STEVENS POINT — The Chi-Hi football team rolled the dice with its season on the line.
And the Cardinals hit big with it on Friday as Karson Bowe's two-point conversion run was the difference in a 22-21 overtime victory over Stevens Point in the first round of the Division 1 playoffs at Goerke Park.
Chi-Hi (8-2) moves on to play at top-seeded Kimberly in the second round.
The Cardinals were facing a 21-14 deficit in overtime after the Panthers (7-3) scored on their opening possession as senior quarterback Riley Warzynski found senior receiver Quinton Martin for a six-yard score. The Panthers added the extra point and Chi-Hi took the field for its possession knowing it needed to reach the end zone for the chance to continue its season. It didn't take the Cardinals long as quarterback Brayden Warwick's play-action pass to Karson Bowe for 25 yards on the first play of the drive put Chi-Hi in the end zone and cut the gap to one.
Chi-Hi called a timeout to talk it over, but Chi-Hi coach Chuck Raykovich already knew what he wanted to do.
And what play would be called.
The Cardinals went to an old favorite with their counter double handoff with the ball ending up in the hands of Bowe, who ran left before cutting up field into the end zone for the winning scamper to send the program to its first playoff victory since 2015.
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It was the only time the Cardinals led in Friday's game.
Chi-Hi was in a similar position two years ago in its playoff opener. Then an eight seed, the Cardinals scored a touchdown with less than two minutes left versus top-seeded Pulaski to close within one at 35-34. The Cardinals opted to go for the win and called the same play they won with on Friday, but on that occasion the ball was fumbled and Chi-Hi ultimately suffered a one-point defeat.
Overtime was a reality for Chi-Hi in large part because of the efforts of the team's defense throughout the game, especially on Stevens Point's last drive of regulation. The Panthers moved 48 yards on 12 plays and took up more than five minutes late in the game, pushing the ball to the Chi-Hi 15-yard line in the final minute. Warzynski faked to a running back and rolled out before throwing to the end zone, where senior defensive back Gavin Goodman had jumped a comeback route to grab the pick.
“We’re confident in our offense and mistakes happen," Stevens Point coach Michael Krenz said. "We made a mistake. Had we needed to kick a field goal I have all the confidence in our field goal unit but we still had some time on the clock and we felt like we could take it down a little bit more and it just didn’t work out for us.”
Earlier in the quarter it was another play by Goodman that set the Cardinals up for the tie as he pounced on a muffed punt return attempt at the Stevens Point 40-yard line with 7:27 to go. Warwick's 28-yard run helped set the Cardinals up inside the Stevens Point 10 and on the next play Bowe scored on an eight-yard run with Judah Dunham adding the two-point conversion to even the game with 6:13 remaining in regulation.
“The defense did what the defense has done all year and we wouldn’t have finished how we did tonight without their again spectacular performance tonight," Raykovich said.
Kaleb Xiong ended Stevens Point's opening drive of the game with an interception as Warzynski — the newly-named Valley Football Association offensive player of the year — threw while under heavy duress from Owen Krista and Dawson Goodman. Warzynski threw just three interceptions in the regular season but was picked twice by the Cardinals and was under heavy pressure on many of his drop backs as he finished 14-of-19 for 171 yards with one touchdown pass.
“The kid is good. The quarterback is good," Raykovich said of Warzynski. "He’s got good receivers and they work for him.”
Braylon Smola opened the scoring in the game with a one-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. The sophomore running back finished with 89 yards on 26 carries.
The Chi-Hi offense came up empty on its first two drives of a fast-moving first half before quickly finding the end zone on its third possession after back-to-back sacks forced a Stevens Point punt. On the first play of the drive Warwick found Dunham near midfield as the senior quarterback dropped the ball between defenders before Dunham made a move from the middle of the field to the outside and raced his way for a 72-yard score. A false start on the ensuing extra point try moved the kick back and it was missed, but the Cardinals got the ball back immediately as kicker Esubalew Mason's squib kick hit a Panthers player on the leg and was pounced on, putting the ball back in Chi-Hi's hands at the Panthers 49-yard line with less than 30 seconds left.
Warwick found Mason Howard on a 26-yard connection off to move to the Stevens Point 20 but the final pass of the half went incomplete in the end zone, sending the Panthers into halftime with a 7-6 lead. After a Chi-Hi three and out to open the second half, the Panthers embarked on an 18-play drive that took up 10 minutes of the third quarter, moving to the Chi-Hi 2-yard line before the Cardinals defense stiffened and stuffed a fourth down run attempt. Ty Madlena snagged an interception for Stevens Point and weaved his way 32 yards back for a touchdown with 9:13 to go, giving the Panthers a 14-6 lead.
Bowe finished with a team-high 54 rushing yards as the Cardinals ran for 178 as a team. Bowe caught three of Warwick's six completions for 41 yards.
“The offense, I think the offense is getting better," Raykovich said.
The victory is the first in the postseason for the Cardinals since a 17-6 win over Menomonie in the Division 2 quarterfinals on Nov. 6, 2015. Chi-Hi now turns it attention to unbeaten Kimberly after the top-seeded Papermakers routed D.C. Everest 40-0 on Friday evening.
“They’re just good kids, good football players and like I told the guys the best thing about winning tonight is I get to work with them another week," Raykovich said. "They’re like my kids….they are my kids.”