Final Point: Klein a leader on playing fields, in the SHS hallways
     2012-11-01      By Terry Gaston   
Photo by Sheila Weber/for the Citizen Senior Matt Klein (No. 39) tucks the ball and flys down the field during the Bearcats’ first and final playoff game last Friday against York. See page B1 for full story of the game. 
Matthew T. Klein’s diploma from Scottsbluff High School will read 2013.

But the calendar year 2012 will likely go down in Klein’s memory books as the year that opportunities of winning multiple championships while wearing the Bearcats’ red and black colors, offered many fruitful rewards.

First was his role last winter on the Bearcats’ Class B state championship boys’ basketball team. As the point guard, Klein’s on-floor leadership helped set the pace for Scottsbluff to win its first basketball state title since 1955.

In May, Klein — along with his classmate and namesake, Matt D. Klein, also known as Kleiner — and other backfield mate Luke Worden, were on the state-winning 400-meter relay team and helped lead the Bearcats to a state team title for the seventh time, but the first since 1968.

Senior tackle Jon Maag also went to state in track, while fellow seniors Ty Dunkel and Bo Lofink were on the Bearcats’ state basketball roster.

“It’s been a dream and dreams come true,” Klein said after the Bearcats finished the regular season with a 35-6 victory over Sidney on Oct. 19 and perfect 9-0 record, Scottsbluff’s first undefeated regular season since the 2000 and 2001 Bearcats accomplished the feat.

“We’ve finally broken through that barrier of where we are where we want to be. But then again, our coaches just said to us right after this game, ‘It’s a whole new season now, we’re oh and oh, those nine wins mean nothing except for a seed anymore.’ We’ve got to start over we’ve got to come work to practice and we’ve got to be ready to go next week.”

Unfortunately for Klein and the Bearcats, they saw their undefeated season and No. 1 seed in the Class B playoffs snuffed out by York, a 28-9 winner that claimed the No. 16 berth in a tie-break over Gering and Alliance.

Scottsbluff coach Joe Benson said he wasn’t sure the Bearcats could finish the regular season unbeaten. First of all, football is a physical game, and nine straight Friday nights can take a lot out of a team.

But Klein and the Bearcats had the resolve for nine consecutive weeks, in the process overcoming teams with powerful offenses and stingy defenses — and also their own errors, with 435 yards of penalties infracted on the year.

“I think we learned that you have to have a lot of fight in you,” Klein said. “You can’t just expect to come out and play like you do every single time. You’ve got to have that heart and you have to be able to be able to dig down deep at some point to really find what you need inside you to win games. I think that played a huge role, I think every single person on our team was hungry for it this year.”
Klein had a great junior year, with 1,159 yards and 18 touchdowns. Worden added 585 yards and 10 TDs last season. Maag (250 pounds) and Ty Dunkel (245 pounds) were returning all-conference linemen. the Bearcats finished 7-3, losing to Ralston 14-12 at home in the first round of the playoffs.

The horses were in place. How the execution followed determined the Bearcats’ success.

“I think we just had to believe in ourselves,” said Klein, whose team gave up 130 points in their 10 games — but 67 in the final three games. “Our coaches have been telling us for the past few weeks that we lost our fire and we haven’t had that heart to play defense as hard as we can like we played every single play like we did earlier in the year. We did a better job of finding that (against Sidney).”

Klein finished his season in an inauspicious way. He went for a tackle against York’s Evan Neville, but the two collided helmet-to-helmet. Klein was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure, but he was uninjured and back at school on Monday.

Despite gaining only 50 rushing yards against the Dukes, Klein finished his senior year with 1,405 yards with 18 touchdowns on the ground, completed 6 of 8 passes for 109 yards with two touchdowns and caught six receptions for 52 yards for one TD.

Defensively, he had one fumble recovery, an interception he turned into a 49-yard touchdown return, 45 total tackles (35 solo), with six for lost yardage, and five quarterback sacks.

“I love coming out and playing this game every single day that I get the chance to, whether it’s practice, whether it’s game nights, whether it’s just hanging out with friends and playing a pick-up game or something like that,” Klein said. “That’s enough for me, just the love for the game and getting a chance to do what I can to the best of my ability.”

When life‘s importance crosses sports

I missed Friday night’s Class B state playoff opener for the Bearcats, who entered the game against York after having compiled a 9-0 regular-season record — and the No. 1 seed for the 16-team playoffs — I have known since basically the beginning of the season that I would miss the first playoff weekend.

My oldest son, Brett, is a junior music education major at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., having transferred there in August after completing his associate’s degree from Western Nebraska Community College over the summer.

The FLC Concert Band’s first performance of this semester, with Brett playing the baritone saxophone, was scheduled for Oct. 26 — Friday, the long-scheduled day for Class B first-round playoff games.

Oh well, just part of being a working parent. The parental responsibilities get lost enough during the evening and weekend hours required of a sports writer to properly cover your athletic youth of our area.

Like most people who had seen the Bearcats this season, my hope and expectation was that the Bearcats would take care of business as a No. 1 seed should: defeat York and hopefully gain a second-round, quarterfinal host berth this week — as long as No. 8 seed Elkhorn defeated No. 9 Blair.

