Willie Penamon put his hands to the side of his helmet and walked to the Fort Osage sidelines, where he collapsed into the arms of his teammates.
He had just caught his third pass in a hurry-up drive that took the Indians from their own 20 to the Kearney 8 with just 30.1 seconds left in Saturday's hard-fought Class 5 state quarterfinal game at Fort Osage.
As he attempted to pick up more yardage he was met by a host of Bulldog tacklers – one of whom stripped the ball away from the junior wide receiver to preserve a 13-9 Kearney victory.
The Bulldogs will meet Lee's Summit West next Saturday with the winner advancing to the Class 5 state championship in St. Louis.
A photo taken by a sideline photographer showed Penamon's knee was on the ground before the ball was stripped and many Fort Osage coaches, after seeing the photo on the sidelines, were vocal in wondering why officials let the play continue after his forward progress had been stopped.
But head coach Ryan Schartz, whose 11-1 team did not score an offensive touchdown against Kearney, was diplomatic, saying, “It's so frustrating. We thought his knee was down, we thought the play was over, but the officials didn't see it that way.
“That's a very good (11-1) Kearney team, and they scored 13 points on us in the fourth quarter to win the game. One play, one player did not lose this game. That's a tough way for a game to end, but Kearney had our number.”
He paused for a moment and actually managed a sad smile.
“I guess we should have played at Kearney, since the two times we've gone to state we've won (quarterfinals) at Raymore-Peculiar and Staley and our two losses were at home.”
An ankle injury to star running back Ezra Vaoifi also hampered the Indians’ offensive efforts.
“We lost Dalton (Krysa, the former all-time big-class leading rusher in state history) to a concussion against Raytown South, and today we lose Ezra to an ankle injury,” Schartz said. “I can't say enough about the way the kids played with Ezra on the sidelines. We tried to throw him a pass after he got hurt, and he couldn't even cut up field on that ankle.”
Fort Osage’s nine points came on a 5-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior linebacker Nathan Iloilo and a safety, when the Kearney center snapped the ball out of the end zone.
At halftime, trailing 9-0, Kearney coach Greg Jones gave the Indians the ball in the third quarter – with a 35 mph wind to their back – so his Bulldogs could have the wind in the fourth quarter.
The strategy worked to perfection.
“I knew we could score if we had the wind in the fourth quarter,” said Jones, who once had a young assistant on his staff named Ryan Schartz. “It was gamble, but the kids made it work.”
Kearney scored on Brock Broughton's 5-yard run with 11:03 left in the game and Dylan Weir's extra point cut the deficit to 9-7.
With 2:10 left in the game, Austin Hinck found Zach Davis on a 4-yard pass play to make it 13-9. A two-point run by Hinck was unsuccessful, and the Indians had the ball for the final drive.
“We gave it everything we had on that last drive and just came up short,” senior center Griffin Bledsoe said. “I love this team. I love my teammates. I am proud to be an Indian.”
Penamon left moments after the game ended, and the disappointed crowd of Fort Osage fans parted as he silently made his way to the parking lot. Through Twitter he thanked the fans and said he would keep his head held high.
“We all support Willie,” Iloilo said as he hugged his teammates goodbye in the locker room before heading home. “I wouldn't trade being an Indian for anything. We didn't want it to end like this, but give them some credit – they scored 13 in the fourth quarter.”
He paused, collected his thoughts, and added, “It was a great ride.”
Follow Bill Althaus on Twitter: @AlthausEJC