There was still a chance.
It was a slim one, but facing the No. 1-ranked team in Class 4A on Friday, Denmark’s football team had every reason to be optimistic as they came out of the locker room for the second half. The Danes’ defense had certainly done its job to that point, having limited Marist to mostly field goals.
But there was one big problem. Although they were down just nine points, Denmark’s offense, full of Division I recruits, had been shut down completely, with Marist’s front harassing quarterback Aaron McLaughlin thoroughly.
But none of that changed as the game progressed. Denmark’s offense continued to sputter, and when the defense finally began to crack, the Danes couldn’t answer, ultimately resulting in a 37-14 loss to the War Eagles. The loss dropped Denmark to 5-2 overall and 2-2 in Region 7-4A.
“In the first half, we battled and held them to some field goals and did some things like that, which helped us, but in the end, they were just too much for us,” Denmark head coach Terry Crowder said. “It kind of got away from us in the second half with some things that we did. I just give all the credit to them -- they're really good.”
After a three-and-out from Denmark’s offense to start the game, the Danes’ defense held Marist to a field goal to end its first drive. Trailing 3-0 by the end of the first half, Denmark stopped the War Eagles again with 10:09 left in the first half with the help of a fumble, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty put Marist in range for another field goal try, which they converted for the 6-0 lead. The contest was a testy one, with conduct penalties prevalent throughout for the Danes.
“It's kind of (from) the beating that we took,” Crowder said. “You get frustrated. We've had success all year -- this is the first time we didn't. We didn't know how to handle it, so we'll work on that and we'll talk to the kids about how to handle adversity a little better.”
Marist quarterback Connor Cigelske put his team even further ahead with 4:39 left in the second quarter with a 1-yard dive into the end zone to make it 13-0, but Denmark responded with its most complete drive of the game. McLaughlin, receiver Ze’Vian Capers and running back Jordan Brunson were finally finding a rhythm, and with 2:54 left until the half, McLaughlin found open space up the middle and dashed to the corner of the end zone for a 31-yard touchdown. Denmark trailed 16-7 heading into the break after another Marist field goal, but the offense never found that same kind of synergy again.
“Offensively, we've got to get some things fixed,” Crowder said. “They were just playing off real far and trying to make us throw underneath. They brought a lot of pressure on us. It was pretty effective, what they did.”
As the game went on, the Danes’ hopes at a comeback win vanished. The War Eagles finally broke though the goal line again with a short Lincoln Parker run with 10:42 left in the game. Mitchell Owen rattled off a long run to Denmark’s 7 on Marist’s next possession to set up another touchdown, and with 6:32 to go, a pressured McLaughlin fumbled the ball, which was picked up by Tyler Hare for a 75-yard return. McLaughlin found Casey Gunn for a 13-yard score with 6:32 to play.
After two straight losses to the best teams Class 4A has to offer, Denmark is feeling some adversity, something it hadn’t really felt until last week’s one-point loss to Blessed Trinity. But with a playoff spot on the line for the Danes next week, they’ll have to get their minds right for what is now the most critical game of their season.
“That'll be the challenge,” Crowder said. “That's character. We're going to have to have great character with the football team and learn from our mistakes and just move forward and try to do the things that we need to do to get better and to beat White County.”