BY JOHN DUBOIS
Ranked ninth in the final regular season Class 1A Associated Press poll, the Salt Fork Storm made their 12th consecutive post-season appearance Saturday when the Storm hosted the Oblong Panthers from the Little Illini conference.
Salt Fork is led by a strong defense and balanced rushing attack while the Panthers used a high scoring (28 points per game) pass oriented offense to claim their first ever playoff appearance and first winning season (6-3) since 1994.
Sparked by back-up quarterback Jacob Hughes, the Storm got a complete team effort on both sides of the ball and advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008 with a 27-6 win.
Hughes, who took over for injured starter Taylor Kirby at the start of the second quarter, ran for two touchdowns and hit Nick Hedges with a 10-yard pass for a third.
“It feels great, especially since it wasn’t expected, Hughes said. “I tried to take advantage of any openings I saw to run the ball. We had a great week of practice and that paid off for us.”
It was an extra special day for Salt Fork coach Brian Plotner.
“This feels outstanding and it is very special for our seniors,” he said. “We have been right there the last few years, and I am very proud that our seniors will be playing November football. My grandfather, Marvin Little, is 88 years old and he was able to come out and see this game and it added even more to the moment for our team to be able to break through in the play-offs with him watching.”
The first quarter would end scoreless but an incompletion in the end zone on the Storm’s second drive would have a positive effect and get the day started for Hughes.
“I wish that play was in but it was a jump ball kind of situation in the back of the end zone,” Hughes said. “It did get me going and helped to get in the game when I came in at the start of the second quarter.”
Plotner felt the play showed the progress Hughes has made this season.
“Earlier in the season, Jacob took some sacks and today he just let the ball fly like he did on that play,” Plotner said. “He played free and easy, played positive, and he deserves alot of credit for coming in and playing as well as he did.”
Set up by a 38-yard pass from Hughes to Luke Maddox, the Storm would get on the board with 5:37 to go in the half when running back Cole Taylor scored from 16 yards out.
“We don’t have a go to guy in the backfield who is going to get 20-25 carries, but we get a lot of guys touches,” Plotner said. “We got nice contributions from both quarterbacks running the ball along with Cole, Clayton Fauver, and Seth McLain.”
Set up by a 44-yard run from McLain, the Storm would score again slightly over three minutes later when Hughes connected with Hedges to give Salt Fork a 13-0 lead going into halftime.
A 19-yard pass from Hughes to Garrett McFadden would set up a 1-yard sneak by Hughes, who would then connect with Maddox on the two point conversion to make the score 21-0.
Hughes’ ability to throw down field was an added dimension for the Storm.
“We have tinkered with some things this year, but until today really lacked the ability to spread things out,” said Plotner. “Our offensive line has struggled at times as they have faced a lot of 8 and 9 man fronts during the regular season but today they played very well and that is a good sign for us.”
Hughes would connect with McFadden again, this time for 17 yards, setting up Hughes from 2 yards out as the Storm ended the third quarter with a 27-0 lead.
For the most part the Storm held down the Panthers quarterback and top all around threat Anthony Johnson and top receiver Gerald Richardson. Johnson would connect with Keaton Neeley from 50 yards out to spoil the shut-out with 4:05 to go.
“Defensively we played as well as anyone has this year in holding those guys down,” Plotner said. “We gave them a three man look at times and Hedges did a great job on Richardson who only had two catches in the game. Our defensive front has been a strength all year and overall our defensive effort was outstanding.”
The Storm move to 9-1 and go on the road next week to face the 9-1 Carrollton Hawks.
“It’s a good three hour bus ride over there, but we are thrilled to be playing,” Plotner said. “We are very proud we were able to advance. We are going to enjoy the win and then begin getting ready for the next game.”