Hutchinson salts away 7th state title

Bryant Combes/Special to PrepsKC

By David Svoboda PrepsKC staff writer
Posted: December 28, 2011 - 4:37 PM

Hutchinson moved out to an early 20-0 lead and withstood a spirited Blue Valley comeback – and the loss of its quarterback – to grab its seventh Kansas football championship in eight years Saturday with a 33-21 win in Emporia’s Welch Stadium.
The Salthawks, though seeing junior signal-caller Trevor Turner exit in the second quarter with a knee injury, had moved out to the big early lead prior to that injury and did just enough over the final two-plus quarters to take the title. Hutch finished at 11-2 and as champions once more, despite finishing second in its district.
Blue Valley, faced in this contest with having to scramble from the outset, played gallantly in trying to defend its 2010 state crown, but fell just short in also finishing its season with an 11-2 mark.
Quarterback Kyle Zimmerman and tailback Justin Fulks each provided some offensive sparks during the comeback, but in the end, there was not enough fire to overcome the early deficit.
Blue Valley Coach Eric Driskell said despite the loss, his message to his team after the game was simple.
“I told them that I was proud of them,” he said. “They’re champions in my book.”
The Tigers fought an uphill battle most of the day, with the early deficit and the elements proving a potent tag team.
After the first quarter-and-a-half, it looked as if Hutch might just take advantage of a gusty wind to  “blow” Blue Valley right off the field and out of any shot at repeating.
When the initial Blue Valley drive – into that stiff wind – stalled out at the Tiger 49, Zimmerman’s pooch punt of just 19 yards put the Salthawks in business at their own 32.
“That wind was impossible to punt into,” Driskell said of the decision to have Zimmerman pooch punt, rather than send on normal punter Tristan Perkins.
Lightning struck just moments later.
After a brilliant, read-option run of 24 yards by Turner to set Hutch up, fullback Lucas Munds rambled 29 yards into the end zone for a 7-0 Salthawk lead.
Blue Valley quickly went three-and-out, and Hutch was nearly as swift in making the Tigers pay.
Turner was again the culprit on the option keeper, dashing 39 yards into the end zone for a 13-0 lead after the PAT kick drifted wide.
Driskell credited the Salthawks for playing at a level – at least early – that his Tigers were slow to match.
“It took a little bit of time for us to get used to the speed and pad level they were playing with,” he said. “That’s a great offensive football team.”
And a great offensive football team with a variety of weapons, Driskell noted.
“They hadn’t shown much quarterback run,” he said of the previous Salthawk games his staff and team had watched on video. “But he (Turner) did a great job on the follow.”
The next Blue Valley possession was nearly as ugly as the second, and another poor Zimmerman pooch punt (Perkins did his regular duty after the three-and-out), put the Salthawks in position to all but put it away before the first quarter had ended.
Turner crashed in from the one with just 17 seconds left in the period, and the PAT kick made it 20-0 and left Blue Valley reeling and searching for answers entering the second 12 minutes.
With the wind at its back for the first time as the teams changed ends at the quarter, Blue Valley quickly got on the board. Zimmerman found Fulks in the near flat and the tailback sprinted 72 yards for the score to cut the deficit to 20-7. Talk about getting well in a hurry.
During the next Salthawk possession, Turner came up lame with that knee injury, and Munds moved under center – with the injury-plagued Ja’mon Cotton making his first appearance in the game at tailback. Munds would fumble on a run during the possession, and Blue Valley – with the wind at its back and the Hutch starting QB on the sidelines – looked to be in a rapidly-improving position.
But the teams traded misfortunes and possessions over the rest of the half, with the final Hutch TD of the initial 24 minutes coming on a blocked punt by Hutch’s Tanner Higgins, which was recovered in the end zone by Tyler Cox for what in the end was the 27-7 halftime edge.
Driskell’s message to his team at the break was simple.
“I told them that we had 24 minutes left to play, and that I knew they had a lot of heart and could get back into the game,” he said.
Zimmerman and Company were three-and-out to open the second half, and after a short Perkins punt, the Salthawks had the ball at the Blue Valley 35.
Munds was still under center at the start of the second half. He was unable to help his team take advantage of the great field position, and Blue Valley took over on downs.
Zimmerman promptly marched his mates down the field, mostly through the air – and into the same wind that had limited the Tigers in the first quarter. The march ended in controversial fashion when Zimmerman’s run up the middle resulted in a fumble that officials ruled took place just inches before the goal line. It was recovered by Hutch in the end zone for a touchback.
Zimmerman attempted to sell the officials on the fact that the ball had broken the plane of the end zone, but to no avail.
“He said that he was in the end zone, in the yellow paint, and that when he hit the ground the ball came out,” Driskell said of what his quarterback told him at play’s end.
And the controversial calls did not end there. In the Hutch drive that followed the disputed touchback, Cotton appeared to have fumbled the ball away to Blue Valley – only to have the officials say he was down prior to coughing the ball up.
“It was a fumble for sure,” Driskell said, though being quick not to blame the officials for the outcome of the contest. “It was close. They told us that his knee was down before the ball came out.”
Blue Valley’s defense stiffened, however, and after a bobbled Hutch punt snap, the Tigers had the ball back at the Salthawk 37.
One play later, Fulks dashed into the end zone, and the game was now 27-14. Oh, what might have been if Zimmerman’s apparent TD had counted. But it did not, and the lead was cut to 13 instead of just 6.
That’s where it stood after three quarters.
Fulks added to the drama in the fourth quarter, going in for a touchdown with just over four minutes left in the contest to make it 27-21. Hutch then took over and faced a third and six with 2:55 left after Blue Valley had spent its final second half timeout.
Drama for sure.
Cotton, however, ripped off a clutch run for the first down, and the Salthawks were able to convert a fourth down seconds later when Cotton put the icing on a championship cake with a touchdown romp around right end against a Blue Valley defense bracing itself for an inside run and one last chance on offense.
The TD was Cotton’s 34th of the year on the ground, and a fitting way to close out another Salthawk title.
Final: Hutch 33, Blue Valley 21. So close.
“It just comes down to two great football teams going at it,” Driskell said. “They were giving all they could on every snap.”
On this day, however, it wasn’t quite enough for the Tigers.