It’s not how you start, but how you finish.
Kearney proved that to be the case after a slow start Friday night, scoring 21 points in seven minutes in the second half, en route to a 34-14 win over Harrisonville.
With all of the fireworks – literally and figuratively - surrounding the game and newly-renovated Liberty Hospital Field, both teams were relatively quiet in a first half littered with missed opportunities.
Harrisonville would get the ball back and break the tie in the final minute of the first half would be a sign of things to come. The Wildcats broke the scoreless tie with a 10-yard touchdown run from Jace Reynolds, making it 6-0 with 57 seconds remaining in the half.
Harrisonville's Brice Percival tries to elude a Kearney defender. (Photo: David Smith, 810 Varsity)
However, Kearney quickly responded with a 41-yard run by senior running back Garrett Laughlin and stopped the clock with six seconds left. This gave sophomore quarterback Ian Acosta enough time to take one shot at the end zone, and he knew exactly who he was going to. Jacob Stevens hauled in a heavily-contested fade route for a 22-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs their first points of the night, tying the game at 6-6 heading into halftime. Stevens led Bulldog receivers with 58 receiving yards and a touchdown.
“Just get the ball up to him and let him fight for it,” was what Acosta said he was thinking before the play. “He’s good at going to get the ball and helping me out.”
Kearney began the second half on offense and quickly went to work before stalling on third-and-11. However, a roughing the passer penalty kept the drive alive, and on the next play Laughlin broke open for a 35-yard touchdown run. A successful two-point conversion gave Kearney a 14-6 lead with only two minutes removed from the quarter.
For the game, Laughlin finished with 208 rushing yards on 25 carries. “That’s what we had anticipated from him,” said Kearney head coach Josh Gray. “We see that at practice, we see his hard work. He knows what it takes and gets his body ready and does a nice job.”
“He’s a heck of a back. It’s just nobody knows him. But they will. He runs hard and is not afraid to put his shoulder down.”
Harrisonville’s troubles would only get worse. On their ensuring possession, quarterback River Riley bobbled a shotgun snap and Kearney linebacker Corbin Bevan caught it in midair, returning it 28 yards for the score. In a game that nearly took an entire half for any team to score, two Bulldog touchdowns in the span of 57 seconds suddenly made it 21-6.
“We relaxed. I mean, you can’t come out (as a) ball of energy,” said Gray. “You want energy, but you need to have controlled excitement and controlled energy. I think we were hyper... We got in, we talked through some things, we fixed some mistakes that we made in the first half and were able to capitalize.”
The Wildcats would respond by finally getting points off a long drive, connecting on a 42-yard touchdown pass to Colby Knowles. Kearney would answer shortly after with two more passing touchdowns from Acosta to Trevor Fritz and Carson Frakes, putting the game out of reach.
It was a strong showing for Acosta, who finished with 113 passing yards and three touchdown passes despite starting the game off slower than he wanted to.
Ian Acosta debuted with three touchdown passes for Kearney. (Photo: David Smith, 810 Varsity)
“Really, it was just because I was a sophomore, my first start, I was kinda nervous,” he said, adding that he had to “get the nerves out of the way” early on.
As for the rest of the Bulldogs, who entered the season with many new faces on both sides of the ball, the game served as a good measuring stick for where they are currently and where Gray wants them to be moving forward.
“It’s a good confidence builder to be able to go into halftime, know where we were, and come back out in the second half and do what we did,” he said.
The first half saw missed opportunities from both sides. Harrisonville began the game by converting multiple times on third and fourth down before being stopped on 4th and 15 at the Kearney 24-yard line.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had their own offensive woes early on. Laughlin got Kearney past midfield for the first time following a 50-yard run, but the game remained scoreless when Parker Snider missed a 27-yard field goal attempt.
Looking to capitalize, Riley marched Harrisonville down to the Kearney 14 with seven consecutive completed passes only to be intercepted by Buster Lawrence, who jumped the route and ripped the ball away from the receiver. It was a huge momentum swing for the Bulldogs, who needed their defense to come up big multiple times throughout the game.
“At times, we shot ourselves in the foot (and) made some mistakes,” said head coach Josh Gray. “But the big thing was, we came out and had some great defensive stances.”
Reynolds led the Wildcats with 106 rushing yards and a score. Riley finished with 17-of-33 passing for 189 yards and a touchdown pass, while Brice Percival hauled in 104 yards and a score.
Kearney (1-0) will stay at home and play host to Staley next week, while Harrisonville (0-1) will play their season opener against Maryville.
Passing: Riley 17-33-189-1-1
Rushing: Reynolds 23-106-1, Crowley 3-10, Percival 2-7, Pesek 1-5, Tarwater 1-3, Riley 4- -17
Receiving: Percival 6-104-1, Tarwater 3-36, Cecil 4-29, Atkinson 3-19, Crowley 1-1
Passing: Acosta 6-17-113-3-0
Rushing: Laughlin 25-208-1, Acosta 5-10, Fritz 1-1
Receiving: Stevens 2-58-1, Fritz 1-26-1, Frakes 1-18-1, Laughlin 2-11