Rock Bridge comeback falls just short of stunning Helias

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JEFFERSON CITY — Fourth-and-goal, four yards to go.

Rock Bridge had once again clawed its way back after another poor first-half performance. Down 27-10 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Bruins trailed by just seven with half a minute left in the game.

A few minutes earlier, Rock Bridge safety Tre Manuel intercepted Helias quarterback Zachary Wolken for the second time in the quarter, setting up the drive that ended on this final, crucial fourth down. The Bruins marched the ball down to the 3-yard line, but were stuffed three straight times by the Crusader defense.

Now it was do-or-die. Score and go to overtime, or fail and lose for the first time in a month.

Grant Hajicek took the snap, rolled to the left and pitched the ball to running back Bryce Jackson. The lane was sealed, so Jackson took a step back and kept trying. It still wasn’t there.

He doubled back and ran to the right. He was cut off there, too. He tried one last effort down the middle.

He didn’t make it.

Game over. Helias 27, Rock Bridge 20. The Bruins fell to 3-5 with the loss.

“We came back and fought to try to get back in the game,” Bruins' coach Van Vanatta said. “But we had the ball on the 3-yard line and we didn’t get it done. They wanted it a little bit more than us in the end.”

But how did the Bruins make it so close in the first place? It seemed impossible against one-loss Helias after the first half, when Rock Bridge had no answer for Wolken’s high-tempo, quick passing offense.

Wolken was 14-for-20 for 185 yards and one touchdown, a 62-yard deep ball to a wide-open Dylan Weaver, in the first half. A blocked punt returned to the 5-yard line set up a quick rushing touchdown from Alex Clement to give the Crusaders (8-0) a 14-3 lead heading into the break. It could have been even more if not for a dropped pass on 4th-and-3 and a goal-line fumble from running back Carson Brauner.

“We had a good plan (to deal with Helias’ offense), but it was just blown assignments,” Vanatta said. “One play doesn’t lose the game. There were a lot of plays where we didn’t execute.”

Meanwhile, Hajicek, Wolken’s counterpart, struggled, completing just three passes for 17 yards in the first half.

Bryce Jackson ran 33 yards up the middle on Rock Bridge’s first snap of the game, which set up a 42-yard field goal from Will Norris. But then the offense sunk back into its pattern of slow starts and disappeared for the rest of the half, only converting one more first down before the break.

“I don’t have an answer for (Rock Bridge’s slow stars this season),” Vanatta said. “We’re not getting ready and focused to play (before the game).”

But inexplicably, Rock Bridge’s offense once again came alive in the second half.

A 50-yard field goal from Vito Calvaruso extended the Crusaders’ lead to 17-3; but in response, Hajicek found Brant Bowers for 42 yards. Then he found Spencer Nivens for 32 yards. Then Bryce Jackson grabbed Rock Bridge’s first touchdown of the night with a 7-yard run.

Calvaruso kicked another field goal, this one from 42 yards, to make it 20-10, and then the Crusaders really seemed to put a stamp on the game. Corner Griffin Buschjost picked off Hajicek near the end of the third quarter, and Clement burst 71 yards untouched up the middle on the next play.

Seventeen point deficit. One quarter remaining.

But Hajicek and the Bruins would not quit.

Nivens gained 37 yards on a double-reverse trick play that led to a 13-yard pass from Hajicek to Max Vanatta in the end zone. 27-17.

Manuel grabbed his first interception around midfield with seven minutes left. Then Hajicek pulled off a miracle of a play when he broke four tackles in the backfield and dumped the ball off to Jackson, who plowed through a defender en route to a 25-yard gain. Norris converted a 38-yard field goal and all of a sudden it was a one-possession game.

Manuel grabbed his second interception on a deep third-and-nine attempt from Wolken, and now there were three minutes left for Rock Bridge to go 43 yards and complete a stunning comeback.

Hajicek found Nivens for 25 yards, and then fought through a crunching tackle on a quarterback sneak to convert a third-and-two.

First-and-goal on the 3-yard line. Four consecutive stops.

Game lost.

“It’s tough,” Vanatta said. “You win with class and you lose with grace. We had our opportunity and we didn’t capitalize. They wanted it a little bit more than us in the end.”

Rock Bridge will return home to face Francis Howell on senior night at 7 p.m., Friday.