ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Somewhere between a faint hope for victory and a quiet fear of disaster, the 2002 Hillsboro Trojans settled their fate against top-ranked Conway Springs Saturday night at Reimer Field.
The scoreboard showed a disappointing but respectable 28-7 loss to the defending Class 3A champions. But the Hillsboro fans who showed up to cheer their team in this regional championship walked away knowing the game was closer than that.
“We played them well,” coach Dustin McEwen said afterward. “Even with (Conway’s) size, our kids never gave up. We fought to the end. You can’t ask for much more.”
Well, maybe a little more.
Take away a Trojan turnover early in third quarter that led to a Cardinal touchdown, and add a Trojan pass that was dropped in the end zone late in the game, and you would have had a 21-14 game-still a loss, but a truer indication of the actual difference between these two teams on a mild November night.
No doubt, Conway Springs was the better team-bigger for sure, faster man for man, and certainly unorthodox with its infamous single-wing offense that often resembled a cross between a magic show and a well-executed Chinese fire drill.
And even though the Trojans had not faced anyone quite like them all season, McEwen had his troops as prepared as could be expected, thanks to many hours of game film.
“I think they were a little disappointed in their first half, being up by only 14 points,” McEwen said with a smile.
Indeed, the two teams were locked in a scoreless battle until the Cardinals’ Darrin Seiwert finally battered his way across the goal line from a yard out with only 1:25 left in the opening period. The run capped an 86-yard, 13-play drive that consumed 5:30.
Except for a 15-yard burst by Jason Benge early in the drive, the Trojans limited Conway’s explosive running game to bite-sized chunks.
Benge added the extra point to make the score 7-0.
After the Trojans’ offense folded in five plays, Conway started once more, this time from its own 39-yard line. Again they battered the Trojan front line one blow at a time, driving to the Trojan 7-yard line in 11 plays.
From there, Matt Wykes, who comes the closest to being the quarterback in the single wing, broke through for a 7-yard score with 6:29 to play before intermission.
Benge was good once again on the kick, and the Cardinals had their 14-0 lead.
By intermission, the Conway offense had rolled up 163 rushing yards on 29 carries in the first half. Meanwhile, the Trojans managed only 13 yards on 12 carries.
Hillsboro was playing respectable defense, but could they find a way to score?
When the second-half began, the Trojan defense picked up where it had left off-only better, holding the Cardinals to a net gain of three yards on four plays.
On that encouraging note, the Trojan offense took over on its own 29-yard line. But Alan Yoder’s eight-yard burst on the first play from scrimmage ended with a fumble that Wykes recovered on the Trojan 37.
From there, the Cardinals struck quickly. Wykes swept the right end for 20 yards, then Seiwert rammed his way through the middle for the final 17 yards and a touchdown. Benge’s PAT made the score 21-0 with 9:15 left in the period.
A lesser team might have folded at that point, especially after the offense went four-and-out on its next possession.
But the defense stood strong, helped by a timely 18-yard quarterback sack by defensive end Steven Chisholm two plays after the Cardinals had picked up a first down.
After Conway quick-kicked on third down, the Trojans offense finally found its stride.
From the Hillsboro 37, Kris Jones picked up 25 yards around the left end. Quarterback Dustin Jost then connected with Caleb Marsh for a 26-yard pass and a first down at Conway’s 22.
On the next play, it was Jones once more sweeping left, this time running all the way for a touchdown with 4:48 left in the third period.
Marsh’s perfect kick cut the deficit to 21-7, and diehard fans-and their team-saw a dim but flickering light at the end of the tunnel.
Unfortunately, it turned out to be the Cardinal Express. Once more, Conway slowly but surely rumbled its way downfield.
Starting from their own 14, the Cardinals drove to the Trojan 35-yard line in 13 plays. From there, Benge burst through the middle, then cut to the left sideline and scored a touchdown-delivering the blow that ended any reasonable hope of a Trojan upset.
Benge added the extra point as well, giving the Cardinals their final 28-7 margin with 10:09 to play.
But even with the game out of reach, the Trojans had one last message to deliver. Starting from its own 22, the home team put together an impressive drive of its own.
Mixing four pass completions with an effective running game, Hillsboro registered a first-and-goal at the Cardinal 5-yard line in 13 plays.
From there, it became a war of wills. Yoder was stopped for no gain on a sweep to the left, but then a Conway roughing-the-passer penalty on the next play gave Hillsboro a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line.
After an encroachment penalty moved the ball to the 1, Hillsboro tried unsuccessfully on three straight runs up the middle to break through the Cardinal wall for the score.
On fourth down, Jost fired a pass to an open Brodie Unrau in the right front corner of the end zone, but the ball bounced off Unrau’s chest and fell harmlessly to the ground.
Conway then ran out the final 1:40 to complete the victory and move on in the state playoff system with a perfect 11-0 record.
McEwen found a measure of satisfaction in the game, even though it ended the Trojans’ season at 6-5.
“If you would have told us when we were 1-3 that we were going to play within 21 points (of Conway Springs) I’d have said you were crazy,” he said.
“We knew to beat them we would have to have a lot of magic things happen,” he said. “But we just had too many things happen-a dropped pass here and there, a second effort on their part-but it was fun.”
McEwen said a strong finish helped balance some major disappointments early in the season, when the Trojans lost three straight games by a total of five points.
Frustrated but not forlorn, McEwen’s team came back to win four of its last five regular-season games to tie Ellinwood for the Mid Division title in the MCAA.
Though finishing second to Hesston in district play, the Trojans benefitted from an expanded playoff system this year and came from behind to beat a favored Riley County team, 27-20, Tuesday to add a bi-district championship to their resume.
“This is always the hardest game,” McEwen said of his team’s last outing. “Luckily for the Trojans, it’s been the case where we haven’t won a state championship but we’ve always ended our season with a loss-that means you’re into the playoffs.
“And it’s always hard to end the season with that kind of thing.”
McEwen credited his seniors for refusing to blow off the season after the 1-3 start.
“The seniors have given us great leadership and played extremely well,” he said. “We’re going to miss them. They’ve achieved a lot and come a long way from the time they were freshmen.”