Homer punches ticket to state finals with win
Over the past few weeks, the Eielson Ravens turned in some outstanding second-half performances en route to rebounding from a stunning loss to Barrow and earning a berth in the Division III state playoffs.
On Saturday afternoon, in front a large crowd at Mariner Field, everyone got a chance to see just how explosive their offense can be when their backs were against the wall.
Of course, they also got to see the Homer Mariners do it just a little better.
Noah Fisk and Joe Ravin both came up with impressive scoring plays in the final seven minutes of play and helped power Homer to a resounding 33-21 victory over Eielson in the semifinal round of the Division III state football playoffs. The touchdowns by Fisk and Ravin enabled Homer to put down a Ravens' rally that had more than a few fans squirming in their seats.
Those two plays also vaulted the Mariners into the state football championship game for only the third time in HHS' history.
"This feels amazing," said Homer senior Teddy Croft. "Eielson has basically destroyed us for the past three years and we just beat them, and now we're headed to state. It's been a great year for us. There's been a lot of firsts. Now we just have to go finish what we started."
Homer certainly finished the two-time defending state champions with its fourth-quarter barrage.
The Ravens, who trailed by as much as three touchdowns, used a punishing ground game to fight its way back into the game in the second half. Trailing 21-7 midway through the third quarter, Eielson's defense managed to come up big with a stop that handed the Ravens the ball at their own 29. From there, they reeled off a 14-play drive that spanned more than seven minutes before Eielson quarterback Payton DeVaughn hit Jeramiah Brown with a short pass into the end zone on a fourth-and-goal play from the Homer 9.
Brown's reception pulled the Ravens to within 21-14 - and a possible third straight trip to the state finals with 9:47 left in the game.
Having given up touchdowns to Eielson on back-to-back possessions, Homer head coach Walter Love said he didn't give the team a pep talk between the change of possessions. He only told them it was time to perform. "I told them, if you want to be a champion then you have to play like one."
Inserting Dawson Felde under quarterback, the Mariners responded quickly. On the first play of their ensuing drive, Croft bolted around the left side for 16 yards and a first down at the HHS 46. Following a 9-yard run by Fisk, Croft struck again, this time running for 11 more yards and taking the ball to the Ravens' 34.
The drive looked as if it would stall, however. Homer was hit with back-to-back penalties on the next two plays and found itself facing a 2nd-and-23 situation.
Ravin took care of the problem from there. The senior wide receiver managed to work his way behind the Eielson defender on a fly route and turned a pass from Croft into a 46-yard touchdown play.
"We knew we had to score and answer them," said Croft, who completed four of his six passing attempts for 160 yards and two touchdowns. "That was probably the most important score of the game for us. That got us going again."
Ravin's second TD reception of the game put Homer up 27-14 with 7:02 left.
The Aurora Conference runner-up, Eielson answered the Mariners' blow with a punch of its own. The Ravens, aided by a deflected pass off an HHS defender that helped them move to the Mariner 17, roared back with a 8-play, 53-yard scoring drive. Junior Jiro Dobashi-Noa capped the drive by plowing into the end zone from a yard out.
Dobashi-Noa's score moved Eielson to within 27-21 with 3:22 left.
Fisk put the final nail in the Ravens' season moments later. With just over two minutes left in the game, the Mariners turned to the sophomore running back to grind out yards and run time off the clock. Facing a 2nd-and-7 from near midfield, Fisk did even better than that. He took a handoff from Croft and blasted through the first wave of defenders and then raced 42 yards for a touchdown.
"We were just going for the first down and Noah broke it open," said Croft. "He sealed the deal, really."
The Mariners, who rolled up 455 total yards in the affair, delivered three quick punches that rocked the Ravens early in the game. Homer scored on each of its first three possessions and built a stunning 21-0 victory.
Kyle Wells and Levi King helped the Homer defense force stand tall on the game's opening series. The Mariner defense dragged Brown down short of a first down on a 4th-and-4 play.
Fisk made the Ravens pay dearly for the turnover on downs. He capped an 8-play, 52-yard march by plunging into the end zone from two yards out. Cody Johnson's extra-point attempt put Homer on top, 7-0, with 5:41 left in the opening frame.
Ravin added to the Mariners' lead moments later. After the HHS defense had forced Eielson to turn the ball over on downs again on their second series, Fisk and Croft reeled off short runs that left Homer facing a 3rd-and-inches play.
During a timeout Love said he didn't think the Ravens were respecting the Mariners' ability to throw the ball when needed.
Football, for me, is a matter of respect. They were respecting that pass. They were bringing the whole house trying to bring pressure," he said. "I felt we could take advantage of that."
With the Ravens crowding the line of scrimmage, Croft took the snap from King, stepped back and rifled a pass down the visitor's sideline to Ravin, who had sneaked past the EHS corner. The end result was a 74-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 advantage.
Ravin finished the game with three receptions for 152 yards.
Homer wasn't finished taking the action to the Ravens. Fisk scooped up a fumble kick that bounced off the pads of an Eielson return man on the ensuing kick. His recover gave the M's the ball at the Eielson 41.
Sparked by runs of 14 and 15 yards by Croft, and an 11-yard scamper off a run by Ravin, Homer quickly marched to the Ravens' 2. On the first play of the second quarter, Fisk finished off the drive by walking into the end zone untouched.
Fisk rushed for a game-high 167 yards on 17 carries.
Eielson scratched out its first touchdown midway through the third quarter when DeVaughn hit Jaydenn Manibusan with a 8-yard scoring pass on a screen pass.
The Ravens, who finished the season at 5-4, rolled up 401 total yards of offense.
With the win, Homer earned its first trip to the state championship game since 2012 when the team competed in the Medium School division. Homer also advanced to the state finals in 2011.
"I can't be prouder of the boys that they made it," said Love, who took over an HHS program that went 2-6 a year ago. "They have worked hard to get here."
Now 8-1 overall, the Mariners will face Barrow in the state finals this Saturday, beginning at 11:30 p.m. in Palmer.
Tommy Wells can be reached at email@example.com