ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
As they say, that’s precisely why you play the games.
A Hillsboro Trojan squad that seemed on paper to be overmatched against an outstanding Cheney football team claimed its first regional title in 20 years with a dramatic 8-7 overtime win Saturday at Reimer Field.
Facing a 9-1 Cardinal squad that had shredded Collegiate for 483 rushing yards only four days earlier, the Trojans never looked the part of an underdog on Saturday.
Unless, of course, you count the jubilant “upset” celebration that erupted when Jacob Yoder caught the winning 2-point conversion pass from Spencer Brown.
A celebration, of course, that included the obligatory attempt to douse the coach with ice water.
“It’s just good (for the program) because the last team to get this far was (former HHS coach) Don Penner in the ’80s,” said a partially drenched but elated Len Coryea as players, students, family and friends mingled on Reimer Field to savor the moment.
A 0-0 tie at the end of regulation would have been a most unthinkable prediction prior to kickoff.
Even when the Trojan defense forced a three-and-out on the Cardinals’ first possession of the contest, you couldn’t fault fans for wondering how long Hillsboro could contain their guests.
Try all night.
The Cardinals’ longest drive of the first half came early in the second quarter when they drove from their own 39-yard line to the Trojan 35 in nine plays.
But on fourth-and-5, sophomore defensive back Daniel Jost streaked in front of a Cardinal receiver at about the 25-yard line, snagged a Brent Coykendall pass in full stride and raced toward the end zone.
Jost was finally brought down at the 6-yard line, and suddenly it was the Trojans who were in position to break the deadlock.
They appeared to do just that when Brown took the snap on third-and-goal at the 8-yard line and swept the left end for an apparent touchdown.
Unfortunately, the Trojans were called for holding, nullifying the score. The threat ended on the next play when a pass by Brown was picked off by Cheney’s Mason LeBlanc, who returned the ball to the 19.
Neither team seriously threatened to score again until late in the third quarter. Cheney, starting at its own 24 with 6:20 on the clock, marched in 13 plays all the way to a first-and-goal at the Trojan 5.
But Hillsboro’s defense thwarted four consecutive running plays, leaving the Cardinals out of downs and one yard short of the end zone 8 seconds into the final period.
The two teams traded possession one more time before Cheney made a last drive for victory.
Starting on their own 39, the Cardinals ground their way forward behind the power of 6-foot-4, 234-pound running back Garrett Nickel and the shiftiness of Chase Williams, his running mate.
Hillsboro finally stopped the two-some at the Trojan 10. Facing a fourth-and-3, the Cardinals were perfectly positioned for a game-winning field goal with only 4 seconds left in regulation.
After a Cheney timeout to stop the clock, Coryea called two more in succession in an attempt to freeze kicker Josh Spring.
It worked. Springs’ kick had plenty of height and distance, but it veered just outside the right upright, sending Trojan fans into delirium.
Hillsboro’s next bit of good fortune occurred on the overtime coin flip. The Trojans won the toss and chose the generally preferred position of giving the other team first crack at scoring from the 10-yard line.
One run by Williams and two by Nikkel took the Cardinals into the end zone. Springs’ extra-point kick split the uprights this time and Cheney had a 7-0 lead.
It now was clear what the Trojans needed to do to keep their season alive.
Two runs by Michael Suderman gained only three yards. But on third-and-7, Brown threw a strike to Brett McIntosh coming across the middle. The senior wide receiver, who had caught only two passes all season coming into this game, snagged his second one of the night for the critical touchdown.
“We knew that (play) was open,” Coryea said. “We saw that early (in the game).”
Coryea said there was no doubt in the minds of his players about going for the 2-point conversion.
“The boys were calling for 2, and I said, ‘OK, stay quiet for a minute and I’ll go talk to the coaches,'” Coryea said.
They opted for a play that had not been run in a game situation all season.
“We put it in one night just messing around,” Coryea said. “It’s a run, sweep, pass that gives us a lot of options.”
Brown exercised them all. Rolling to his right, the junior appeared to be running for the score.
But when the path to the goal line was clogged by converging Cardinals, Brown flicked a soft toss at the last instant toward Yoder, who grabbed the pass in the middle of Cheney defenders.
“Everybody was there, and I thought, holy cow, we ran out of room,” Coryea said with a smile and shake of his head.
The Trojan mentor, in his third season as head coach following the departure of Dustin McEwen for Cheney, credited defensive coordinator Dennis Boldt for his team’s ability to defuse the normally high-powered Cardinals.
“Defensively, we knew (McEwen’s) tendencies,” he said. “You watch the film, and not the coach-I want to make sure everybody knows that. But we picked up a few things.
“I have a lot of confidence in Dennis on (strategy),” he added. “We call it slash-and-cover to the spots we thought they were going to attack.”
As has been the case all season, Hillsboro’s defense was led by senior linebacker Lucas Hamm, who contributed yet another outstanding late-season performance with 12 tackles and seven assists.
“It was the heart of the guys,” Hamm said of his team’s accomplishment. “We knew we could do it, it was just a matter of getting out there and putting it down.
“Their guys were bigger than us, but we just kept fighting,” he added. “In earlier close games (this season),we let it slip. But our guys were fired up tonight and we just came through.”
Coming-Now 8-3 and the only Mid-Central Activities Association team still playing, the Trojans will travel to Salina on Friday to take on Sacred Heart (9-2), a 48-45 regional winner over Hoisington.
This will be the first time since the 1986 season that a Hillsboro team has gone three games deep into the state playoff system. The only other time it occurred was 1981.
In each of those years, HHS was among the state’s final four by that point. When the Kansas State High School Activities Association decided in 2002 to let the top two teams in a district advance to the playoffs, an additional layer of games was added to the system.
As a result, the 2006 Trojans find themselves among the top eight teams as they prepare for their third playoff game.
To date, no Hillsboro team has won three state playoff games in a season.
The Trojans will try to make history starting at 7 p.m. at Salina Stadium on the campus of Salina Central High School.