Columbia running back Donavan Bieber was the workhorse in an Eagles’ victory that otherwise relied on big plays.
The junior, playing for the first time in six weeks because of a fractured foot, carried the ball 38 times for 180 yards in leading the Eagles to a 33-14 win over rival Freeburg in the first round of the IHSA Class 4A playoffs.
“Really? Thirty-eight times?” he said. “It didn’t feel like it. When you haven’t played for six weeks, I guess you just want to run the football. I’m tired.”
It wasn’t the first time Bieber was called on to lift the Eagles. Last season, when all-conference back Colton Byrd was lost for a month with a torn ACL, it was Bieber who carried the load through three consecutive Columbia wins. This week, with leading rusher Ronnie Hunsaker out with a torn calf, Columbia coach Scott Horner doubled down on Bieber’s work load.
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“To be honest, I don’t think I expected to get him the ball that much,” said Horner, now in his 18th season. “I was worried for a stretch there in the first half where he carried the ball six or seven times in a row and I felt like I had to get the ball in somebody else’s hands for no other reason than to give him a break. “We’re pretty thin at running back right now. But it was an awesome, gutsy performance by that kid.”
Columbia (8-2) advanced to a second-round game at top-seeded Taylorville (10-0), which dispatched Illinois Central Valley, 57-30, Friday night.
For all the heavy lifting, Bieber didn’t find the end zone until his final carry of the afternoon, a 4-yarder around right end that sealed the Eagles’ win in what was, remarkably, the first time the fierce Cahokia Conference rivals had ever faced each other in the post season.
But to that point, it was two other key performances that put Columbia in command after Freeburg had taken a 14-6 lead early in the third quarter.
Sophomore Londyn Little made the most of his seven touches. He rushed four times for 41 yards and caught three passes for 101. It was his diving, highlight-reel catch in the endzone at the 4:!6 mark of the third quarter that narrowed Freeburg’s lead to 14-12. His 40-yard sprinting catch from quarterback Nic Horner gave the Eagles cushion, 26-14.
“He’s a playmaker, that kid,” Scott Horner said. “He’s a kid that can get open and he’s fast. He does all the things playmakers do. That’s what you saw that this afternoon.”
Earlier, with the Eagles’ offense stalling inside the red zone early, it was 32- and 31-yard field goals by Sam Horner that kept his team from wasting field position. It was his leaping catch of a 48-yard pass from Nic Horner, his brother, that set up the day’s first score.
Later, with Columbia trailing 14-12, Sam Horner picked off a Cal Clossen pass to the Freeburg 30 to set up Columbia’s go ahead score, a 9-yard run by his sibling quarterback. His second interception of the day sapped any remaining hope the Midgets had.
It set up Columbia on the Freeburg 41 and eventually led to Bieber’s touchdown.
Hunsaker’s injury also forced Horner to move in from safety to outside linebacker for the first time in his career.
“Our secondary was able to stay in coverage long enough and our defensive linemen were able to get to the quarterback to make him scramble. That helped us out a lot,” Horner said. “But we had to change our whole defense up. I had to move in along with our other safety Josh Marion, so were taking reps at outside backer all week ... It was a change, but I definitely liked it.”
It’s not that Freeburg didn’t have its moments or its opportunities. Junior Tanner Little, after fumbling twice early in the game, rumbled for 111 yards on 22 carries to lead the Midgets’ offense. Clossen, the quarterback, scrambled for 64 yards and scored both of Freeburg’s touchdowns.
Freeburg fell to Columbia earlier this season in a 28-34 epic that was decided in the Eagles’ last possession. Columbia has now won the last nine matchups between the two rivals and 15 of the last 17.
“I’m going to second guess myself for not sticking with the run a little bit more, but you can’t take anything away from them,” said Freeburg coach Ronnie Stuart. “Defensively, they gave us a look we hadn’t seen from them on film and it took us a while to figure them out. We played great defensively early in the game and needed to come out and score, which we didn’t do, then we turned the ball over.”