Blue Valley tops Salina South for 5A crown
By David Svoboda PrepsKC staff writer
The clock read 0:00 and players – from both teams – were face down all over the Welch Stadium field.
Blue Valley had just pulled off a heart-stopping 27-26 win over Salina South for the Kansas Class 5A State Championship, and the emotion was palpable and very, very raw.
Those that weren’t in on the tackle on the last crazy play – a South throw and run that went for 32 yards but ended up 27 yards from the end zone – still found their way to the turf, overcome by the gravity of the moment.
“I was honestly kind of scared, because I don’t play much defense,” said Blue Valley’s Mikey Henson, who scored the first Tiger touchdown from his normal wide receiver post, but found himself pressed into duty on the game’s final play, as one of his team’s better athletes. “But there’s nothing else better in life than this feeling right now.”
It was those feelings – of elation, desperation, euphoria and heartbreak – that pulsed through the stadium, even 15 minutes after the contest.
If you could script a high school championship game, you’d be hard pressed to do any better than this.
“We knew it was going to take everything we had for 48 minutes,” said Blue Valley Coach Eric Driskell, whose team helped its coach to his second state title in four years and the sixth in the history of the school.
Indeed, it came down to the final, desperation Cougar heave before Driskell’s Tigers could put this one in the books. That seemed fairly improbable after a first half of Blue Valley domination that concluded with the Tigers holding a 24-6 lead.
But South, which like Blue Valley saw its season end at 10-3, was not going to go down without a fight.
“We got punched in the face and kind of staggered back a little bit,” South Coach Sam Sellers said of the early going, in which Blue Valley looked as if it may run and hide. “At halftime, we said, ‘we’re going to go down swinging if we’re going to go down.’”
And swing away the Cougars did – often knocking Blue Valley back onto its heels, but never knocking the Tigers out.
In fact, South pulled to within the final, one-point margin with 1:13 left when Mike Jones scored from three yards out to make it 27-26 Blue Valley. It was then that Sellers opted to go for two and the lead.
Quarterback Justin Stonebraker gave the ball to wide out Zach Nachbar on a reverse, and Nachbar – who had a run/pass option – pulled up and made an off-balance throw that landed well short of the mark.
“We wanted to win there,” Sellers said. “We thought we had momentum. If we had to do it again, I’d do the same thing.”
Indeed, South had recovered an onside kick to set its scoring drive into motion, and had scored the game’s final 20 points. It had the momentum, to be sure.
And, even after the failed two-point pass, there was still 1:13 on the clock, and South had its full allotment of timeouts.
The Cougars attempted a second onside kick, but this time Driskell – who had not done so prior to the first South effort – ran his “hands” team onto the field…and the Tigers recovered the kick.
But Blue Valley couldn’t take advantage of its good fortune to run out the clock, and punted just 23 seconds later.
That set the stage for the final play, in which Stonebraker hit Mitch Roets with a short pass, and Roets zigged and zagged his way through the defense before finally being dragged down just in front of the South bench with the scoreboard showing all zeroes.
That it came down to a pair of onside kicks, a two-point conversion try and a nutty, final play was due, at least in part, to Blue Valley’s decision to pass up a possible field goal try with just over eight minutes left.
The kick – which would have been a 36-yarder – would have made it a three-score game at 30-13 if Logan Brettell (who had earlier made 20- and 27-yarders) had been able to knock it home.
But the kick never came, due to a decision by Driskell and staff to go for the first down – and possibly the touchdown.
“It was one of those (decisions) that was going to haunt me if it didn’t turn out this way (with a win),” Driskell admitted after the game. “I twisted and turned on that whole decision.”
South’s final 13 points and the excitement in the kicking game all followed.
In the end, Henson said, his team’s having played in several close, tough games throughout the year paid dividends.
“Any time you can play a big game, it’s definitely going to help you in the long run,” said the senior, who was part of close victories against South in the regular season and Blue Valley West in the playoffs. “We looked at it as getting better each week in the playoffs instead of just moving on.”
Blue Valley was led offensively by the trio of Brettell, Henson and Chance Nelson. Brettell had 147 yards through the air on a 13-of-19 performance, scored two rushing TDs, and kicked the aforementioned pair of field goals.
Henson had 106 yards receiving on seven catches and the opening TD, and Nelson had 102 yards on the ground on 18 very tough carries.
“It didn’t look easy,” Henson said of the difficulty in gaining yards on the Cougar defense, particularly in the second half, “and it was 10 times worse out there trying to pick them up.”
But in the end, Henson and his mates were able to pick themselves up off the turf – and hoist a championship trophy into the late November air.
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