KIRKLAND – Hiawatha senior running back Braden Watson was overcome with emotion as he limped off the field.
The playoff drought finally is over.
For the first time in almost three decades, the Hawks are postseason-bound after senior foreign-exchange student Lucas Rodriguez made a field goal as time expired in a wild 24-21 win over Westminster Christian on Friday night.
“It’s a whole new coaching staff, a whole new team and we proved we can do it,” a glassy-eyed Watson said after the game. “It’s what I’ve always wanted.”
Watson’s father, Nathan, was a member of Hiawatha’s 1987 team – which was the last time the Hawks had made the playoffs.
The Hawks’ 24-year-old first-year coach Jason Keneway, who graduated from Hiawatha in 2009, was also emotional after the game – as players shared cheers and hugs that the 29-year drought was over.
“It’s my first year, but I went here and the burden was on my shoulders as a player, but I’ve never felt so much pressure that I put on myself,” said Keneway, whose team had five wins and didn’t make the playoffs in his senior year. “I felt like the weight of the town was on my shoulders. It’s do or die and we did it. We did it. We did it. It’s everything I wanted.”
The Hawks certainly ended the drought in style.
Facing a second-and-goal from the Westminster 7-yard line, the play clock dropped below five seconds when the Hawks got one more play off – a Watson 2-yard run – before calling their final timeout with one second left.
Rodriguez, who came to Hiawatha from Madrid, Spain, lined up and made a 24-yard field goal that took a 29-year weight off the shoulders of the Hawks.
“I was so nervous,” Rodriguez said. “I was really, really nervous. It’s incredible.”
The Hawks (5-2 overall, 5-2 in Northeastern Athletic Conference) got another big game from Watson, who carried it 27 times for 125 yards and a touchdown. At the end of the second quarter, with the Hawks leading 21-7, Westminster elected to go for it on the Hiawatha 5-yard line with two seconds left and Watson batted down a pass from Warriors quarterback Tannor Park.
“Braden is all over the field and he doesn’t have an ounce of quit in him,” Keneway said. “He needed to come out a few times and I told him, Braden, I need you.”
Hiawatha quarterback Ethan Hoffman was only 6 for 9 with 49 yards, but he threw a 25-yard touchdown pass on a screen to Jacob Edwards and also had a 2-yard rushing touchdown. He also came up with the biggest first down of the game. With the Hawks facing a fourth-and-1 on the Westminster 46-yard line in their final drive, Hoffman ran a quarterback sneak for two yards to keep the drive alive.
The celebratory night started on a sour note for the Hawks, however. On the third play of the game, Westminster returned a fumble 42 yards for a touchdown.
Despite the turnover, the Hawks dominated time of possession in the first quarter, with the Warriors only getting off one offensive play in the period – which was a fumble that Hiawatha junior defensive lineman Cole Dunbar recovered.
With the Hawks taking a 21-7 lead in halftime, the Warriors (4-3 overall, 4-3 in NAS) stormed back in the third quarter, scoring on their first two possessions of the second half as the Hawks didn’t record a first down in the period.
“Weather that storm, because they were coming,” Keneway said. “They were coming in hot. That’s a very good team. Very good. Weather the storm. Resilience.”
Hiawatha got the ball back with 5:20 left in the game at its own 45-yard line following a Westminster punt and the Hawks marched 50 yards on 12 plays to set up Rodriguez’s field goal. Ten of the plays were rushes of four yards or less, but Watson had a 16-yard run on the drive.
“Those are my boys and I love them,” Keneway said. “They’ve done everything that we’ve asked them and everything that’s expected of them. It’s them. It’s them. It’s not me. Those guys willed their way to that win.”
The Hawks will pick up their sixth win next week, since Rockford Christian Life is forfeiting all their games due to low numbers. The teams will play an 8-man scrimmage on Friday before the Hawks close out the regular season at home against Luther North.
Then, for the first time in 29 years, the Hawks will head to the playoffs.
“It’s a long time coming,” Dunbar said.