LITTLE RIVER — Entering Friday’s game against Ness City, Little River High School had not played a game closer than 45 points.
Little River lost its opening game to Canton-Galva by 47 points, then proceeded to win eight straight all by 45 or more. After Friday’s 44-42 win over the Eagles, Little River can now claim they are battle tested.
Playing without star Graham Stephens, Little River found a way to pull off the two-point victory to advance to the quarterfinals of the 8-Man Division I Playoffs. Stephens sustained an injury last week against South Gray and is unlikely to return the rest of the season.
Without Stephens, the second member of Little River’s dynamic duo knew he had to step up. Jayden Garrison did just that, rushing for 222 yards and three touchdowns while throwing for 124 yards and adding two more scores.
Little River head coach Kevin Ayers said his team found out something new about themselves.
“It’s good to see your team tested and rise up to the challenge,” Ayers said. “I think in the back of their mind they were thinking ‘What happens when we do get scored on?’ It’s exciting for me to see the hearts of these kids and how we kept fighting and battling.”
Entering Friday’s game, Little River had allowed a combined eight points in its last six games. The Little River defense was quickly tested as Ness City scored on its opening possession.
Little River responded with a three-yard run by Braxton Lafferty to tie the game up. After the Little River defense held Ness City on fourth and goal, Garrison scored on a 48-yard rushing touchdown to give Little River a 14-8 lead after one.
Ness City took a two-point lead late in the second quarter. With seven seconds left in the half, Garrison found Trey Rolfs from 17 yards out to give Little River a 22-16 lead entering halftime.
Little River created a little separation by scoring on its first possession of the second half, but Ness City responded with 12 unanswered points. Leading by two entering the fourth quarter, Little River went up by 10 thanks to a two-yard touchdown by Garrison.
Ness City quickly answered back on a 46-yard run from quarterback Hector Rodriguez, but Little River would not be denied as Lafferty took a screen pass 40 yards to put Little River back up by 10.
Ness City had one final response less than a minute later, but Little River recovered the ensuing onside kick and picked up two first downs to ice the game.
If Stephens is out for the rest of the playoffs, Little River will need more big games from Garrison to keep its season alive.
“Graham did so much for us so we scrambled a little bit this week trying to get puzzle pieces to fit,” Ayers said. “It’s a credit to these kids. We’ve got some smart kids. They found a way to win, and that’s exciting.”
Little River will face Leoti-Wichita County next Friday. Leoti, 9-1, is fresh off a 54-38 win over previously undefeated Clifton-Clyde. Leoti is averaging 58.6 points per game on offense.
“I know they’re very dynamic on offense,” Ayers said. “You have to defend the whole field against them. It’s definetly going to be a huge challenge for us to go down there.”