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PrepsKC staff

By Kyle Palmer PrepsKC staff writer
Posted: November 19, 2016 - 1:06 AM

Mill Valley will have a chance to defend its Class 5A title next Saturday after a taut, windblown 14-13 win Friday in the sub-state game over Eastern Kansas League rival St. Thomas Aquinas.

It was a scenario that looked improbable just a month ago, when the Jaguars’ championship defense was mired in a four-game losing streak. In mid-October, Mill Valley was 3-4 and sliding down the standings in the tough EKL.

A far cry from 2015’s dominating romp, with a near complete overhaul of the lineup.   

“It’s definitely been a different journey,” Jags coach Joel Applebee said. “And it’s so rewarding because of that. Every week’s been great, it really has. We told the guys that they just had to have the mindset that the ultimate goal—state—was still there, and they kept at it.”

The Jags had to once again survive Aquinas on a night where the temperatures dropped into the 30s and a stiff wind whipped the field all night. The game reprised the 2015 sub-state matchup won handily by Mill Valley and was also a rematch of a scintillating 40-33 Aquinas victory in September.

In this one, though, neither team could pull away. It came down to one thing: turnovers.

Aquinas coughed it up five times to Mill Valley’s one. The Saints’ giveaways led to all the Jags’ points. And a final backbreaking fumble by Aquinas inside the Jags’ five with less than two minutes to go killed a potential go-ahead drive.

“We gave that game away. Man, it’s hard to figure out,” a clearly frustrated Aquinas coach Randy Dreiling said afterwards. “I’m not taking anything away from Mill Valley but dang it, it feels like we should have won that game. I hope Mill Valley goes on and wins state.”

If they do, they’ll have their opportunistic defense to thank. On Aquinas’ first series, junior quarterback Will Swanson threw an interception to sophomore safety Tanner Moore near midfield. He returned it to the Aquinas 25.

“I’m just trying to do my job: read my keys, stay on my flat. It was just luck, man,” Moore said, tears in his eyes after a post-game team huddle. “It’s a great feeling, though. This is the reason we work.”

Two plays after Moore’s pick—his third of the playoffs—Flaming scampered in from 23 yards out for the game’s first score.

Aquinas would fumble again on their next possession, but their defense held. And after the teams exchanged punts, the Saints found their rhythm, engineering a prototypical 14-play drive. An 18-yard pass from Swanson to wingback Tristan Davis set up the Saints at the Mill Valley 2. And on the next play Swanson dove in for the tying score.

Mill Valley’s offense could do little to respond, punting on its next two possessions.

“Our offense struggled, but our defense kept us in it and stepped up, and they did what I knew they could do,” Jags junior quarterback Brody Flaming said.

Mill Valley got another scoring opportunity about three minutes before the half. The Saints’ second fumble (and third turnover), recovered by Brady Garrison on the Aquinas 28 set the Jags up in good field position again.

They capitalized, scratching down the field in six plays. Flaming ended the drive by finding senior Evan Rice in the end zone. That allowed Mill Valley to take a 14-7 lead into halftime.

It turns out, that’s all the Jags would need.

After the half, the game remained in a 14-7 standstill for a while. Aquinas turned it over on downs and had another drive stall with yet another fumble. At the same time, Flaming threw an interception and the Jags punted on another drive.

Early in the fourth quarter, remarkably, Aquinas found themselves in a position to tie the game.

Again, it came after a long drive—14 plays, more than five minutes off the clock. Freshman Matthew Roberts barreled in from one yard out to make it 14-13.

But a bad snap on the extra point kept the Saints down.

“Oh my gosh, extra points. Got to make extra points. I mean, what is there to say, “Dreiling said.

That would prove to be the difference. The Saints mounted yet another methodical drive, again 14 plays. They were running seemingly at will on a taxed Mill Valley defense. But inside the Jags’ 10, junior fullback Drew Hicks coughed up the Saints’ fifth turnover. Mill Valley’s Jack Eber recovered.

“I feel bad for them. I know a lot of those guys, grew up with them, and they’re ball players for sure,” Tanner Moore, who had the first half interception, said. “At the end of the day, it was us.”

For the game, Aquinas outgained Mill Valley 417-177. Hicks had a punishing night: 25 carries for 143 yards. Swanson also topped the century mark on 26 carries and had the one touchdown run.

But the biggest stat: five. As in turnovers.

Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee said he had prepared his team for that.

“We talked about that all week, that turnovers would be big, a key to the game. And they ended up being huge,” he said.

Mill Valley will face Goddard in the 5A state championship next Saturday in Pittsburg.