Elkhorn took care of business. But York gets to host the second-round game, not Scottsbluff.

People had asked my professional and insight-filled opinion all week long if I thought the Bearcats would win, and how easily? Again, I know how teenage athletes can win together, but they can also lose together.

On a personal note, I certainly did not want to see a repeat of an occurrence of a 1996 Oklahoma playoff game, when our hometown team entered the playoffs as undefeated district champions — and left after the first round with one loss on the season and then packing the equipment soon thereafter.

Two years later, our team went undefeated again, won its first four playoff games and made the state championship game. They lost by one point. The team that won that day on the scoreboard featured an all-around yet undersized star player named Wes Welker, who still flexes his versatility 14 years later with the New England Patriots on Sundays.

Having very little knowledge of York, primarily that gained from looking at the Dukes’ scores on the NSAA Web site and what Benson had said throughout the week, I wasn’t taking a Scottsbluff win for granted.

No win is ever safe. (We interrupt this football-based column for this word from the very brief World Series.) Just ask the Detroit Tigers, winners of the American League pennant by a sweep, seemingly unstoppable with great pitching from Justin Verlander and the hitting power of Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, the also likely American League Most Valuable Player.

But then the Tigers were losers of the World Series by a sweep to the deserving San Francisco Giants and their loaded pitching staff, National League MVP favorite Buster Posey and the Series MVP, Game 1 triple-homer “Kung Fu Panda,“ Pablo Sandoval.

Back to Friday night: While we waited for the combination concert choir then band performances to begin at Fort Lewis, and with the Scottsbluff-York game about an hour in, I decided to text Gering Citizen photographer Sheila Weber, who was at Bearcat Stadium, for an update back here on the home front.

Her reply was doubly shocking. First was the score, 17-3 York, but second and worse was the news that both Matt Kleins were out of the game with injuries.

Oh no, I thought. Matt “Kleiner” Klein had reinjured a shoulder initially hurt four weeks earlier, shortly after making an interception in the Bearcats’ 23-21 win over Grand Island Northwest. You hate to see anyone get hurt, but re-aggravating an injury that can be hard to heal was not overly shocking — I was in a sling for five weeks with a separated shoulder when I was 21.

I hope Kleiner heals well before track season, while he pitches in on producing Hometown Family Radio basketball broadcasts until then.
Learning that Matt T. Klein had suffered a helmet-to-helmet injury in the third quarter while playing defense, lay still on the field for a few seconds before rolling over and was taken to the hospital was stomach-churning.

Perhaps my greatest sight of young Mr. Klein of the year came Monday. After gaining the game and season statistic reports and visiting with Bearcats football coach Joe Benson, I was walking down the hall toward the SHS commons area when I saw Matt. He looked as fresh and alert as he did when we visited on the field of Bearcat Stadium on Oct. 19.

“He is just a tremendous young man, he has great character, and those are the kind of kids you win with,” Benson said of Klein, who will likely be back wearing his No. 2 basketball jersey starting Nov. 29. “People who don’t know him just think he’s a great athlete, but there’s a lot more to him.”

While 2012 has been a blessing-filled calendar year for Klein, his senior year still has nearly seven months remaining. And thus more opportunities to bring home individual and team championships in 2013.

A great three-year run

Some Scottsbluff faithful might be disappointed that the Bearcats won three consecutive district titles but also lost three straight Class B first-round playoff games. For goodness’ sakes, those three teams went a combined 23-7!

Benson said he felt the Bearcats made early-season statements when they jumped on McCook with 14 quick points and only let a late Bison touchdown spoil a shutout in scoring a 17-7 win on Aug. 31.

And then Scottsbluff faced the daunting task of playing traditional Class B power Aurora on the road on Sept. 21, but the Bearcats prevailed 32-8 and improved to 5-0. The state was taking notice.

“ I think we played our best game against McCook and we played awfully well against Aurora also,” Benson said.

“But that’s typical of any season, and that’s the thing a lot of people don’t understand. You want to play your best football at the end of the year, but you’re not going to play your best game over and over, that’s impossible.”

Some other Bearcats who had great seasons included Worden, who had 310 rushing yards and 258 receiving yards with five combined touchdowns. Worden also had four interceptions and a fumble recovery, with four more TDs in the process, and had 295 kick return yards with one more TD.

Senior Randy Wentz had 54 kickoffs for a 52-yard average, hit on 8 of 11 field-goal attempts and 34 of 36 extra-point tries. Senior Eric Moreno, who completed 58 passes for 936 yards and seven touchdowns, also punted his way to another strong average of 37.5 yards.

“The kicking game is one-third of the game,” Benson said, “and if you don’t have a good kicker and a punter, you’re in trouble. And we had both.”

Maag was the Bearcats’ leading tackler with 57 solo stops, 56 assists, five quarterback sacks and nine tackles for lost yardage. Lofink was next with 54 solo and 53 assisted tackles with four for losses, and senior Tim Magdaleno — after sitting out last season — had 50 solo and 45 assisted tackles with five for losses.

“We didn’t have a lot of depth, and it would have been nice if we were a little bigger,“ Benson said. “But you can’t have everything.”

On the contrary, if you have good young men who work hard, no matter the season’s result, you just might have everything.

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