ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
A furious rally over the last 14:30 of the game carried Hillsboro to the brink of a dramatic comeback victory over Hesston Friday.
But the Trojans fell literally inches short of their quest, and the Swathers escaped with a 17-12 triumph in the second round of district play.
The Trojans seemed all but buried when Hesston’s Lee Voth-Gaeddert kicked a 37-yard field-goal to give Hesston a 17-6 lead with 2:29 left in third period.
The three points weren’t as significant as the way Hesston scored them.
The Swathers started the second half with a 14-6 lead and the ball at their own 27-yard line following the kickoff. From there, Hesston engineered a time-devouring drive that got them to the Trojan 9-yard line in 16 plays.
But with first-and-goal from there, Hesston was assessed a 10-yard holding penalty. The Trojans then held the Swathers to a minus-1 yard over the next three plays to push the home team to fourth down on the 20.
Voth-Gaeddert trotted out to attempt a 37-yard field goal into a steady breeze. But before the play started, Hesston was assessed a 5-yard penalty because of an unsnapped chin strap.
Facing a 42-yard attempt, Hesston appeared to have shot itself in the foot. But Hillsboro fired right back, reimbursing Hesston five yards on an encroachment penalty.
Voth-Gaeddert then kicked a line drive that barely cleared the crossbar with 2:29 left in the quarter.
At that point, Hillsboro seemed simply overmatched in the contest after a strong start. The Trojans had held Hesston to two yards on the first three plays of its opening possession.
Then, on the ensuing punt, Aaron Stepanek returned the ball all the way to the Swather 2-yard line. Michael Suderman scored two plays later to give Hillsboro a 6-0 lead after Hesston blocked Tyler Kaufman’s extra-point kick.
But from that point, the Trojan offense struggled with Hesston controlling the line of scrimmage. By halftime, Hillsboro had netted minus-8 rushing yards.
“They were shutting down our run game, and that’s what was killing us,” coach Len Coryea said.
Meanwhile, the Swathers retaliated with two touchdowns-both scored on fourth-down plays.
The first one, a 1-yard plunge by Camron Bailey, capped an 11-play, 70-yard drive.
The second one covered only 11 yards after a long snap sailed over the head of Hillsboro punter Jacob Yoder, for a 32-yard loss.
This time Brett Liechty cashed in for Hesston from two yards out on a fourth-and-1 play with 10:48 left in the half.
Voth-Gaeddert kicked both extra points. Trailing 17-6 after his disheartening field goal, the Trojans could have rolled over.
Instead, they rolled out-as in quarterback Spencer Brown using a moving pocket to find Trojan receivers down field.
Suddenly, Hillsboro’s anemic offense turned Hulk-like, blitzing 63 yards downfield in only four plays-the biggest one being a 34-yard pass to Lucas Hamm that took the Trojans to the 2-yard line.
Two plays later, Brown crossed the goal line for the score. His 2-point conversion pass was intercepted by Voth-Gaeddert in the end zone, but the Trojans were within a touchdown at 17-12 with 20 seconds left in the period.
Inspired, the defense stopped Hesston on a relatively short eight-play drive. But the Swathers’ punt pinned Hillsboro at its own 10-yard line.
Three plays left the Trojans one yard short of a first down, but Coryea decided to go for it on fourth down.
The gamble paid off-if not immediately. The Swathers stopped Suderman on the fourth-down play, but two plays later Suderman redeemed the day by recovering a Swather fumble at the Trojan 26-yard line with 7:02 left in the game.
Employing the roll-out attack to near perfection, Brown directed the Trojans to the Swather 15-yard line in nine plays.
Two lost-yardage running plays combined with a face-mask penalty on Hesston and a Brown-to-Troy Frick pass put Hillsboro at fourth-and-6 at the Swather 11-yard line with 2:11 left in the game.
Brown faded back, looked to the end zone and let the ball fly… but it sailed just over the outstretched hands of a leaping Hamm.
After Hesston ran off all but 5 seconds of the time on its next possession, Hillsboro tried a razzle-dazzle, multi-lateral play that left the Trojans far short of a miracle finish.
“We had our chances,” Coryea said afterward. “I’m just so disappointed because I think the boys played extremely hard.
“We learned something,” he added. “When we played with a higher intensity, we stopped them. We got them into some panicky situations toward the end.”
Coryea was quick to give the Swathers their due.
“They were pretty physical,” he said. “They handled our line better than anybody. All hats off to Hesston.”
Coming-With the win, Hesston (6-2 overall) clinched the District 11 title with a 2-0 mark. The winner of Hillsboro’s game at Remington (7-1) on Thursday night also will advance to bi-district play. The two teams are dead even in the district at 1-1.
The Trojans, at 5-3, also will be looking for their first six-win regular season since 2003.