ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In the end, might trumped magic.
The Hillsboro Trojans threw in more tricks than you’d see at an all-night Houdini festival to stay in contention, but ultimately it was Garden Plain’s superior line play that delivered the Owls’ 31-26 sub-state victory Friday night at Reimer Field.
Garden Plain’s supremacy was measurable in the 465-yard to 98-yard advantage the Owls established on the ground-including a four-touchdown, 350-yard performance by their outstanding running back, Logan Dold.
But Golden Plain’s superiority played itself out most dramatically in the final four minutes of the contest after two lightning strikes brought Hillsboro back from the dead.
Trailing 31-14 midway into the final quarter, Trojan quarterback Spencer Brown finally connected with wide receiver Troy Frick on the same deep throw HIllsboro had tried unsuccessfully several times earlier in the contest. This time Frick gathered in the ball and outraced his defender to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown with 6:29 left in the contest.
The 2-point conversion attempt failed, but Hillsboro had cut the margin to 31-20.
Inspired, the Hillsboro defense forced the only three-and-out it managed against the Owls’ varsity backfield, and regained possession after a punt on the Trojan 24-yard line.
After an incomplete pass to start the series, Brown then threw downfield toward Frick along the Trojan sideline. The senior tipped the ball to classmate Lucas Hamm on a planned play. Hamm grabbed the ball and ran for a 76-yard score.
“We hadn’t run that play in a varsity game, but we did practice it maybe once a week,” coach Len Coryea said.
Brown’s 2-point pass fell incomplete, but Hillsboro was suddenly within a touchdown at 31-26 with 4:01 still to play.
“We were getting our butts kicked all night and then all of a sudden it’s a close ball game,” Coryea said. “They controlled us all over the place, and then you get a couple of strikes and you’re back in it-as long as you don’t quit.”
But after three straight come-from-behind victories in the state playoffs, that’s where the magic ended for Hillsboro.
The Trojan defense twice forced the Owls into fourth-and-short situations, but both times Dold picked up the enough real estate to keep the ball out of Trojan hands until time expired.
“We wanted one more shot,” Coryea said. “We had one more play in our bag of tricks. I know they would have been playing us real deep, but that’s OK.”
Hillsboro actually drew first blood in this game, scoring its most conventional touchdown of the evening during its opening possession-but even that score took some slight of hand.
Taking advantage of Brown’s deft ball fakes, Michael Suderman burst up the middle for a 33-yard gain on Hillsboro’s very first play. After he added one more yard on the next carry, Jacob Yoder took the handoff from Brown on a counter play and raced 32 yards for the score.
Tyler Kaufman’s kick made it 7-0 just 1:14 into the contest.
“What surprised me was those first two runs,” Coryea said. “That’s why we opened with a counter play. I figured we better hit them quick before they catch on.”
The Trojans stopped the Owls’ first series, but on the second possession the visitors struck in impressive passion. Quarterback Derek Fisher threw to Tyler Butler for a 21-yard gain, then to Markus Hilger for 17 yards.
Then Dold touched the ball for the first time and swept the left end for a 16-yard touchdown. Hilger’s kick tied the game, but the Owls were only foreshadowing the course ahead.
It took a while to get there, though. Brown picked off a Fisher pass and Darren Enns recovered a fumble to end the next two Garden Plain possessions after one play.
But then the Owls put the ball in Dold’s hands and the elusive 200-pound junior carried them most of the way for an 89-yard, 13-play drive. It ended with his second touchdown of the night-a three-yard burst with 7:12 left in the second quarter.
On the Trojans’ next possession, a roughing-the-kicker penalty gave Hillsboro essentially two consecutive three-and-out series. But the second punt by Yoder pinned the Owls at their 14-yard line.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. Garden Plain marched 86 yards in 10 plays, with Dold cashing in from five yards out to extend the lead to 19-7 with 1:10 left in the half.
It appeared the half would end with that score after Hillsboro netted only two yards on its first three plays following the kickoff. But on fourth-and-8 from the 25, the Trojans faked the punt. The snap instead went to Brown, who threw downfield to Aaron Stepanek for a 75-yard score with 20 seconds left on the clock.
Kaufman’s kick brought the Trojans to within 19-14 and gave Hillsboro fans renewed hope for another post-season upset.
But Garden Plain had a different vision for the outcome. The Owls scored with sustained drives on each of their first two possessions of the third quarter to build the 31-14 lead.
The first drive went 66 yards in nine plays with Nathan Matzen scoring from five yards out. Dold capped the Owls’ second drive of 73 yards on a 29-yard run with 2:16 left in the quarter.
Dold’s remarkable performance-he averaged nearly 14 yards per carry-elicited accolades from the Trojan coach.
“Dold is a great running back,” Coryea said. “He’s as good as Jordy Nelson (former Riley County standout now playing for Kansas State). He does things that Jordy didn’t even do.
“He’s probably the best running back you’ll see in high school football right now. I don’t know what some of the other leagues have, but Dold is the best I’ve seen.”
Combined with 44 passing yards by Fisher, the Owls rolled up 509 total yards of offense against a normally stingy Trojan defense.
“Their line is so good,” Coryea said of Garden Plain. “I knew that when I saw them last week.”
And the Owls were good on both sides of the ball. After Suderman and Yoder combined for 65 yards on the Trojans’ first series, Hillsboro netted only 33 rushing yards the rest of the evening.
“We couldn’t run the ball,” Coryea said. “When you lose the line of scrimmage, you’re losing. That’s the bottom line.”
Brown’s three long scoring pass for touchdowns boosted his yardage to a season-high 221 yards, but he completed only four of 20 attempts and also threw two interceptions.
“We’ve got great kids,” Coryea said. “You can’t fault them for what they tried. (Garden Plain is) just a way better football team. I hope they win state. I think their program deserves it.
“It was a good football game,” he added. “There was some good hitting out there. I’m just disappointed we didn’t win.”
After an unprecedented run in the state playoffs, the loss left the Trojans one game short of the state finals-after finishing fourth in the league and second in district play.
Their 9-4 record marked the first time since 1998 that a Hillsboro team had compiled nine wins in a single season.