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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Kelly Ross

EMPORIA — Blue Valley North headed to the Kansas Class 6A state championship game in Emporia looking for its tenth win in a row on Saturday, and more importantly its second straight state title.

Just one problem.

Derby’s stingy defense was waiting for the Mustangs down Interstate 35.

The Panthers prevailed behind a strong running game, and a dominant defense beating Blue Valley North 24-16.

The Mustangs’ senior quarterback Graham Mertz faced pressure from the Panthers (13-0) the entire afternoon, forcing the Wisconsin commit off his game. He finished 18 of 37 for 233 yards with two touchdowns. He was sacked three times.

“They had our number today. We just had to take our shots,” Mertz said.

Blue Valley North’s (9-4) offense, which so often relies on the big play, was held to 276 yards.

“I think we match up pretty well with them. We’re a bit undersized but we’re fast and physical,” said Derby coach Brandon Clark.

On the flip side, Derby’s rushing attack averaged 6.8 yards per carry. It was a two-headed rushing attack behind running back Tre Washington and quarterback Hunter Igo.

“That starts with our offensive line,” Clark said. “And our receivers blocked well. We’ve relied on the run game, it’s almost the total opposite of Blue Valley North.”

Washington finished with 243 yards on 27 carries and all three of the Panthers’ touchdowns, while Igo finished with 207 yards on 35 carries.

“They’re very, very solid at what they do,” said Blue Valley North coach Andy Simms.

Blue Valley North opened the game with a 7-0 lead, when Mertz connected with Cameron Burt for a 24-yard touchdown pass. It capped a seven play, 95-yard drive.

Following the first quarter however, Derby’s defense found its rhythm. In the second and third quarters combined, the Mustangs had just 55 yards of total offense and trailed 17-10.

“They tightened down,” Simms said. “We made a few adjustments of our own, it was too little, too late.”

Midway through the fourth quarter, Washington broke a 59-yard touchdown run. It looked as if the ball was knocked out by Blue Valley North’s Stephon Camp before Washington reached the goal line, but it was ruled a touchdown.

Igo said the Panthers knew before the game they’d likely have to put up quite a few points to hang in with Blue Valley north.

“We knew they were going to be a good offense and we were going to have to put up points and what not,” Igo said. “Our defense did amazing holding them to 16 points. That’s amazing considering the caliber of players they have on their team.”

Mertz and Blue Valley North would strike back quickly in the fourth quarter, going 80 yards in two plays, with Mertz hitting Ammon Thutmosei for a 25-yard touchdown pass.

However, Derby ran out the clock from there, ending any hope of a comeback.

Mertz and seniors like Burt and Amauri Pesek-Hickson now leave a legacy of back-to-back state championship appearances at Blue Valley North.

“North is the spot,” Mertz said. “It’s a powerhouse now, and that’s thanks to Coach Sims. It goes back to guys four or five years.”