By Corey Rhodes
Special to JoeInsider.com
THREE RIVERS – Whether it’s by a handoff, a reception, or even a kickoff return, Bailey Milholer-Wortinger is a guy the Three Rivers football team wants to see with the football in his hands.
Facing a physically-gifted Berrien Springs team during Friday night’s homecoming, the Wildcats needed their Swiss Army knife in pads to be effective in all facets of their attack.
Milholer-Wortinger was exactly that, leading Three Rivers with four touchdowns and 259 total yards of offense on only 10 touches, as the Wildcats edged Berrien Springs 35-34 in an overtime thriller. Milholer-Wortinger had two touchdown runs, one reception for a score and one touchdown on a kickoff return.
“Whenever we started going a little downhill, Bailey just picked us back up,” said Three Rivers senior quarterback Alex Cottingham. “It was an amazing night. It was his night.”
On a night where Milholer-Wortinger shined, the greatest drama was reserved for the very end. Taking the field on offense to start overtime, the Wildcats (4-2) faced a fourth-and-goal from the 11-yard line. Three Rivers opted to try for the score, and Cottingham threw one up for grabs in the back of the endzone, where senior Kyle Walczak beat out two defenders for the ball to put the Wildcats ahead.
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“We called a time out, we had a play called, and there was no doubt who that ball was going to go to,” said Wildcats coach JJ Wagner.
The crucial touchdown put the Wildcats ahead, but the Three Rivers defense was still faced with the daunting task of keeping Berrien Springs (2-4) out of the endzone.
“The first thing that came to my mind was that I had to get back on defense,” said Walczak.
The Shamrocks did find the endzone on a fourth-down sneak from the 1-yard line by quarterback Kyle Rago. But after Rago lost his helmet, the Berrien Springs quarterback and place holder on field goals had to sit out a play. On an ensuing 2-point attempt, Three Rivers denied tailback Lohi Sibande to seal the win.
“Their quarterback lost his helmet so he had to leave the field,” Walczak said. “Once they were a little disorganized we felt like we had a free shot and we took it.”
While the game came down to the final minute, Three Rivers might not have put up much of a fight without the explosive plays from Milholer-Wortinger to keep them within fighting distance.
Yet from the outset, it looked like the night was going to belong to a different running back. Berrien Springs tailback Bo Taylor got the Shamrocks off to an early 14-0 lead, scoring on touchdowns of 26- and 24-yards on his team’s first two possessions. With a massive offensive line creating holes, Taylor gouged the Wildcat defense to the tune of 114 yards in the first half alone.
“That offensive line is huge, and they know what they’re doing,” said Cottingham. “I gave a speech, and I said ‘who’s going to find it within them [to win]?’ And it was us.”
Down early against the Shamrocks’ bruising, ball-control offense, the Wildcats found their first spark when Milholer-Wortinger returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, cutting the deficit in half.
“We just had really good blockers,” Milholer-Wortinger said. “That was all the blockers, and I thank them.”
After trading a couple touchdowns, Milholer-Wortinger was ready to land another big counterpunch with his team facing a 14-point deficit yet again. Trailing 28-14 late in the third quarter, the Wildcats found themselves backed-up on their own 9-yard line and facing a daunting third-and-23.
The Wildcats just so happened to have a play for that. Milholer-Wortinger took the draw handoff and broke a 91-yard touchdown run, revitalizing an anxious crowd.
“I saw my line blocking for me,” Milholer-Wortinger said. “I saw a big hole. I just hit it and I had a blocker down field. You didn’t really see it, but he blocked someone else. And I thank him for that. Then, it was just off to the races.”
Despite the dynamic playmaking of Milholer-Wortinger, the Wildcats still found themselves at long odds against an offense that had dominated the line of scrimmage, amassing a total of 324 yards on 58 carries. The Shamrocks were especially dominant in the first half, scoring on all their possessions with the exception of a kneel-down to end the half. Berrien Springs even converted all nine of its third down attempts in the first half.
Eventually, the Wildcats were able to respond.
“I guess perseverance, our guys didn’t quit,” said Wagner. “I guess that’s why they play four quarters. In the first half I didn’t think we played too well, but we finally got some stops on defense.
“Berrien Springs is a heck of a team; they have a lot of talent. But our kids didn’t quit.”
Coming off a 40-22 loss to Edwardsburg, the Wildcats needed a home win to keep a realistic shot at the playoffs in-tact. Wagner said his team needed a playoff mentality, and that’s exactly what he got.
“I thought this was the first game we played a good third and fourth quarter,” Wagner said. “We’ve played good first halves, and good third quarters. We finally played a complete four quarters.”