HUMPHREY — Before he was the coach of the Kenesaw Blue Devils, Craig Schnitzler quarterbacked the 1981 Battle Creek Braves to a 17-14 win over David City Aquinas to win the Class C-1 state championship. He also kicked a field goal and both extra points for good measure.
Exactly 40 years later and 30 miles south, Schnitzler kept the winning ways going, this time leading the Blue Devils to a 70-40 win over Humphrey St. Francis on Friday night in the quarterfinals of the Nebraska Class D-2 football playoffs.
Leading up to and during the game, he was able to use that moment to teach his boys the mindset it takes to win a state title, like being able to get better each day they came to practice.
“I just kept preaching that to the kids tonight and throughout the season that we’ve got to continue to get better if we want to get to Lincoln,” Schnitzler said.
Kenesaw has made it to the finals once in 1990 and finished as a runner-up. Its last trip to the semifinals came in 2011.
The Flyers struck first with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Pfeifer to Jaden Kosch following a turnover on downs by Kenesaw. To open the game. However, Tyson Denkert returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, then ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Both teams scored on their next drives in very similar fashion, with Pfeifer finding Kosch for another score and Denkert finding the endzone on a 10-yard touchdown run. However, the Flyers were held out of the endzone on the two-point conversion while the Blue Devils converted, giving them a 16-14 lead with two minutes, 13 seconds left in the first quarter.
Kenesaw would score eight points on each of their next four possessions, all of which came on either a pass or a run from Denkert. Pfeifer did find Kosch for a third time, but the Blue Devils still led 46-20 at halftime.
St. Francis opened up the second half with an eight-play, 52-yard touchdown drive, then recovered an onside kick and scored another touchdown to make it a 12-point game with 2:54 left in the third quarter.
The Blue Devils had fourth and two at the Flyers’ 32-yard line on their ensuing drive. Denkert took the snap out of the shotgun, bounced out to his left and took it to the house for what would end up being the dagger.
Denkert led the Blue Devils on the ground with 40 carries for 331 yards and six touchdowns. He also completed four of his six passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
The last time Kenesaw had made it this far, Denkert was in the second grade. Now he has them one win away from the state championship game.
“I love these guys. Everything that we’ve gone through together,” he said. “We get punched in the face, we get back up and we go and fight for each other. It’s just great.”
Humphrey St. Francis coach Eric Kessler didn’t want to get into a shootout with Kennesaw, because even when you think you’ve done enough to keep up, they prove you wrong.
“If you would have told me we would score 40 points, I thought we might be in good shape,” Kessler said. “But you can’t win a shootout with them.
“We just weren’t able to get key stops at key times and credit to them. They’re well coached, they’ve got good players and they were just better than us tonight.”
The Flyers complete their season 10-1, something that Kessler didn’t expect at the onset of the year.
“If you would’ve told me before the year we’d be 10-1, I would’ve probably not believed it,” he said. “These kids did a lot being district champs and some of the adversity we overcame this year and I’m extremely proud of them.”
Pfeifer, along with Tristen Classen, Colten Wietfeld and Spencer Engel — who did not play due to a leg injury — make up a group of seniors that went 42-4 in their time at St. Francis, including a state championship in 2019.
“Extremely proud of our seniors and what they’ve done in their four years,” Kessler said. “It hurts right now, but we’ll have fond memories down the road.”
Kenesaw will face defending Class D-2 champion Bruning-Davenport/Shickley next Friday for a spot in the state championship game.
Kenesaw…………….16 30 0 24 — 70
HSF……………….……14 6 14 6 — 40
HSF — Jaden Kosch 35 pass from Tanner Pfeifer (Kosch pass from Pfeifer) 7:20.
K — Tyson Denkert kick return (Denkert run) 7:07.
HSF — Kosch 17 pass from Pfeifer (PAT failed) 5:30.
K — Denkert 10 run (Denkert run) 2:13.
K — Denkert 30 run (PAT failed) 9:38.
K — Joel Katzberg 14 pass from Denkert (Denkert run) 4:00.
HSF — Kosch 49 pass from Pfeifer (PAT failed) 3:40.
K — Lane Kelley 40 pass form Denkert (Denkert run) 1:46.
K — Denkert 65 run (Trey Kennedy run) 0:00.
HSF— Pfeifer 6 run (PAT failed) 8:00.
HSF — Pfeifer 1 run (Mason Geilenkirchen pass from Pfeifer) 2:54.
K — Denkert 32 run (Denkert run) 10:55.
K — Denkert 7 run (Kennedy run) 7:58.
HSF — Kosch 13 pass from Pfeifer (PAT failed) 4:24.
K — Denkert 10 run (Kennedy run) 1:35.