Kevin Haskin: Quarterfinal matchup in Class 3A rekindles memories from 30-plus years ago

Fake punt by All-State back Matt Koehler backfired for Nemaha in 7-6 loss to Jim Wright’s Wellsville squad

Over the span of 30-plus years, the risk is still remembered for the reward that was robbed.

Citizens, relatives and fans — young and old alike — who call Seneca home still ask to this day about the 1985 quarterfinal loss to Wellsville in the Class 3A high school football playoffs.

“It stays with us forever,’’ conceded Matt Koehler, the star senior that year for Nemaha Valley.

“We talk to each other and we talk about the fake punt all the time. Everybody gives us a bad time. The grades above and below, your brothers, they all want to know, ‘What the hell were you guys thinking?’’’

That question was discussed, and cussed, immediately after the game ended and Wellsville won 7-6.

I know because Jim Wright, the Wellsville coach, asked me roughly the same thing when we crossed paths in the parking lot.

Only Wright had anticipated something might be up.

That season, Nemaha actually converted several fourth downs on fakes by Koehler, who usually flattened opponents, whether he carried the ball as a running back or delivered hits as a linebacker.

“We had a scouting report that told us about the punt fakes and it put the nail right on it,’’ said Wright, now retired but still living in Wellsville.

“If I remember, there was a time out right before the play and I told the guys to watch for the fake. I made one good call the whole night. That was it and we won the game. (Koehler) was an animal, though.’’

At least one photo documents that description.

Koehler was an All-State pick on The Capital-Journal’s Top 11 that year.

Occasionally you see the group portrait in documentaries.

Of Barry Sanders.

Obviously everyone remembers the Heisman Trophy winner and NFL legend off that All-State team. Koehler actually sat with Sanders as the quiet kids at the All-State banquet.

As a collegian, Koehler was decorated, too, though he laughs that Larry Kramer recruited him to Emporia State on the promise he would play running back.

After some two-way duty for the Hornets, Koehler settled in at linebacker and was a two-time NAIA All-American.

He chose college football over wrestling, despite going 28-0 and pinning all his opponents as a senior for Nemaha. Koehler wrestled roughly 30 minutes all season, with the average match lasting barely a minute, while claiming a second state title.

“After the first 10 or 12 matches, they were pretty short,’’ he remembered. “My brother (Eric) was one of my coaches and we started having bets on the side, so that added a little flavor to the matches. … But I decided at the time I’d had enough wrestling in my life.’’

Not enough football, though.

Oh, the sting of that quarterfinal defeat in high school diminished over time. Koehler runs a successful landscape business in Prescott, Ariz. He and his wife, Amy, a former volleyball player at ESU, have three children.

Yet after getting stopped on that fake punt, then telling the story so many times, the memory never fades. …

Throughout the first half, Nemaha did virtually anything it wanted, generating 219 yards. Turnovers, however, were costly. The only TD for Nemaha came on a 10-yard burst by Koehler with 11:25 left in the second quarter — not much to show for his 149 first-half yards.

The fake punt was called in from the sideline. Nemaha faced fourth-and-7 from its 38-yard line. After stopping Koehler in the backfield, Wellsville took over with 6:11 remaining. The Eagles drove 34 yards in four plays, scoring on a 1-yard run by quarterback Darin Gretencord. Mark Horne tacked on the decisive PAT.

On Friday, Wellsville (10-1) will make the trip to Seneca again for a 3A quarterfinal game against what is now Nemaha Central (11-0), a school consolidated to include students who formerly attended B&B Baileyville.

Koehler doesn’t keep up much, though he returns to Kansas to visit family a few times each year.

Wright plans to attend the game and is sure that the scene from 31 years ago will cross his mind, just like X’s and O’s.

Memories from that November night remain vivid for me … from what was my first year at The Capital-Journal.

Catching up with Wright, the tactician, and Koehler, the animal, was my reward. Wright got his, guiding Wellsville to the 3A championship game that year as part of a highly successful career.

But Koehler? He’s fine, but oh if he could have that fake punt back.

“We were a senior-laden team (at Nemaha) and that’s all my best friends I was playing with,’’ he said. “You want to achieve something special and we didn’t get that opportunity. And, we were good enough to achieve it.’’

Contact Kevin Haskin at kevin.haskin@cjonline.com or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.

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