Omaha Westside’s season was teetering.
A week after Millard North dealt them their first loss, the Warriors had given up 27 points in a row to fall behind Papillion-La Vista South going into the final quarter.
A two-game losing streak wasn’t going to keep Westside out of the Class A football playoffs. But it wouldn’t be great mojo going into the postseason for a school that hadn’t made it out of the first round since 2006.
So those final 12 minutes against Papio South were a critical juncture. Or, as senior quarterback Christian Hagan said, “a gut check” for his team, which closed out that game with 28 points for a 42-27 victory.
“We fought back hard in that game,” Hagan said. “That’s kind of when everything started to click, you might say. I think our mental toughness really came into play in that game.”
Westside hasn’t lost since. Wins over Lincoln Southeast, rival Omaha Creighton Prep and top-ranked Millard West have landed the Warriors (11-1) in Tuesday’s 7:15 p.m. Class A championship game at Memorial Stadium against Omaha North (11-1).
Matt Connelly, a senior linebacker, said he’s seen the team’s confidence grow in the postseason.
“We’ve come out as one unit,” he said.
The Warriors’ leader the past two seasons, coach Brett Froendt said, has been Drew Fitzmorris. A returning starter at safety, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior is a wide receiver who also can play running back. He gashed Grand Island for a 200-yard game in relief of Lane Yates, injured the previous week.
“He’s an impact player, a multi-sport stud,” Froendt said of Fitzmorris. “He played with a torn labrum all last season, which is remarkable.”
Yates came back faster than expected from a hurt ankle to become a two-time 1,000-yard rusher. Hagan is 13 yards from being Westside’s first 2,000-yard passer and senior Jamaal Conway-Smith needs 101 yards in receptions to give the Warriors a rare trio of 1,000-yard players in the same season.
“The biggest difference this year is experience,” said Fitzmorris, who is a team captain with Hagan and Connelly. “Last year we had eight juniors starting on defense and we all came back, so the maturity factor played a role.
“Talentwise, we have a few more playmakers on offense.”
The quarterback is one of them. Hagan has sparkled at times in his only season as the starter.
“He’s been huge. He stepped into a role of his own and I knew he would,” Fitzmorris said. “I always had confidence in him and now the whole state finally gets to see how good a player he is.”
Hagan said many of his fellow seniors have been together since youth football.
“We’ve always had a special group,” he said. “We’ve gotten better every year and the pieces are coming together. Now we just need that last puzzle piece.”
A state title.
To beat North and claim the school’s first state championship in football since 1982, it will start with how the Warriors fare against running back Calvin Strong. The junior needs 209 yards to become the state’s first 3,000-yard rusher in a season on any level.
“The key? Stopping Calvin Strong,” Connelly said. “Their quarterback (Payton Nelson) has some good mobility, so we have to contain them both.”
Said Fitzmorris: “Calvin, who’s a heckuva player, is going to have his share of plays come Tuesday night. We’ll try to contain him and if the big play happens, just reset and forget about that.”
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