103 on 18 carries. Subbing for the injured DiGiallonardo, Bagnell was 4-for-7 passing for 84 yards and one interception.
The Pirate defense made Belgrade far less effective. Thibault was 4-for-11 for 38 yards with a pick, although he gained 60 yards on eight carries. The Panthers’ leading rusher this season, Ryan Guenther, was held to 54 yards on 19 carries.
“Our defense was outstanding,” Wilson said, “even after we put them in a couple of tough spots. We had one punt into the wind (that only went 12 yards) and that fumble that gave them a first-and-goal on the 2, and they only got a field goal out of it. I was really pleased with how our defense made big stops.”
But the Pirates couldn’t contain Thibault on the two kickoff returns, and that made all the difference for Belgrade.
Belgrade 6 3 3 6 – 18
Polson 10 0 0 6 – 16
P – Joe Andrews 7 run (Kyle Bagnell kick), 5:53
P – FG Bagnell 32, 0:43
B – Matt Thibault 84 kickoff return (kick failed), 0:24
B – FG Kyle Hunter 25, 5:11
B – FG Hunter 31, 4:41
P – Tim Rausch 1 run (pass failed), 2:34
B – Thibault 92 kickoff return (kick failed), 2:17