ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ANDREW OTTOSON
With the temperature in the mid-80s on a clear, windy night, the Marion Warriors traveled to Smisor Stadium in Sterling hot to prove that their one win said more about the team than their one loss.
The Sterling Black Bears came into the game also at 1-1 after a 14-0 victory over Lyons and a 49-6 loss to Hoisington.
But on Friday night, wind gusts up to 35 to 45 mph had a lot to say to both sides.
When Marion deferred its choice until the second half after winning the coin toss, Sterling chose to kick off with the wind at their backs.
A 19-yard return by Kyle Hett started the Warriors at their own 27-yard line.
Austin Hager started the night with a strong seven-yard carry, but a holding penalty on second down led to Marion’s first punt of the night.
On fourth and one at the Warriors’ 36, Sterling’s Richard Stromberg broke into the Marion backfield and blocked Hager’s punt. Linebacker Joey Stromberg recovered the ball on the Warriors’ 7-yard line.
“We got behind the eight ball early in the game with our decision to defer…(and) we made enough mistakes in the kicking game to last us a whole season,” Marion coach Grant Thierolf said. “Those are coaching mistakes and we will take care of them this week.”
Two plays after the blocked punt, Sterling running back Derek Thompson bounded eight yards into the end zone, scoring the first of five Sterling rushing touchdowns.
“Our offensive line-Ryan Walton, Jake Durham, Brett Patterson, Casey Tillman and John Reed-really stepped up for us and they deserve a lot of credit,” Sterling coach Keith Patterson said.
Marion’s second possession started on its 25-yard line and, after a three-and-out, led to the Warriors’ second punt.
Hager’s second try may have been partially blocked and was downed at the Warriors’ 38-yard line.
The Marion defense stopped two Sterling runs, but a personal foul on third-and-six gave the Black Bears a first down at the 11-yard line.
Thompson scored his second touchdown when he burst into the end zone from three yards out with 4:22 remaining in the first.
A bad snap on the point-after kept the score at Sterling 13, Marion 0-and the first quarter ended that way.
The second quarter began with a Marion punt working in the Warriors’ favor, sailing 45 yards to the Sterling 29.
Thompson carried the ball eight times as Sterling mounted a 13-play, 71-yard scoring drive. Thompson capped it off with a touchdown when he barreled forward for five yards on fourth and goal.
Up 19-0, Sterling tried a 2-point conversion with 3:55 left in the half but was stopped short.
A sack by Sterling linebacker Jordan Walton halted the Warriors’ next drive, but the half ended with the Marion offense moving the ball effectively from their own 30 to the Black Bears’ 30.
“We never matched Sterling’s effort or enthusiasm the whole night, and this is a team that has to win the game in those two areas in order to have a chance each Friday night,” Thierolf said.
The third quarter began much like the first quarter, with the Warriors facing the wind to receive the opening kickoff.
The Black Bears forced Marion to punt from its 27-yard line, and the punt did not go well for the Warriors. Facing pressure from the Sterling special teams unit, Hager lofted what looked to be an excellent kick high into the air.
But the wind caught the ball and carried it all the way back to the Marion 10-yard line, where the ball bounced once on its way into the end zone.
The safety made the score 21-0. Two plays later Thompson galloped 32 yards on his fourth touchdown run, effectively ending the game with 8:59 left in the third quarter.
Four minutes later, Steven Fankhauser stepped into the end zone from one yard out and posted the final 34-0 score.
Marion managed 127 yards of offense on 49 plays for an average of 2.6 yards per snap.
As a unit, the defense allowed 13 first downs and 187 rushing yards as Sterling held the ball for 28:46 compared to 19:14 for Marion.
Marion did have two bright spots. Austin Hager continued to thrive as the Warriors’ primary offensive threat out of the backfield, and defensive standout John Barr III stepped into a more prominent role on the offensive side of the ball with two catches for 20 yards to go with his six tackles on defense.
“(Barr) stepped up and made some plays for us on offense,” Thierolf said. “He is spending a lot of time after practice with (wide receivers coach Shaun) Craft working on catching the ball, and it is paying off for him and for us.”
Hager also had six tackles on defense-and carried the ball 19 times for 71 yards on offense.
Hager’s runs accounted for three quarters of the Warriors’ rushing yards and over half of the team’s total offense.
“Hager did a good job of running the ball for us…he is a tough kid emerging as a leader for us,” Thierolf said.
“We have to establish some other weapons…(and we will) keep working to get better and improve all of the things we did not do well last week.”