Third time's the charm

Kyle Palmer/PrepsKC

By Kyle Palmer PrepsKC staff writer
Posted: November 17, 2017 - 10:49 PM

This wasn’t just a victory. It was a catharsis.

St. Thomas Aquinas throttled postseason nemesis Mill Valley 55-21 Friday night to advance to the Kansas Class 5A title game. Now, the Saints are a win away from their first-ever championship.

“They’ve approached every game the same way,” Saints coach Randy Dreiling said. “We’re ready, as ready as we’ve ever been since I’ve been here.”

This semifinal matchup was a measure of redemption for the Saints, who have fallen to the Jaguars in the semis each of the past two years.

“We were focused. We were not going to allow what happened last year to happen again,” said senior running back Drew Hicks, who ran for 76 yards and a touchdown. “I’ve never worked harder than I did this year. I thought about it all offseason, and I wasn’t going to let it happen again.”

Last year on Aquinas’ home field, Mill Valley snuck away with a 14-13 sub-state win in a game defined by defense and turnovers.

This contest had a different feel from the opening moments. On the Saints’ first offensive snap of the game, senior quarterback Will Swanson kept the ball on a read-option and sprinted 42 yards for the opening score.

“It helped with momentum. Just getting that first play, getting on the board, just helped so much,” Swanson said. “We practiced that play all week, and it worked out for us.”

His coach was duly impressed.

“Will just has such a grasp of our offense, “Dreiling said. “On the first play he had three choices on the read, and he made the right one.”

After the quick score sent the partisan Saints crowd into delirium, Aquinas’ second drive was more typically methodical but with the same result: nine plays, all runs with the final four by senior running back Tristan Davis. He capped the drive off with a cutting 20-yard slash that put the Saints up 14-0.

Meanwhile, the two-time defending state champion Jags struggled to get into an offensive rhythm against an aggressive Aquinas defense.

““Their front seven is very good. We knew that. We tried to establish the run, but we knew we were going to throw the ball,” Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee said.

Late in the first quarter, the Jags managed to capitalize on some Aquinas mistakes. Two consecutive Saints offsides penalties and another facemask penalty helped Mill Valley move the ball down the field.

Quarterback Brody Flaming hit a sliding Matt Wittenauer for a 14-yard score that made it 14-7 and briefly put a nervous chill through the home crowd.

Flaming ended up throwing for more than 230 yards with two touchdown throws and a touchdown run. In the game’s waning seconds, Applebee sent in a sub for Flaming and then embraced the senior signal-caller as he came off the field.

“Unbelievable player, that’s all I can say,” Applebee said, fighting back tears. “I can’t say enough what the legacy these seniors will leave for this school and community.”

After Mill Valley’s first score, Aquinas ripped off 21 unanswered points in the second quarter to take a 35-7 lead at the half.

“I really thought it was going to be, like a 21-14 game at the break. So, to score 35 in the first half. That was good,” Dreiling said.

Asked if last year’s painful loss or Mill Valleys’ recent dominance of this budding Eastern Kansas League rivalry in recent postseasons factored into his team’s preparations this week, Dreiling scoffed.

“It was a big game because it was the next game,” he said. “We never talked ‘revenge.’ That has no bearing, we just talked about getting to the championship.”

If they do win the title, they’ll do it on the ground. The Saints’ ran the ball against Mill Valley for more than 400 yards total. Five different players ran for touchdowns. Two Saints had 100-yard nights: Swanson with 125 yards and a score; and junior Cameron Jackson, who topped 100 yards and scored twice.

For the Jags, the loss snaps a 13-game postseason winning streak that dates back to 2015. Aquinas has had similar success in recent postseason, that is until the Saints have played Mill Valley.

Tonight, was an emotional release.

“It’s a great feeling. I’m excited. We learned from last year. I’m excited for next week.”

The Saints will face Bishop Carroll next week for the Class 5A title. It’s a rematch of the 2014 state title game won by the Golden Eagles. Mill Valley finishes the season 7-5.