BISMARCK - Shiloh Christian's first Dakota Bowl berth was right there for the taking Saturday afternoon, but it slipped through the Skyhawks' fingers.
Shiloh managed to hack a 26-point deficit in Saturday's 9-man football semifinal game against Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn down to a single point when Blake Emmel scored with 1 minute, 2 seconds remaining.
The Skyhawks apparently lined up to kick what would have been the game-tying extra point - they actually had a fake planned - but the snap was botched and holder A.J. Dale was buried under a pile of Sioux players.
Westhope-Newburg-Glenburn senior quarterback Hunter Braaten gets tripped up by Shiloh Christian's Matt Fettig during the Sioux's Class A semifinal victory Saturday in Bismarck. Photo courtesy of Tom Stromme/Bismarck Tribune.
And thanks to Shiloh's eighth fumble of the game, W-N-G slipped away with a memorable 32-31 victory at Miller Field and punched its ticket to the Fargodome.
"Luck was on our side I would say," Sioux quarterback Hunter Braaten said. "But we took what we got and made the most of it."
Braaten was on W-N-G's side, and that was more important than luck. The senior ran for 237 yards and four touchdowns, plus returned a fumble 56 yards for another score.
In three playoff games, the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder has rushed for 883 yards and scored a dozen touchdowns.
"He's a little shifty," W-N-G coach Tom Nesvold said. "... He ain't that big, but he plays very, very, very large."
The Skyhawks set the tone when they fumbled twice on their first three plays from scrimmage, though they recovered both. Still, the miscues helped W-N-G get great field position. The Sioux needed just four plays to cover 40 yards, taking the lead on a 1-yard sneak by Braaten.
The Skyhawks' next possession was a disaster. A pair of personal fouls on the same play pushed Shiloh back into its own territory. On the next play the Skyhawks coughed it up again, and this time W-N-G's Reese Schell recovered. On the play after that, Braaten broke three tackles on the way to a 17-yard touchdown run.
Things got even worse the next time Shiloh got the ball. Quarterback Zac Martin fumbled, and Braaten snapped it up and returned it 56 yards for a score. The Sioux were up 20-0 with 4:05 left in the first quarter.
The Skyhawks got on the board with a 4-yard run, making it 20-6. But W-N-G wasted no time answering. Braaten had a 59-yard touchdown run cut short by a penalty. But he ended up scoring on a 4-yard run a few plays later, and the Sioux took the 26-6 lead into the half.
Things began to turn when Emmel sprinted around the left corner for a 58-yard touchdown on Shiloh's first offensive play of the second half, trimming the margin to 26-13. Emmel finished with 230 yards on 24 carries.
The Sioux countered with a 15-yard TD run from Braaten, making it 32-13.
The fourth quarter was Shiloh's. Martin hit Inman for a 15-yard completion on a fourth-and-7, then scored on a quarterback sneak four plays later. That cut the gap to 32-19 with 10:45 left.
On W-N-G's next possession Emmel partially blocked a punt, setting up Shiloh on the Sioux 39. The Skyhawk offense appeared to stall, but on fourth-and-9, Martin connected with Andrew Hartman for a 38-yard touchdown pass. The Skyhawks were within 32-25 with 6:15 to go.
Chad Coulter got the ball back for the Skyhawks when he picked off a Braaten pass and returned it to the W-N-G 32-yard line. The Skyhawks kept moving the ball until they faced a fourth-and-4 on the W-N-G 8. Emmel took a toss around the right side and found the end zone, making it 32-31.
A two-point conversion would have completed the Shiloh comeback, but it wasn't to be.
"We actually had a fake field goal on," Shiloh coach Funnon Barker said. "We figured that they would come hard thinking they were going to block it, which they did. It was just the snap wasn't quite where it needed to be.
"We had the ball in our hands at the end with a chance to win, and that's all you can ask for," he added. "I'm certainly proud of the way our kids battled back in the second half."
The Sioux (10-2) will take on top-ranked Cavalier in the 9-man championship on Friday. W-N-G has eliminated No. 5 Grant County-Flasher, No. 2 TGU and No. 3 Shiloh to get this far.
The Sioux feel like they have some unfinished business. Last year W-N-G advanced to the Class A championship game, losing to Hazen.
"It's amazing to get a second chance at it in two years," Braaten said. "It's something not many teams get a chance at, and we're going to make the most of it and try to win this one."