BANGOR — Esden Schroeder dropped down to his knees with his Cashton High School football teammates and listened intently to what coach Jered Hemmersbach had to say.
He wasn’t the only one with tears streaming down his cheeks as Hemmersbach talked about pride and not quitting during a tough situation.
The tears were the result of a 34-28 loss to Bangor, a team that had blown the Eagles out five straight times — by a combined score of 241-7 — and beaten them 18 times since 2000 but didn’t prevail Friday night until the final minute of the game.
It was tough to take because it so close, and none of the players involved had even sniffed a competitive game with the Cardinals before. The feeling was unfamiliar because the challenge was very different than any of them had experienced.
As Hemmersbach pointed to the Bangor sideline, looked his players in the eyes and stressed very plainly what they had just accomplished, Schroeder smiled. Some of his teammates did, too.
With wins in its first five games, Cashton wasn’t there for a moral victory. Not at that moment and surely not as it contemplated how close it really was to beating Bangor and stopping its Scenic Bluffs Conference win streak at 41 games.
But the players had to recognize what their coaches already had. The Eagles (5-1, 5-1) pushed a team that has won 79 of 84 conference games since 2008 and two WIAA Division 7 state championships since 2015 to the brink.
“Like our coach said, this game is going to put us on the map,” Cashton sophomore Colin O’Neil said with a smile after the game. “We didn’t win, but this is huge for us.”
Huge because the Eagles never backed down. Huge because the Eagles didn’t just roll with the punches, but because they produced in big moments and weren’t put away until the final minute.
Bangor (6-0, 6-0) scored the go-ahead touchdown by completing a 75-yard drive that began with 4 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. The Cardinals broke the 28-28 tie when sophomore Tanner Jones scored from a yard out with 18.1 seconds on the clock.
Like it had in tying a game it trailed 21-6 at halftime, Cashton fought back. A 38-yard pass from sophomore Jacob Huntzicker to junior Dylan Bayer gave the Eagles one more snap from the Bangor 34-yard line, but the final pass fell incomplete.
It’s a play that most of the Eagles will remember the next time they play the Cardinals because all but seven of them are eligible to play again next season, most of them beyond that.
Cashton, which was 0-9 as recently as 2018, pushed Bangor like no other local team has since its 13-0 win over Royall in 2016 with a 42-player roster that includes seven seniors and 10 juniors. And the freshmen and sophomores play for Hemmersbach’s team.
O’Neil rushed 23 times for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Huntzicker completed 10 of 14 passes for 178 yards, and his 11-yard touchdown pass to Bayer near the edge of the end zone was a beautiful play on both ends.
Lincoln Klinge caught four passes for 52 yards, and he’s a junior. Zack Mlsna, a 6-foot-7, 285 pound left tackle, helped the offensive line stand up against an aggressive and powerful defense as a sophomore.
One of the key plays of the entire game — a fumbled kickoff return by Bangor in the third quarter — was made by a pair of freshmen.
After O’Neil cut Cashton’s deficit to 21-14 on a 23-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, the kickoff was sent to Owen Johnson. Brett Hemmersbach was there for initial contact that knocked Johnson off his stride, and Ethan Klinkner hit the ground to recover the ensuing fumble.
O’Neil took a handoff on the Eagles’ next snap and went 21 yards for another touchdown that made it 21-20. The touchdowns came 15 seconds apart and rejuvenated a team that embraced the burst of energy. His next touchdown and two-point conversion in the fourth quarter tied the score at 28 with 11:18 left.
“I think they’re hungry,” Jered Hemmersbach, a 1998 Cashton graduate, said of his players’ refusal to hang their heads after falling behind. “They want this as bad as the coaches, and coaches always want to win.
“I truly believe they want (to win) that bad, and they’ve bought into the way we want to do that. They love this team, and they are playing for each other.”
That was all apparent on Friday.
The Eagles have big aspirations and appear to possess the personnel necessary to reach their aspirations. This experience against Bangor can only help that happen.
“That’s who I look at, and that’s who I want to be,” Jered Hemmersbach said of the Cardinals. “To go toe to toe with them and have it come down to (the last 18 seconds) ... they just had the ball last.”
Todd Sommerfeldt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @SommerfeldtLAX