BLUFFTON – The Eastside Blazers checked off the first item on their playoff to-do list, beating Bluffton 40-7 in the sectional opener Friday night.
But the win was not quite as easy as Eastside coach Todd Mason might have hoped. The Tigers (8-2) got on the board almost immediately. At halftime, the Class 2A No. 5 Blazers (9-1) narrowly led 13-7.
“I didn't really like our start, I'll be honest with you, we started a little slow,” Mason said. “Hopefully, as we mature as a team as the tournament progresses, we start a little faster than that. Hats off to coach (Brent) Kunkel at Bluffton, they had a great game plan, they executed well in that first quarter.”
Eastside's first two possessions ended in punts, and Bluffton senior quarterback Hayden Nern picked up 37 yards on his first play of the night. That set up the Tigers for a 5-yard touchdown pass from Nern to junior wide receiver Alec Reiff, who was on his knees in the end zone.
Bluffton led 7-0 after the first quarter, although the Blazers did force a turnover on downs late in the first period by tackling Nern about two yards short of the line to gain.
At 10:09 in the second quarter, Eastside tied the game on a 3-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Dax Holman.
Less than three minutes later, the Blazers got the ball back when junior linebacker Kyler Bibbee tackled Nern and then recovered the fumble. Eastside ate up almost five minutes of the clock, and junior quarterback Laban Davis scrambled, found space and then heaved an 18-yard pass toward the end zone. It was too high for senior wide receiver Lane Burns, but senior wide receiver Wade Miller came running along the back of the end zone to make the catch. Burns was then pushed out of bounds during the 2-point conversion attempt, so the Blazers took a 13-7 lead into the break.
“Me and Laban, we stay after practices, we have a good connection between us. It's all that extra work that we've put in, it helps and it's paying off now,” Miller said.
The tide quickly turned in Eastside's favor after halftime. Bluffton fumbled the kickoff, and Eastside was immediately back on offense and in a great position to score. Moments later, Davis hit junior tight end Gavin Wallace, who was wide open in the center of the field, for the 23-yard touchdown pass. The 2-point conversion once against failed, and the Blazers led 19-7.
Bluffton's next drive ended with a punt attempt, but there was a problem on the snap and the Tigers player who went to recover the ball was tackled near the goal line.
Bluffton's Kunkel argued that it should have been a safety, but the officials ruled that Eastside would take over at the 1.
Davis carried the ball for a touchdown on second down, and Eastside was suddenly up 26-7.
Eastside sophomore defensive back Briar Munsey added to Bluffton's troubles with an interception late in the third quarter to set up Davis's second touchdown pass to Miller, this one for 39 yards.
The Blazers' last touchdown midway through the fourth quarter was on an 8-yard pass from Davis to Wallace, who once again had separated himself from his defender and was open in the corner of the end zone.
The Blazers will next face Prairie Heights in the sectional semifinals.