ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Fans will remember a missed extra-point late in the game as the difference in the final score, but it was the championship play of the Hillsboro defense that made the ultimate difference in the Trojans’ 14-13 win over Hesston Thursday night at Reimer Field.
The dramatic victory over the previously undefeated Swathers gave Hillsboro (7-2) the Class 3A District 10 title with a 3-0 record and the opportunity to face Riley County in bi-district action Tuesday night.
The win earned an elated Dustin McEwen his third straight post-season appearance in five years as head coach.
“We hung in there with them and played well,” McEwen said. “I’m very excited for (my players) because they worked hard. I don’t think everybody gave us credit that we were going to get through this district.”
The opening minutes of the game gave credence to those doubts.
After the Trojans were stopped three-and-out to begin the game, Hesston launched a methodical 12-play, 71-yard drive that climaxed in a four-yard touchdown run by the Swathers’ Brian Roulhac. Adam Mason’s extra point gave Hesston a 7-0 lead.
On Hillsboro’s ensuing possession, quarterback Ronn Coates’ third-down pass was tipped and then intercepted, giving Hesston the ball on the Trojan 46.
After a 12-yard run to Roulhac on the first play, the Trojan defense tightened and the offense took over on downs on the Hillsboro 33.
Coates & Co. then put together their longest drive of the night, moving to the Hesston 3-yard line in 11 plays, including a key 28-yard pass to Dan Funk and a five-yard run by Jeremy Loewen on fourth-and-two at the Hesston 10.
On the 12th play of the drive, Loewen bounced off right tackle and skirted around the end for the score with 9:08 left in the half.
McEwen opted for a 2-point conversion, but it failed when Coates’ pass to Funk was intercepted by Hesston’s Chad Hershberger.
“We haven’t exactly had a good percentage on the one-pointers,” McEwen said about his call. “About every week after we kick the first one and we miss, I ask myself why we didn’t just go for two. This week one of my assistants convinced me to go for two.”
The Trojans had a chance to take the lead with about a minute left in the half when Loewen broke loose from his own 41-yard line and ran the ball inside the Hesston 5 before he was brought down. But the gain was called back on a penalty.
Hillsboro did cash in on a huge opportunity it helped create on Hesston’s opening possession of the second half.
After Scott Winter and Ronnie Davis teamed to drop Roulhac for a three-yard loss on a third-and-three play at the Trojan 39, the fourth-down snap sailed over the head of 6-7 punter Ryan Linton, who inadvertently booted the ball even further in the wrong direction as he tried to make the recovery.
Winter finally fell on Linton and the ball on the Swather 24-yard line for a 34-yard loss on the play.
The Trojans needed only four plays to cash in, with Loewen darting seemingly untouched up the middle from eight yards out for the score. He also ran in the 2-point conversion to give Hillsboro a 14-7 lead with 7:45 left in the quarter.
“That was huge,” McEwen said of the bad snap. He said the Trojans’ tough schedule this year may have made a difference.
“I told the guys before the game, I didn’t know if (Hesston) had been faced with adversity problems late in the game that maybe some of our players have experienced,” he said.
But Hesston did respond to adversity four possessions later when the Swathers decided to go through the air to Linton, their big receiver.
On third-and-15 at their own 41, Swather quarterback Trey Raney threw to Linton on three consecutive plays, connecting each time. The third pass went for 34 yards and a touchdown when Linton wrestled the pass away from Trojan defender Ryan Jilka and scored.
Kicker Mason lined up to tie the game with 6:43 to play. Whether it was poor footing on a muddy midfield or simply a misfire, the ball shot below the crossbar and left the Swathers in a 14-13 deficit.
The Trojan defense made it stand, but it wasn’t easy. A fumble by Loewen on Hillsboro’s second play from scrimmage after the Swather kickoff gave Hesston great field position on the Trojan 30.
After one negligible run by Roulhac, Raney looked again for Linton. This time the pair failed to connect on three straight attempts and Hillsboro regained possession at the 29 with five minutes to play.
After the Trojans punted the ball back two minutes later, Hesston began one last drive from its own 20. One run, one pass and one lateral pass put the ball on the Swather 44. Raney threw an incomplete pass on the next play, then Adam Woods intercepted Raney’s next throw along the Trojan sideline to give his team the ball on its own 34.
The offense ran out the last 1:38 to lock in the victory and the championship.
The Trojan defense was outstanding most of the night, but particularly in the second half.
After giving up 130 rushing yards to the Swathers in the first two quarters, the Trojans allowed only eight net yards in the second two-thanks in part to the bad punt snap, but also several tackles for losses at key times.
“The defense played great,” McEwen said. “This was a tough field to go on and they kept playing tough. (Hesston) got some great catches, but I thought we responded well by still coming back and playing tough defense.”
ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF