The most pivotal play of Hays High’s home opener was also the most painful to make for Keaton Markley.
With Liberal threatening and Hays clinging to a seven-point lead in the closing minutes, Markley injured his elbow and was briefly tended to by the trainer as the Redskins were in the midst of a drive in Hays territory.
Markley opted to play through the pain, and it proved to be well worth it for the senior defensive back in the end.
Liberal came within a point of tying the game after a touchdown with 2:17 remaining, but Markley kept the Indians in front by blocking the kick on the PAT attempt to help the Indians hold on for a 21-20 victory, giving Tony Crough his first win as Hays High coach on Friday at Lewis Field Stadium.
“Painful, yeah,” Markley acknowledged of the injury. “But it wasn’t going to keep me off.”
Crough said Markley at the very least hyperextended his elbow and may have dislocated it just a few plays before blocking the kick.
“I think it might have popped out. It wasn’t good,” Crough said. “They got it fixed and he of course wouldn’t come out.
“What an incredible play on the PAT block. That’s a kid who’s just refusing to lose. It’s fun to have those kind of guys on your side.”
Markley said he was looking for openings to possibly block a kick earlier in the game and was able to take advantage of a great jump to make the play late.
“I was watching it all night,” he said. “I had some bad jumps on the first couple. But once (it was snapped) I knew I had it. I knew it.
“I had to find a way to get us the win. Anything to win.”
After Markley’s block, the Indians (1-2, 1-1 WAC) covered up Liberal’s onside-kick attempt and got a first down to run out the clock.
"We get better every day and every week," Markley said. "It's a grind. And gameday shows that we get better every week."
A big night on the ground paved the way for the Indians, with junior running back Hayden Brown rushing for 166 yards and a touchdown and senior quarterback Palmer Hutchison going for 149 on the ground with two scores.
"We thought we could expose them a little bit in the run game, but not like that," Crough said. "We honestly thought it would be a more balanced game. We just were able to overpower them in the run game. That was a pleasant surprise because we hadn't been able to do that yet this year.
"O-line did a heck of a job," Brown said. "They were the reason we were able to get that many yards. It was amazing."
Brown helped set the tone for the Indians' ground game with over 100 yards in the first half, often putting his shoulder down and running through contact.
"I like putting my shoulder down sometimes," Brown said. "I enjoy that."
Brown scored from three yards out to break a 14-14 tie with 9:32 left in the game. The touchdown was set up by a 48-yard run from Hutchison.
"Those two are pretty good," Crough said of Brown and Hutchison. "Hayden's come a long ways as a running back. He'll run to the sideline as fast as he can, and before you know it, he's going to put his shoulder down and run you over.
"Then Palmer's such a physical kid, too, being a linebacker that's learning how to play quarterback. If we can run the ball like that, that makes it easy to call a game."
Liberal, like Hays, did most of its damage on the ground. The Redskins struck first on a 65-yard run by Jaylin Staten with 4:50 left in the first quarter. The Indians answered with a 6-yard TD from Hutchison with 44 seconds remaining in the frame.
It was tied 7-7 at halftime, with Hays being held back by three turnovers in the first half — two interceptions and a fumble.
"The first half I thought (the defense) was incredible to hold that team to seven points when we had (three) turnovers," Crough said. "Coach (Layton) Hickel and our defensive staff is doing such a good job.
"If our defense didn't play as well as they did, we would have had no shot in that game the way our offense was playing first half."
Liberal regained the lead with 6:43 left on the third quarter after Liberal quarterback Syris Dunlap brooke loose for a 59-yard touchdown run. But Hays answered again just 2:16 later on a 3-yard run from Hutchison.
After Brown's touchdown put the Indians in front early in the fourth, Hays had a chance to put Liberal on the ropes after Taivian Creamer, who also had an interception in the second half, chased down Cole Schroeder's pooch kick at the 33 of Liberal on the ensuing kickoff after Brown's TD.
"We've been working on it all week in practice," Crough said. "We discovered it by accident. Our kicker, he kept trying to kick it deep (in practice) and it kept fluttering up in the wind. He kind of kicks a little backspin golf shot. You watch and you think that's a fluke deal. But every day that it's windy, we work on that.
"Taivian just came right down and got it on one hop."
Hays couldn't take advantage of the field position, with the Redskins stopping a Hutchison run on fourth and short. Liberal then drove down the field for a 12-yard touchdown pass to Lee Hatcher from Dunlap before Markley's blocked PAT saved the day.
Crough said he's been encouraged by the trajectory of the Indians throughout the first three games of his first year at Hays.
They opened with a 56-31 loss to Junction City and fell 15-7 to Great Bend last week before breaking through for the win.
"I'm so excited," Crough said. "The first week, it was a buzzsaw. We had no business being on the field (with Junction City). We played with them for a little bit, but that team was so much better than us. We weren't that caliber yet.
"Against Great Bend, we got better. We fought with a really solid Great Bend team. We had a chance to win, it just wasn't time.
"This week, we were in the same situation and we got it done. You love to see those steps."
The Indians will be on the road next Friday at Garden City.