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Prep Football | Wilmington 24, Nashville 7

Prep Football | Wilmington downs Nashville for Class 2A title

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DEKALB — Nashville’s second chance at a Class 2A title went about like its first.

The difference this time was it played a better team that controlled both lines of scrimmage.

Holding the Hornets to a season-low 107 total yards, Wilmington possessed the ball for a whopping 36:32 on Friday in a 24-7 win at frigid Huskie Stadium.

“We couldn’t win on first down,” admitted Nashville coach Stephen Kozuszek after his team finished 12-2 for the second time in three years.

Part of the Hornets’ strategy was getting off the mark on first down – on both sides of the ball. That didn’t happen. Its 13 snaps on first down netted just 18 yards and one first down, thanks to a pass interference call.

Forced into long down-and-distance situations by the Wildcats (14-0), Nashville couldn’t consistently extend drives with passing. Kolten Gajewski, who entered the game as a 60 percent passer, hit on just 6 of 21 for 112 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

His first attempt foreshadowed the day’s struggles. Gajewski fired for star receiver Isaac Turner, who ran what looked like an out-and-up. But the ball fluttered out of Gajewski’s hand inside the left hashmark and was picked off by Ryan Banas.

Gajewski said he had trouble gripping the ball occasionally in the 28-degree cold but also said he should have played better.

“I have to take accountability for that,” he said. “I have to execute better.”

When the Hornets lost 35-14 to Newman Central Catholic in the 2019 Class 2A championship game, they outgained it. That game was more a case of four turnovers undercutting Nashville’s chances.

This was a day where the Hornets didn’t have many chances to beat the Wilmington defense. And aside from Gajewski’s 40-yard connection with Turner that tied the game with 10 minutes left in the first half, they failed to make the plays that might have led to a closer game or even a different outcome.

Two other passes in Turner’s direction come to mind:

1. With just under three minutes left in the first half, Turner toasted his defender with a well-run double move to the left sideline. A decent throw to Turner’s right shoulder leads him into a big gainer and probably a go-ahead touchdown. But the pass sailed over his left shoulder and Turner wasn’t able to keep a foot inbounds to complete about a 30-yard play.

2. At the 2:29 mark of the third quarter came the second play. Gajewski hit Turner on 4th-and-7 at the Wildcats’ 36 and it appeared that the 6-3 Turner leaned the ball across the first down marker. But it was spotted just shy.

“I thought I got it,” he said, “but obviously, at the end of the day, I didn’t. So we just have to be able to execute better.”

That was followed by Wilmington’s clinching touchdown drive, which chewed up 70 yards and nearly 5 ½ minutes. Jacob Friddle, who started the scoring with a 23-yard run late in the first quarter, burst through multiple arm-tackles and ripped off a 34-yard touchdown with 9:05 remaining in the game.

Allan Richards tacked on a 32-yard field goal with 3:05 left to make the margin an insurmountable three scores.

Nashville’s defense permitted 234 yards rushing but really kept the team in the game. Evan Knolhoff (12 tackles), Radyn Schwartzkopf (11 tackles) and Wyatt Kwiatkowski (9 tackles) matched the Wildcats’ physicality.

But the Hornets’ offense, which scored a whopping 531 points in their first 13 games, simply couldn’t solve a speedy, well-coached opponent.

“We had enough possessions to win the game,” Kozuszek said. “But give Wilmington some credit. That’s a really good defense. Not too many people have been scoring on them this year.”

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