ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ERIC CLARK
The Marion Warriors avenged last season’s 7-0 loss to Sacred Heart by playing almost mistake-free football on the way to a 35-21 homecoming win Friday night.
The victory against the previously undefeated Knights put Marion into the driver’s seat for the Cottonwood Valley League championship with a 3-0 mark and one game remaining against Herington.
The Warrior offense controlled most of the first quarter, allowing the Sacred Heart offense to touch the ball only five times.
Running the option effectively, Warrior quarterback Jared Smith did his part to avoid a repeat of last year’s game by plunging two yards for the first touchdown of the night. Alex Saxonis added the extra point and the Warriors were off to a 7-0 start with 46 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, Knights’ quarterback Brian Bechard caught the Warriors napping for a 20-yard pass play to Matt Ryan. After stopping the Knights short of the goal line the next two plays, Ryan pounded it in from one yard out. Peter Sauber kicked the extra point to tie the game at 7.
An offensive pass-interference penalty cost the Warriors 35 yards during their next possession and they subsequently were forced to punt.
On Sacred Heart’s next series, Bechard was nearly intercepted by Smith on third down. Backed up inside their own 10-yard line, the Knights elected to punt. But a bad snap resulted in the punter being tackled near the Sacred Heart 8-yard line.
After a six-yard run by Smith, Jarvis Whiteman dove into the end zone for the touchdown with 3:12 left in the first half. The PAT by Saxonis was successful and Marion led the undefeated Knights, 14-7.
With 1:50 left in the second, Smith intercepted a Bechard pass to stop another Sacred Heart drive. On the next play, Whiteman picked up nine yards to move the Warriors into position to score.
As Smith dove over the goal line, the ball was knocked out of the quarterback’s arms. Andrew Brookens pounced on the ball in the end zone for a Marion touchdown with 23 seconds left in the first half. Saxonis added the point-after and the Warriors took a 21-7 lead into the locker room.
The excitement of halftime homecoming festivities may have distracted the Warriors as Bechard hit Jimmy McKee early in the third quarter for a 63-yard touchdown pass that split two Marion defensive backs. After the PAT, the Warriors’ lead was cut to 21-14.
The Warriors capitalized on a Sacred Heart fumble late in the third quarter and marched down the field for what turned out to be a three-yard touchdown run by Whiteman. Saxonis drilled the PAT and the Warriors led 28-14.
But Sacred Heart came right back with a four-play drive that ended when Bechard hit Robert Dolan for a 16-yard touchdown pass. A Sauber extra point cut the Warrior lead to 28-21.
Following a timeout, Smith found Robert Verbic sprinting down the middle of the field for an 85-yard touchdown pass that extended the lead to 35-21 after Saxonis’s extra point.
On Sacred Heart’s next series, Smith picked off another Bechard pass with less than three minutes remaining in the game.
After Marion turned the ball over on downs, Bechard was sacked and coughed up the ball. Brookens grabbed it and galloped to the Sacred Heart 10-yard line before being tackled. Marion didn’t score, but the fumble recovery sealed the Warriors’ 35-21 win.
After the game, Brookens talked about the importance of the win.
“It feels awesome,” said the senior linebacker and offensive lineman. “We beat them our freshman year and two years in a row we lost to them in close games.
“I just know in my heart that this is the one I wanted to win,” he added. “All the ones up until now are important, but this is the one that was important to me.”
Coach Grant Thierolf said he was pleased with his team’s performance.
“Our kids were just better tonight,” Thierolf said. “One of our goals was to win the Cottonwood Valley.
“(The win is) important for league, but it goes right out the window next week because the next three (district) games are the only three that count.”
Smith, meanwhile, rebounded well to throwing five interceptions against Chase County last week. He compiled 208 total yards, running for one touchdown, throwing for another and intercepting two passes.
Jason Matz spearheaded the Warrior defense with 13 tackles and seven assists. Brookens had nine tackles, four assists and two fumble recoveries, including a touchdown.
Marion (5-1) will host Hesston (5-1) in the first game of district play Friday. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m.