Independence’s football team found itself in an unenviable position in Friday's season opener against the Columbia Raiders. The Blue Devils had trailed the Raiders by 14 points most of the game yet somehow managed to put themselves in position to win the game with less than three minutes to play.
That’s when the never say die Blue Devils were at their best and drove 65 yards to score the game winning touchdown, a 7-yard pass from Thomas Hockenberry to Austin Buc, to win the game, 40-35, and put an end to Columbia’s 19-game regular season win streak.
The play was designed to isolate Buc in one-on-one coverage and even though Hockenberry didn’t see his teammate catch the ball he knew the Blue Devils made the play.
“I dropped back and I see 75 coming in, he’s like 6-6, 270 pounds, but I stand in there and make the throw,” Hockenberry said. “I don’t even see it. I got crushed by the kid. All heard was cheering so I knew he caught it. It was probably the greatest feeling in the world. I hated not being able to see the catch but hearing the cheers was amazing.”
Columbia led 14-0 before Hockenberry and Buc connected on a 49-yard scoring pass that pulled the Blue Devils to within 14-6 after the extra point try failed.
The Raiders responded with another touchdown but Hockenberry kept the Blue Devils in the game with another touchdown pass, this one a 9-yarder to Nick Niro, to cut Columbia’s lead to 21-12 at halftime.
Trailing 28-12, Hockenberry ran one in from the five and added a two-point conversion pass to Niro. Later in the third, he threw a 73-yard touchdown pass to Brian Calvey to pull the Blue Devils to within 28-26.
It was at that point Wotowiec was sure his players, especially his seniors, would win the game.
“Calvey had a bit of a hamstring injury but he just blew by the guy,” said Independence coach Jim Wotowiec. “That’s the whole story to it. They got down at the half and they weren’t rattled. They were mad they didn’t play well in the first half. They came out in the second half and made some big plays. It was a great game. The kids played well. Our offensive coordinator, Scott Fisher, just had a tremendous game plan. The kids bought in and the seniors never gave up.”
Midway through the fourth, Columbia led 34-26 but the Blue Devils would go on to score the final 14 points of the game.
Steve Schmetzer raced 62 yards for a touchdown and Hockenberry found Buc on the conversion try to make it a one point game. After a defensive stop, the Blue Devils took over at their own 35 with under three minutes remaining in the game.
Hockenberry never doubted the Blue Devils would find the end zone.
“We kept hope,” Hockenberry said. “We were more in shape than they were and we had to show that and keep pounding them. We knew we weren’t going to lose that game.”
That confidence never faded even when the Blue Devils faced a 3rd-and-25.
“We completed one for 15 to Niro and then Buc makes a tremendous play on the sideline from Hockenberry to get the first down,” Wotowiec said. “We moved the ball down the field, get inside the 5 and have to ground the ball. It ended up being fourth down and Hockenberry hits Buc for the win.”
Hockenberry completed 19-of-32 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns (42, 75, 14, 7) and also rushed five times for 25 yards and a score. Schmetzer carried 14 times for 128 yards and a touchdown.
Buc led the Blue Devils with 6 receptions for 73 yards and two scores and Niro had 5 catches for 63 yards and a touchdown. Calvey finished with 2 catches for 110 yards and a touchdown and James Ogorek had 2 catches for 24 yards.
With the win, the Blue Devils enter week two with plenty of confidence. It’s Wotowiec’s goal to keep his players focused on beating a quality opponent in Brookfield.
“We have to remember, Columbia hasn’t lost a regular season game in two years, so the kids are really happy about being able to accomplish that,” Wotowiec said. “It sets the table for the future but past experiences and past things are all in the past. Brookfield is a very good team out of Youngstown. We’ll have our hands full with them on Friday night. We have to be able to get more consistency on defense.”