Too little, too late: Comeback falls short; Fisher’s season ends in second round of 1A playoffs

ARGENTA — Eyes beet red. Tears streaming down faces. Cheeks puffy. Heads shaking.

As they walked off the field for the final time after a historic season, emotion pounded every member of the Fisher football team following a 44-23 loss to Argenta-Oreana in the second round of the Class 1A playoffs.

The No. 8 seed Bunnies (8-3), gunning for the program’s second-ever quarterfinals appearance 13 years after its lone trip to the third round, clawed their way back after a 28-7 halftime deficit to pull within 36-23 in the fourth quarter against the No. 1 seed Bombers (11-0).

Fisher coach Jake Palmer called an onside kick to begin the third quarter, which Fisher recovered, and quarterback Will Delaney hit Cory Hicks for a 3-yard touchdown following a key 43-yard connection to receiver Tyler Martin on fourth down.

Another onside kick followed, but the Bombers recovered, despite the ball hitting their front man and briefly being in the hands of a Fisher special teamer. Bombers QB Josh Williams’ 12-yard run gave them a 36-14 edge, but the Bunnies grabbed momentum back immediately.

Delaney pinned A-O down at the 1-yard line on a punt — after a penalty wiped away a 48-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Wilson on a fake punt — and the Bunnies defense netted a safety. Wilson’s long return on the free kick set up Delaney’s 29-yard touchdown pass to Martin (106 yards, two TDs on five receptions) to cut the deficit to 13 in the third period.

Fisher senior Tanner Diorio busted through the A-O offensive line for a monster sack that helped force a punt to open the fourth quarter, and Fisher took over at the 50-yard line.

Momentum shifted. Players believed. Fans bought in.

There was a chance.

“We were feeling really good where we were at, and we felt like we had momentum,” Palmer said. “We felt our kids just scrapped and fought the whole game. We think a lot of teams would’ve folded and given up. It’s just a credit to our kids, especially our seniors. That’s a pretty amazing group with their effort and toughness over the course of our season.”

But the Bombers’ defense stood tall. They came up with back-to-back tackles-for-loss, with star Makail Stanley speeding past the Fisher line and blowing up a third-down handoff to Wilson.

Stanley was a game-breaker on the edge for A-O all game. The junior broke through the Bunnies’ offensive line for several key stops in the backfield, including back-to-back sacks to end the first half inside the A-O 30-yard line.

 “He’s big,” Bombers coach Steve Kirk said of Stanley. “He made several big plays for us that I think turned the momentum back our way after it had stalled for a little bit. He was huge for us today.”

The Bombers got the ball back after Stanley’s third-down stop, and they put the game away with a 27-yard rushing score by Makhi Stanley with less than six minutes remaining. On the previous two plays, the running back recovered a fumble on a quarterback-running back exchange that would have given Fisher the ball at midfield, and then he converted a 3rd-and-13 on a 25-yard run.

“Just those 50/50 things where the ball could bounce one way, but it bounces the other way,” Palmer said. “I thought today it just didn’t bounce our way. That’s nothing you can control. All you can do is play your tail off, and I thought our kids did that. I thought our kids really competed hard for four quarters.”

Argenta-Oreana, meanwhile, is headed to the state quarterfinals for the first time since 2003.

But even after a victory that sent his team to the third round for the seventh time in program history, Kirk, a Rantoul alum, kept the postgame celebration brief. He broke his team out on its home turf after less than a minute of having it huddled up.  

His message? It’s already on to the next one.

“We’re excited with the win, but we’ve got to play next week and be ready to go,” Kirk said. “We’ve got to improve this week and be ready to go next Saturday.”

The Bombers, who will travel to face No. 13 Central A&M (8-3) on Saturday, won’t have to improve much in the run game moving forward.

They gashed Fisher for 308 yards rushing (418 yards of total offense) while allowing just 76 rushing yards, forcing 10 negative runs. The Bombers held the area’s third-leading rusher Wilson —1,472 yards and 26 TDs entering the game — to just 22 yards on 18 carries.

“Their option attack is tough to stop when you’re dealing with 17-year-old kids reading their keys, and staying disciplined is always a worry against an option offense,” Kirk said. “Just making sure we stayed disciplined was our main focus.”

Leading the Bombers on offense were Williams (152 yards rushing, two TDs on 20 carries; 110 yards, one TD on 11 of 15 passing) and Makhi Stanley (148 yards rushing, four TDs on 17 carries). Each broke several tackles and showcased their speed on the perimeter and their burst up the middle, making plays in the game’s biggest moments.

“They have so many skill kids that you can’t just key in on one,” Palmer said. “They have a three-headed monster in the backfield, and it’s tough to try and contain them. They did a great job making plays in those critical situations. We were right there and had opportunities, but we just couldn’t finish the play.”

Delaney (169 yards, two TDs and one interception on 13 of 19 passing; 53 yards rushing, one TD on 14 carries) ran for a 40-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive, but A-O scored four consecutive touchdowns to take control — 19-yard run by Makhi Stanley; 27-yard run by Williams; 15-yard pass from Williams to Makail Stanley on a jet-motion quick pitch; 23-yard run by Makhi Stanley.

The Bunnies were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way, ending a year for a team that was the second in school history to win a postseason game and tied the program record for wins in a season.

“I hope it’s a step in the right direction for us as a program and for us as a football school,” Palmer said. “It’s really hard to win in the playoffs. To be able to win in the first round and come out and compete against an excellent football team, it says a lot about how far we’ve come in the last three years since I’ve been here, and I give all the credit to the kids. They’re the ones putting the work in and doing everything we ask them to do.

“That senior class is special with how hard they play and doing everything we ask them to do. We couldn’t ask anything more from our kids, from the guys who played four years to the ones who played one year. I just can’t say enough about their toughness and resilience throughout the course of this season and over the course of their careers.”

Contact Zack Carpenter at zcarpenter@rantoulpress.com and on Twitter @ZackCarpenter11.

Categories (3):Prep Sports, Football, Sports

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