The Ell-Saline Cardinals opened the Class 1-A playoffs Friday evening at the Cardinals’ Nest in Brookville with a hard-fought 27-14 victory over the Oakley Plainsmen.
Ell-Saline (7-2) scored the only touchdown of the first half, as junior tailback Keenan Drees capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run off the left end to give the Cardinals a 7-0 lead with 5:14 remaining in the second quarter.
The Cardinals got the ball to begin the second half and marched 71 yards on 12 plays, with senior tailback Luke Parks finishing off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to give Ell-Saline 14-0 edge with 6:29 to play in the third quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Oakley (3-6) got on the scoreboard as junior quarterback Eric Cain connected with junior tailback Ethan Abell for a 9-yard touchdown pass to pull the Plainsmen to within seven with 2:36 left in the third quarter at 14-7.
Ell-Saline answered quickly, putting together a four-play, 49-yard drive, finished off by Parks’ second rushing score of the night, once again from five yards out to put the Cardinals up 14-7 with 1:17 remaining in the third quarter.
On the Cardinals next offensive series, Parks struck yet again, this time on a 54-yard touchdown run. Following a missed extra point, the Cardinals led it 27-7. with 9:53 to go in the final stanza.
Following the touchdown, Parks picked off a Cain pass, and it looked like Ell-Saline was primed to put the game away, but on the very next play, junior tailback Eli Hopkins coughed up the football, giving the Plainsmen the ball back at the Ell-Saline 39-yard line. Four plays later, senior tailback Aidan Stephenson plunged into the end zone from a yard out to pull Oakley within striking distance at 27-14.
The Cardinals yet again looked primed to seal the deal, driving down the field to set up a 2nd-and-goal opportunity from the one-yard-line, but the Oakley defense rose to the challenge to force a turnover on downs and take control of the football at their own five-yard line with 2:55 left in the game.
The Plainsmen would engineer a 15-play, 91-yard drive back down the field, but facing 4th-and-goal, Cain slipped to the turf while trying to escape pressure from the Ell-Saline defense, giving the Cardinals the football back with just 39 seconds left to play.
Ell-Saline amassed 376 total yards of offense in the win, all of it coming on the ground on 45 carries. Parks led the way with 24 carries for 207 yards and three touchdowns, while Drees added 109 yards and a score on nine attempts.
The win sets up a playoff rematch in the regional round next Friday night against a very familiar foe, as Ell-Saline will hit the road to take on the 3rd-ranked team in Class 1-A, the Plainville Cardinals.
Plainville has ended Ell-Saline’s season each of the past two years in thrilling fashion, pulling out a 27-20 double overtime win in Brookville in the sectional round of the 2017 playoffs, then hitting a field goal with three seconds remaining to escape with a 31-28 victory in the regional round of the 2018 playoffs in Plainville.