The outside door to the visiting team's locker room at Auburn High School is at the bottom of a long, dark concrete ramp to the underground level of the building.
Coach Adolph Shepardson and his Fort Calhoun football team quickly left the field, walked across the parking lot and went down that ramp to talk Friday night. The Pioneers lost to the Class C1 No. 10 Bulldogs 35-7.
“We're building,” Shepardson said when he emerged several minutes later. “Our expectations are considerably higher. We want to start winning against good teams.”
Through two games, FCHS is 0-2 in battles with teams currently ranked in the Omaha World-Herald's top 10.
“We were just talking about how we're going to get there,” Shepardson said. “We're early in the process still.”
The Pioneers were in Friday's game against Auburn until Brody Darnell's 96-yard touchdown run during the fourth quarter. Shepardson's team threatened to put pressure on the Bulldogs to hold them off all night, but couldn't quite deliver.
“Those are the two things for us right now,” the coach said. “If we can eliminate the big plays on defense and finish drives, we're going to be able to win — a lot.”
Auburn scored twice during the first half, notching back-breaking plays during both drives. First, the Bulldogs converted a long third down pass down to the Fort Calhoun 9 yard line. From there, Darnell, the quarterback, scored on a 5-yard run.
Later, during the second quarter, Darnell connected on a 83-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Frary over the heads of the Pioneers defense. FCHS started two sophomores in the secondary as well as a freshman in his second career high school football game.
“They're good, athletic players. They're just young,” Shepardson said, noting the injuries of two of his best defensive backs — Austin Welchert and Harrison Schmitt. Both players were lost in the opener at North Bend Central.
Offensively, Fort Calhoun drove inside Auburn's 30-yard line four times. Just once did they score.
That lone Pioneer touchdown came with time running down during the first half. The Bulldogs held momentum, but Shepardson's team earned it back when it executed a 50-yard hook-and-ladder play with 2:58 left before the break.
Quarterback Ty Hallberg connected with Jayden Hunter on a short pass to his right before Hunter then flipped the ball to Clint Dierks who tore down the visitor's sideline. The perfectly-executed play resulted in a first down at the Auburn 17-yard line.
Minutes later, Hallberg snuck into the end zone with 30 seconds remaining before halftime. Jake Senia's extra point kick pulled the Pioneers within 13-7.
It was as close as Fort Calhoun would get.
The Pioneers had the opportunity to pull within two scores at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but couldn't convert a fourth-down pass play at the goal line.
“Ty Hallberg made his first start tonight and I thought he did a nice job,” Shepardson said. “We ran the ball really well. Clint, Dillon (Dierks) and our O-line played really well. We just didn't execute very well in the passing game tonight.”
Two plays later, Darnell ripped off his longest run of the night, putting the game away for good. The standout QB ran for three scores and threw for another as Auburn rebounded from a 21-20 season-opening loss at Ashland-Greenwood.
The Bulldogs won their home opener, while Fort Calhoun plays its first home game 7 p.m. Friday against Lincoln Christian (2-0)
“We need a home game,” Shepardson said while standing at the bottom of the concrete ramp to the visiting locker room at Auburn High School.