Game of the Week: Norton puts together whole game in win
Published on -10/26/2012, 10:36 AM
By CONOR NICHOLL
PHILLIPSBURG -- Norton High School senior lineman Lucas Engel had never seen Bluejay coach Lucas Melvin so joyful. Near the end of Norton's 20-7 road victory against rival Phillipsburg on a cold Thursday night, Melvin raced down the sidelines, hitting players' helmets in congratulations.
When the clock ran out, the Norton sideline and fan base erupted in euphoria. The victory erased a blowout loss to Beloit last week and clinched a playoff berth in the winner-take-all matchup with rival Phillipsburg.
"I love these kids," Melvin said. "They are tough. To come back from last week and play this hard, unbelievable."
Melvin hugged and celebrated with his assistants. Senior wideout Carson McKenna lifted his coach off the ground in a huge bear hug. An emotional Melvin had trouble holding back tears. Norton won the Mid-Continent League title and returned to the postseason after a rare miss last fall.
"They play hard," said Melvin, in his seventh year as head coach. "I was just excited for them, because I know how much they wanted this game and how hard they prepared for it."
Backed by another dominating effort from the defense and a huge performance from senior tailback Jacob Brooks, Norton finished the regular season at 7-2, 2-1 in Class 3A, District 14. Philipsburg, considered the favorite entering the contest, finished its year at 7-2, 1-2.
The Bluejays will travel to Salina-Sacred Heart (8-1), led by former Norton coach Bruce Graber, for the first round of the playoffs Tuesday.
Engel, who finished with four tackles for loss, two sacks and a quarterback hurry that forced an interception, called Thursday his greatest moment on a football field.
"It feels completely amazing," Engel said. "Beyond words."
The Bluejays already have a four-win improvement from last year's disappointing 3-6 season, Norton's first losing record in 17 falls and the first time without a playoff appearance since 1999.
"It's bringing the tradition back to Norton," Brooks, who rushed 24 times for 208 yards and two scores of 89 and 12 yards, said. "It's where it belongs. It's tradition -- going to the playoffs. Norton has always gone to the playoffs."
The Bluejays limited Phillipsburg to minus-8 yards in the first quarter and continually pressured Panther senior quarterback Sean Newlan, one of Kansas' top athletes and signal callers.
On the Panthers' second play of the game, Newlan fumbled and was hit from behind on the funny bone. Newlan still couldn't feel half of his right (throwing) hand postgame and said his ring and pinkie finger were completely numb. Newlan finished 11 of 19 passing for 166 yards, but rushed 14 times for 15 yards.
He scored the Panthers' lone touchdown on a 47-yard run in the third quarter. Phillipsburg had multiple drops, including one on a long pass and another for a touchdown, and missed a 39-yard field goal from senior all-state kicker Justin Juenemann.
"They put a beating on me," Newlan said. "I am feeling it, and I am going to feel it even worse tomorrow, I guarantee it. They played physical and aggressive. They just came out to play way more than we did. They earned it. They deserve it."
Norton recorded 14 tackles for loss and two turnovers, including an interception from McKenna that set up the Bluejays' final score. Entering the game, the Panthers' first-string offense had just one turnover and zero interceptions all year. Senior linebacker Eli Bozarth collected 5.5 tackles for loss, including 4.5 sacks. It marked the fifth opponent Norton held under 14 points this fall.
"They were super aggressive with their front five, and then I thought their linebackers played really well," Phillipsburg coach J.B. Covington said. "It seemed like offensively, running the football, we couldn't get anything going consistently."
In the last two weeks, Phillipsburg and Norton went different directions following district losses to Beloit, ranked No. 4 in Class 3A in the statewide media poll. In Week 7, the Panthers controlled the game and led late, but lost 32-27.
Then Newlan said the team was "completely dead" in a 56-7 win versus Minneapolis last week. Norton suffered a 56-9 defeat to Beloit last week, but came out fired up against Phillipsburg.
"Our coaches are great," Brooks said. "They keep us positive. We knew right after the Beloit game, that game was over and to focus on the next one."
The Panthers, though, couldn't muster the same intensity. Phillipsburg blocked a 28-yard field goal midway through the first quarter, but Norton responded with a 5-yard run from junior Tanner Furbush to take a 7-0 lead with 35 seconds left in the first quarter. Then, Phillipsburg faced fourth-and-goal from the Norton 3-yard line. The ball was on the right hashmark, a severe angle for Juenemann. Covington said Juenemann kicks better from the left side.
As well, Covington wanted to go for the tie. Phillipsburg couldn't convert on fourth down when Newlan threw a fade route out of bounds. Two plays later, Brooks delivered his 89-yard score against a flat Panther team.
"I am just at a loss," Newlan said. "We practiced harder this week than we had in quite some time. This reminded me of Hell Week, all the conditioning that we went through. We buckled down, we stayed focused, there was no goofing off in practice. ... I don't know. When things didn't go our way early, I think that kind of took out our knees a little bit."
Norton pushed the lead to 20-0 midway through the third quarter when Phillipsburg ran a double-pass with senior wideout Seth Derr. Derr hadn't attempted a pass all year, but Covington said the trick play had worked in the past against Norton. This time, Engel applied pressure and McKenna picked off the pass. Six plays later, Brooks scored.
"We had a good game," Engel said. "It was a lot of fun up front. We did everything right."