In a game of big plays and big mistakes, it was one of the sport’s “small” plays—extra points—that loomed large in the final outcome.
The Trojans, who had suffered two late-game losses earlier this season because they were unsuccessful at converting them, this time hit one when it counted the most to escape with the walk-off victory.
“We needed to win one on the last play for a change,” said a pleased and relieved Hillsboro head coach, Len Coryea. “Beating Marion on their field was critical for us.”
But the Trojans, who fumbled the ball seven times and lost three of them, were fortunate even to have an opportunity for redemption.
Marion had cashed in on two Trojan fumbles in the second half to battle back from a 13-0 halftime deficit and pull to within 13-12 with 1:13 left in the game when Austin Hager crashed into the end zone from 1 yard out.
The Warriors, with momentum clearly in their corner, decided to go for the win with a 2-point conversion. But confusion on the snap count resulted in an illegal-procedure call when quarterback Mitchell Leppke pulled away from center too early.
The 5-yard penalty prompted Marion coach Grant Thierolf to opt for an extra-point kick attempt by Brian Fruechting. The sophomore calmly nailed the kick to tie the game.
Hillsboro had 1:07 to break the tie in regulation, but after driving to the Warrior 45-yard line, Justine Heidebrecht intercepted a deep pass from Trojan quarterback Spencer Brown with 8.1 seconds remaining.
In overtime, Marion was awarded the first possession and scored in three plays, with Leppke slicing off tackle for a 3-yard touchdown to give the Warriors their first lead, 19-13.
But this time Fruechting’s extra-point kick sailed low and to the right, opening the door of opportunity for Hillsboro.
The Trojans responded with a touchdown in three plays. Jacob Yoder exploded through the middle of the line for the final three yards to tie the game again.
Brown, who missed an extra point kick after Hillsboro’s second touchdown of the night, then lined up for the game winner.
Thierolf called a timeout to ice him, but Brown remained just cool enough to drive the ball through the uprights for the win.
It was a wild ending to an electric night of football.
Hillsboro had taken a 7-0 lead when Brown scored from two yards out on the Trojans’ second possession of the night. He kicked the extra point as well with 3:56 on the clock.
With momentum favoring Hillsboro, both teams took nearly an hour break when officials suspended action with 51.7 seconds left in the first quarter because of lightning in the area.
“I thought the lightning (delay) hurt us a little bit,” Coryea said. “I thought we had something going at the time, but (the delay) stalled us out and we just couldn’t get it going again.”
When action resumed, neither team scored again until the final second of the half, when Brown rolled to his right, started up field, then heaved a pass toward Yoder in the end zone.
The senior halfback made a spectacular diving catch right at the sideline for the 33-yard score with no time left on the clock.
Brown shanked his kick to the right, but Hillsboro went to the locker room at intermission with a 13-0 lead.
“Everyone will say we got lucky, but we practice those (passing) routes,” Coryea said. “We can’t practice catches like that, but if you have good receivers good things can happen.”
On Hillsboro’s first possession of the second half, Yoder fumbled near midfield and Marion’s Chase Carlson recovered the ball at the Warrior 40.
A halfback pass from Heidebrecht to Carlson, followed by four consecutive runs by Hager, put the ball at the Trojan 1-yard line, where Leppke scored with 5:02 left in the third quarter.
Fruechting kicked the ball toward the uprights, but Yoder elevated himself high into the air behind the defensive front line and thwarted the attempt with an outstretched hand.
Trailing 13-6, the Warriors received a second break when Brown fumbled the snap under center. The Warriors’ Mark Kukuk recovered the ball at the Marion 40-yard-line with 8:37 left in the game.
Fifteen plays and 7:24 later, Hager crashed in from a yard out to set up the kick by Fruechting that tied the game with 1:13 left in regulation.
For the night, Hillsboro had the edge on offense, compiling 361 yards—252 on the ground on 38 carries and 109 through the air on 7-of-14 passing by Brown.
Yoder led the rushing attack with 125 yards and added 58 receiving yards on three receptions. Daniel Jost added the other 51 yards on four receptions. Brown chipped in 104 rushing yards on eight carries.
The Warriors, meanwhile, picked up 203 yards on the ground on 52 carries and added 35 yards on the halfback pass.
Marion committed no turnovers compared to Hillsboro’s three lost fumbles and one interception.
“It was a good football game,” Thierolf said. “They just scored more points than we did. Their kids played well, our kids played well, and it was a tough game all the way around.”
Coming—In Round 2 of district play, Hillsboro will play host to undefeated Hesston (7-0), who defeated previously unbeaten Remington 34-0 on Friday.
“We know Hesston’s a great team,” Coryea said, “but we’re not going to coach to lose. You just never know.”
Marion, meanwhile, will travel to Remington.
Both games are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.