WILTON, Iowa − With the season on the line, Wilton head football coach Ryan Hetzler never hesitated.
Trailing by two points with 20 seconds remaining the Beavers faced a fourth-down play at the Sigourney-Keota 4 yard line. But rather than attempt a field goal for the win, he called for his quarterback to sprint for the end zone. Jerome Mays scored on a keeper to the left side, capping Wilton’s come-from-behind 36-30 victory.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to put it in your playmaker’s hands,” Hetzler said. “We’ve got a lot of playmakers, but this one right here, we knew we were going to go with him the whole time. Whatever the call was, it was going to be in Jerome’s hands.”
Mays used his feet and his arm to help the Beavers rally from a 22-6 halftime deficit. He ran for three scores and threw for another in the second half to help Wilton clinch the a playoff berth.
“There’s a certain play called, and I try to read the defense to see what’s there and not there. If nothing’s there, coach allows me to just make a play,” Mays said. “I use my feet and try to make something out of nothing and be a playmaker.”
Wilton (8-1, 6-1 Class 1A District 4) still trailed by 10 points midway through the fourth quarter, but Mays was able to improvise and make a play. After scrambling for a long time, he found receiver Brian Stillman in the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown. Mays added a two-point run, and the Beavers were within two.
“His ability to keep plays alive is what makes him great,” Hetzler said of Mays. “He’s not a guy who has the biggest arm. He’s one of those guys who, if he can keep the play alive and stay on his feet, he can make plays. We had coaches screaming at him to run the ball, and then he chucked the ball to Stillman right on point. The kid never gives up.”
But just four plays later, Sigourney-Keota spinback Luke Greiner broke free for a 41-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Beavers found themselves back down by 10 with just 4:46 remaining. But they didn’t give up.
“With high school kids, you expect to see their heads go down. But I didn’t see one kid’s head down,” Hetzler said. “They all just ran off. Most of the time, when they’re defeated, you can see the heads drop. But these guys just jogged off and said, ‘Nope, we’re fine. Let’s go back and get it.’”
They did. On a fourth-and-12 play, Mays scrambled to his left and then took off for a 43-yard touchdown. His two-point run again trimmed the lead to two, but with just 3:46 left, the Beavers needed the ball back.
Wilton’s defense held strong, forcing a Sigourney-Keota offense that piled up 395 total yards to go three-and-out.
“Coming up to that, my stomach started turning and I started getting the butterflies. If we didn’t get that, my season might be over,” Wilton senior Tyler Hartman said. “But we made that stop and I almost started crying on the field. That’s the happiest moment I’ve ever had in my life so far.”
Then the Beavers drove 61 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
Wilton’s victory seemed very improbable at halftime. The Beavers drove 68 yards to score on their first possession of the game, but it was all Savage Cobras (5-4, 5-2 1A District 4) the rest of the first half. Carson Crawford, who entered Friday’s game leading Class 1A in rushing yards, ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. And Greiner ran for a 15-yard touchdown on the final play of the first half.
“I’m not going to lie, at halftime we were kind of worried,” Mays said. “But we knew in games earlier this season we’ve put up 35 points in a quarter and 28 in a half. We’ve put up points before, so we had confidence in our offense and we just knew we had to stop them on defense.”
Wilton’s defense held the Savage Cobras to just 130 yards after halftime. Crawford was limited to just 21 yards on 13 carries.
“He was one heck of a runner,” Hartman said of Crawford. “I’ve never seen a kid who can take as many hits as he did and keep going. It was great to shut him down.”
Mays finished with 123 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries and completed 14 of his 21 passes for 174 yards and two scores.
Wilton lost to Sigourney-Keota last season with the playoffs on the line. But Mays and the Beavers wouldn’t let it happen again.
“That’s heart. That’s all pure heart. We wanted it,” Mays said. “We didn’t want last year [to happen] again. Those broken down plays, those long plays that came out of nothing, that’s just heart and trying to win a football game.”