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Back on top: Howells-Dodge rolls over Cross County after Sindelar's game-changing play

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Mike Speirs

R.J. Bayer, left, and Blake Sindelar embrace Howells-Dodge head coach Mike Speirs after dousing him with the water cooler following the Jaguars' 42-12 state championship victory on Monday in Lincoln.

LINCOLN - Howells-Dodge senior Blake Sindelar has over 100 steals in his basketball career. Perhaps some of those skills made the difference in his game-changing play during Monday's Class D-1 football championship.

In position to score the first points of the game with a second-and-goal from the Howells-Dodge 1, Sindelar stepped up and denied Cross County the early momentum. He came through unblocked, disrupted a handoff and forced a fumble at the 3. That play and one two snaps earlier by Levi Belina sparked a Howells-Dodge fire that consumed Cross County over the next quarter-plus.

Sindelar forces a crucial turnover early and turns game in Jaguars favor.

The Jaguars went on to score eight plays later on Belina's first touchdown of the game and never looked back. Howells-Dodge put up the first 26 points of the game and went on to a 42-12 victory.

The championship is the first for the school since the two combined in 2012.

"Honestly, I just ran through there; no one blocked me," Sindelar said. "He had the ball out and I just knocked it out of his hands."

Were there some hoops skills involved in that play?

"I guess so," Sindelar said with a laugh.

Belina made it 6-0 and 8-0 just a few ticks into the second quarter after going 44 yards around the left side for the first points of the game. He also added touchdown runs of 7, 9 and 16 while picking up 153 yards on 23 carries. He also threw a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.

Belina went over 2,000 yards for the season and finishes his career with more than 4,500 rush yards and 78 rushing touchdowns. He and the Howells-Dodge offense churned up 253 yards on the ground and averaged nearly 6 yards per carry on Monday. But again, it might have been Sindelar's play early that allowed the Jaguars to recalibrate and get back to being themselves.

"That was really big," Belina said. "I think that gave us a lot of energy, let us get the ball back and come down the field."

Howells-Dodge threw an interception on its first possession and fumbled on its second. The fumble set Cross County up at the Howells-Dodge 14 after a video review revealed Lance Brester's knee wasn't down when the ball came out.

Jaguars overcome early mistakes and run away with 42-12 title win.

The Jaguar defense rose up for a stop at the line of scrimmage on first down, allowed just a 3 yard run by Cross County quarterback Shayden Lundstrom on second down then backed the Cougars up with a holding call on third. Lundstrom dropped back and looked for a receiver the next play then took off and nearly made the end zone. At the 1, Belina stuffed Cougar running back Carter Seim at the 1 and, momentarily, made the play of the game. It was trumped the very next play when Sindelar found his way into the backfield.

"That play that Blake made on the goal line was huge to take the ball away from them in that situation," Howells-Dodge coach Mike Speirs said. "The play before we had a great effort by the linebacker to keep them out of the end zone. You look back on that and you go, 'jeez, those are just huge effort plays.' That's what we've always kind of preached with them."

On the other sideline, Cross County couldn't help but see it as a huge missed opportunity, one of two the Cougars failed to capitalize on and set an early tone.

Lundstrom intercepted a pass on his own 23 during a third-and-5 on the first drive of the game. Cross County picked up one first down on the ensuing possession but halted near midfield and had to punt it away. The kick pinned the Jaguars at their own 2 and set up the fumble two plays later.

Belina runs for four touchdowns, throws for another in D-1 championship victory.

Isaac Noyd knocked the ball away from Brester. Replay review, available only in the state championship games for the first time ever, determined it was a fumble recovered by Ethan Brehm.

But disaster struck just like it had earlier in the season when Cross County had a second down inside the Howells-Dodge 5 early in the Week 3 contest. The Cougars also fumbled that one away in a loss that included three of the four giveaways Cross County committed during the regular season.

"You force two turnovers in the first quarter and score zero points is never a good thing," Cougar coach Hayden DeLano said. "We get down to the 1 and we turn it over, and it was eerily similar to being in Howells in September. We had a second-and-goal at the 1 and didn't score. That will haunt you; you've got to make those plays if you're going to win state."

Belina's 44-yard touchdown run to cap the next drive was followed by a 10-play, 46-yard drive that made it 14-0 on Brester's 4-yard run. Belina ended a five-play drive on a 7-yard touchdown run for a 20-0 lead with 1:37 left in the half.

Cross County put together its best drive of the game in the final 90 seconds of the first half but fumbled it away inside the Howells-Dodge 10.

It turned into a 26-0 Jaguar lead with 10:29 remaining in the third on a 9-yard Belina run. The Cougars finally found points just over four minutes later when Lundstrom hit Izaac Dickey for a 13-yard touchdown pass. 

Cross County then forced a three-and-out and looked to have some life but failed on a fourth-and 13 at its own 28 with 1:43 left in the third. Belina essentially put it away three plays later on a 16-yard run for his final score of the game.

The final points were scored on a 25-yard touchdown pass from Belina back to his quarterback on well-designed misdirection play with 9:39 left in the game, and a 25-yard pass from Lundstrom to Cory Hollinger with 2:56 to go.

"It's a great feeling. We've been waiting for this for a long time," Belina said. "Coach Speirs has won a lot, and now we've won it again for him."

Howells had nine state titles and 10 appearances in the title game prior to combining with Dodge. Dodge raised six state championship trophies before 2012.

Every group is a little different. Speirs said this one will be remembered for its drive and desire.

"How hard these guys. How much effort they played with," he said. "Today we played with tremendous effort."

Levi Belina

Levi Belina (22) is joined in the end zone by teammates, from left, R.J. Bayer, Jestin Bayer and Lance Brester after one of his four touchdown runs in Monday's D-1 state title win over Cross County.

Blake Sindelar

Howells-Dodge senior Blake Sindelar saves a touchdown and forces a fumble at the 1 in the first quarter of Monday's Class D-1 state title game at Memorial Stadium.

Ethan Brehm

Cross County defenders Ethan Brehm (84) and Carter Seim wrap up Howells-Dodge running back Levi Belina for a minimal gain in Monday's Class D-1 state title game in Lincoln.

Levi Belina

Howells-Dodge senior Levi Belina hits the edge and takes off for a 44-yard touchdown run in Monday's Class D-1 state championship win in Lincoln.

Gavin Nelson

Howells-Dodge senior Gavin Nelson upends Cross County's Carter Seim after a big gain in Monday's Class D-1 state championship at Memorial Stadium.

Izaac Dickey

Cross County sophomore Izaac Dickey turns up field after a catch for a 13-yard touchdown in the third quarter of Monday's Class D-1 state title game.

Alex Noyd

Cross County's Isaac Noyd (55) and Carter Seim make a stop on Howells-Dodge running back Jestin Bayer during Monday's D-1 state title game in Lincoln.

Jestin Bayer

Howells-Dodge junior Jestin Beyer makes a stop on Cross County's Carter Seim behind the line in Monday's D-1 state title game.

Cory Hollinger

Cross County senior Cory Hollinger catches a 25-yard touchown pass in the fourth quarter of Monday's Class D-1 state championship at Memorial Stadium.

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