LINCOLN — Omaha North's winning touchdown Tuesday night did not come from the state's all-time rushing leader.
To see a score by fellow junior Payton Nelson, the Vikings' quarterback, was more than acceptable to Calvin Strong.
“I love that man,” Strong said. “He's like my brother. But everybody is like my brother around here.”
After Nelson scored on a 1-yard run with 7:16 left, North turned the game over to its defense to finish a 23-21 victory over Omaha Westside for the school's first Class A football playoff championship.
“We said this was going to be a four-quarter game,” Vikings coach Larry Martin said. “Our kids have been just resilient, where the last couple of years we just take care of each other on both sides of the ball.
“Our defense did that. We had that turnover in the first half, and we get the interception back down on the other end. Complete give-and-take. That's what makes great football teams.”
Strong persevered through a toe injury that required taping at halftime for 197 yards on 39 carries, matching his season-high workload. He finished with a state-record 2,988 yards in 13 games for No. 2 North (12-1).
The Vikings held Westside to 56 yards rushing and 194 yards passing. But they needed to come from behind three times in the game that drew 6,785 to Memorial Stadium on a frigid evening.
No. 3 Westside (11-2) took its last lead at 21-17 on Jamaal Conway-Smith's 28-yard reception from Christian Hagan with 57 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Vikings answered with a 73-yard drive in 12 plays. It required converting two third downs and a fourth down.
On third-and-15 from the North 32, Nelson threw deep to Marquise Lewis. A Westside defender tipped the ball to Lewis, who got to the Westside 16 before Kenny McDowell tackled him after a 52-yard gain.
“It was tipped? I didn't see that,” Nelson said. “That's even better. What a way to make a play.”
Said Westside coach Brett Froendt: “That long tipped ball, that's a good play. They came up with it and hat's off to them. They had a lot of conversions, which made a difference in the game.”
On fourth-and-2 from the 8, three-time state wrestling champion JaVaughn Perkins got 4 yards with Strong out of the game. Strong returned on the next play and got to the 1, with Nelson scoring on the next play.
“Coach said to put it in my hands, and I said 'I'm going to get in the end zone. Trust me,'” Nelson said. “I dove in there. Tristan Frezell, the fullback, pushed me in there and I scored.”
Westside's next two possessions faded around midfield, with the Warriors punting the first time and Hagan failing to connect with Conway-Smith on a fourth-and-2 pass from the North 48 with 1:19 left.
“North shut down some things we wanted to do, especially in the second half,” Froendt said. “They did a nice job of making some adjustments.
“We fell out of rhythm offensively.”
Westside was leading 14-10 late in the first half when McDowell returned a North fumble 62 yards to the Viking 25.
Four plays later, Lewis intercepted Hagan's pass for Malek Pittman at the 3.
Hagan was 17 of 27 with two touchdown passes, to Luke Biggs and Conway-Smith.
North opened the second half with a 72-yard drive, ending with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Nelson to Lewis, for a 17-14 lead. Nelson was 9 of 13 for 129 yards, with Lewis catching three balls for 104 yards.
The Vikings forced Westside to punt from midfield, but Conway-Lewis made a diving interception at the North 31 to set up the Warriors for their final score.
“I kept telling the kids that we're going to have to will ourselves to find a way to win,” Martin said. “They overcame some adversity, and we told them no matter what happens, if we fail tonight we have your back.”
Omaha Westside (11-2) ............... 7 7 7 0—21
Omaha North (12-1) .................... 7 3 7 6—23
W: Lane Biggs 38 pass from Christian Hagan (Hagan kick)
N: Calvin Strong 67 run (Nick Polito kick)
N: FG Simon Lassen 23
W: Drew Fitzmorris 2 run (Hagan kick)
N: Marquise Lewis 19 pass from Payton Nelson (Polito kick)
W: Jamaal Conway-Smith 28 pass from Hagan (Hagan kick)
N: Payton Nelson 1 run (kick failed)
RUSHING: W, Lane Yates 12-35, Fitzmorris 6-20, Hagan 6-8, Conway-Smith 1-4, team 1-minus 10. N, Strong 39-197, JaVaughn Perkins 6-15, Tavion Seals 1-6, Nelson 4-minus 1.
PASSING: W, Hagan 17-27-1 194, Yates 0-1-0 0. N, Nelson 9-13-1 129.
RECEIVING: W, Conway-Smith 10-109, Malek Pittman 3-23, Luke Biggs 2-49, Fitzmorris 2-13. N, Lewis 3-104, Davion Reed 3-9, Grant Martin 2-15, Tristan Frezell 1-1.
TACKLES: W, Fitzmorris 4-10-14, Matt Connelly 4-8-12, Keyman Scott 7-2-9, Jalen Cox-Martin 6-3-9, Cody Cramer 2-5-7, Hanco Germishuys 0-6-6, Kenny McDowell 2-3-5, Brady Novak 2-3-5, Conway-Smith 2-2-4, Ryan Golden 2-1-3, Demarkus Scott 1-0-1, Tom Young 1-0-1, Pittman 1-0-1, Biggs 0-1-1, Mitch Schekelberg 0-1-1, AJ Meeks 0-1-1. N, Jason Martin 1-9-10, Elijah Hawkins 4-2-6, Perkins 3-2-5, Lewis 4-0-4, Collin Weingaertner 3-1-4, Kaylin One Feather 1-3-4, Cole Bixler 1-3-4, Seals 3-0-3, Reed 2-1-3, JaCobi Jones 2-1-3, Jordan Johnson 2-1-3, Justin Jemison 1-1-2, Don Davis 1-0-1, Nelson 1-0-1, Lassen 0-1-1, JJ Jones 0-1-1, Martin 0-1-1, Michael Decker 0-1-1.
FUMBLE RECOVERIES: W, McDowell.
INTERCEPTIONS: W, Conway-Smith. N, Lewis.
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>> Video: Class A championship game highlights: