Lions still unbeaten

For a team that never led by less than 10 points in any fourth quarter all year, top-ranked Bishop Ryan sure showed some guts in its down-to-the-wire regular-season finale Thursday night at Herb Parker Stadium.

Clinging to a one-touchdown lead as time ticked under a minute, the Lions bent – actually, hung on for dear life – but didn’t break.

Junior linebacker Jonah Kramer picked off St. Mary’s junior quarterback Gus Smrekar at the Lions’ 8-yard line with 14.9 seconds left, and Ryan held off the No. 2-ranked Saints for a 14-7 victory.

The win gave the Lions (9-0 overall, 7-0 region) their second straight Class AA West Region title – the first consecutive region titles in school history – and home-field advantage for the state playoffs.

“In big games, it’s about the fourth quarter,” Ryan coach Brad Borkhuis said. “It’s about playing until the end of the game. You’re always gonna know it’s gonna be a tight, tough game (against St. Mary’s) and so it’s just about sticking to what got you there.”

Prior to the interception, the Saints (8-1, 6-1) converted a fourth-and-16 from their own 20 with a 37-yard heave from Smrekar to junior Byrne Curl along the right sideline. The following play, St. Mary’s used a hook-and-ladder for a 13-yard gain, pushing the ball to the Ryan 30. After a pair of incompletions, Smrekar escaped what appeared to be a sure sack, then split two defenders and slipped by another for a miraculous 19-yard gain into the red zone.

But on the next play, Smrekar never saw Kramer and threw it point-blank to the 6-foot, 190-pounder for the game-ending interception.

“I just saw a pass, read it, dropped into my zone and it just came to me,” Kramer said.

Turnovers plagued both teams (three apiece), but two in particular were extremely untimely for St. Mary’s: the late interception and a second-quarter fumble from the 2-yard line.

“The same thing that hurt them hurt us: turnovers,” St. Mary’s coach Dan Smrekar said. “But our turnovers happened to be on the 1-foot line and the 11-yard line. That kills you. We don’t turn those over, we might be ahead 21-14.”

Ryan outgained St. Mary’s 310-240, but squandered its own opportunities with a pair of interceptions and a fumble.

On their first offensive possession, the Lions proved why they’re the top-ranked offense in Class AA.

Senior quarterback Austin Eggl rumbled in from 3 yards out to cap a 17-play, 89-yard drive that spanned 8 minutes, 20 seconds.

“I felt we moved the ball well,” Borkhuis said. “We’ve got to fix the trying to do too much. The challenge is, as you get better and better teams, where you used to make that pass or that adjustment by 2 feet, now it’s by 2 inches.”

Eggl also had a 3-yard rushing touchdown midway through the third quarter. He finished with 21 carries for 106 yards and he completed 21 of 28 passes for 166 yards.

St. Mary’s scored in the second quarter on a 22-yard run by sophomore running back Jacob Heinert to tie the game at 7-all.

It’s the second week in a row the Lions have limited a top-five offense to seven points or less. Senior defensive tackle Mason Kramer said it takes pressure off the offense.

“Defensively, we knew we were going to be fine after those turnovers and mistakes we had,” said Kramer, who had 9.5 tackles, including three sacks. “We just know we can rely on our defense.”

Now Ryan turns its focus to the postseason, when it will host a playoff game for the second straight year. Its opponent hasn’t been determined.

“Our focus is we wait until tomorrow to see who we’re playing and then we get back to work,” Borkhuis said.

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgren.