The Omaha Skutt state runner-up finishes in football and boys basketball the past two years carry their own heartbreaking stories.
All the more reason the top-ranked SkyHawks want to change the narrative in the Class B state championship football game (7:15 p.m. Tuesday) at Memorial Stadium against No. 2 Scottsbluff.
“I think there is something to the inter-drive that’s fueling them not to settle for another silver,” Skutt coach Matt Turman said, referring to the SkyHawks’ final appearances in football the past two years and state basketball this past March.
“The focus is there, it’s something we’ve noticed in practice. Since the playoffs started, they’ve been getting after it and are really laser-focused on what they need to do.”
In 2016, Skutt was just a two-point conversion in the final minute of a 34-32 loss from forcing overtime and possibly upsetting top-ranked Elkhorn South. Last year, York steamrolled the SkyHawks 31-0.
“We got destroyed; it was heartbreaking,” said senior running back Jarod Epperson, who's emerged as one of the top backs in the state this fall with 2,059 yards rushing and 32 touchdowns.
“We don’t want to get beat that bad again.”
The double-overtime loss to York in the Class B basketball title game last winter had to hurt even more. Skutt held a nine-point lead with just over one minute left in regulation, only to see it disappear in a frantic Duke comeback.
“As bad as football was, basketball was even worse,” said 6-foot-6, 245-pound senior tight end/defensive end TJ Skradski, who along with Tyson Gordon, Ryan McCormick and Grant Bertucci are football players with major roles in basketball as well. Gordon, a 6-2 junior with seven interceptions, is a potential all-state player in both sports.
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“We all thought we had it. The next day, even a month later, people would tell us, 'Sorry about basketball. We shut it off (on TV) because we thought your guys had it,’” Skradski added. “I even heard that from family members. It was so close.”
Close has not been a word to describe Skutt’s games down the stretch. Since avenging last year’s loss to York with a 42-37 victory in Week 4, no one has been closer than 16 points in the SkyHawks’ past eight games. Skutt has beaten No. 7 Waverly twice during that stretch — 30-14 in the regular season and 34-14 on the road in the semifinals last week.
“We’ve gotten progressively better every week,” said Skradski, an Augustana football recruit who missed four weeks early in the season because of mononucleosis. “We haven’t had a week where we’ve taken a step back like a lot of teams do after a big win. We just continued to building off games like that.”
Epperson’s dominant performances behind Skutt’s powerful offensive line have had a lot to do with that upward trend. Offseason workouts helped the 6-foot Epperson to gain 20 pounds (now at 185) and drop his 40-yard dash time from 4.65 to 4.55.
“I had a feeling it was going to be like this,” Epperson said. “I had a lot of people tell me last year that something special was going to happen this season.”
Turman says junior left tackle Blake Anderson (6-5, 275) is beginning to get Division I college recruiting attention. He headlines an offensive line that also includes Skradski at tight end, the combination of Mathew Friedt and Sam Homan at the other tackle, Ryne Emanuel and Sam Heffron at guards and Alex Stumpff at center.
“Kids have a lot of confidence in him,” Turman said of Epperson. “We had a third-and-5 against Waverly, the kids came over to the sidelines and said, ‘Give it to Jarod, give it to Epp. Iso up the middle and let’s just go.'”