Hays High slips past Junction City
By AUSTIN COLBERT
Heading into Friday's season opener against Junction City, the Hays High School football team was looking to answer many questions. Among them was how well the Indians would take to their new spread offense, centered on junior quarterback Alex Delton and his dynamic running ability.
That question was never answered after Delton pulled a groin muscle in the first quarter.
"All of a sudden it was back to the drawing board," Hays High coach Ryan Cornelsen said. "We got to get him healthy. If we would have had that weapon, it would have made a huge difference."
Delton still played the entire game, a 27-22 win against the Blue Jays (0-1) at Lewis Field Stadium. He was 7 of 17 for 73 yards through the air and had 22 yards on 13 carries, with two total touchdowns and an interception.
With Delton unable to maneuver like he is capable, the Indians turned to what they know best, and that is running the football with their backs to get the win.
"It was definitely challenging. What we've done up to this point is for moments like that," Delton said. "We accomplished it and it shows that we are a true team. I think we definitely put some shock in to the state of Kansas tonight."
Hays High (1-0) ran for 214 yards, averaging nearly five yards per carry. Senior Preston Weigel led the way with 106 yards on 20 carries, another 86 yards on 10 carries coming from senior Ty Whittington.
The Indian defense, which entered the season with even more question marks than the offense, played like a unit ready to erase the memories of last year's 44-43 overtime loss to the Blue Jays.
The numbers were far from perfect, with Junction City outgaining Hays High 373 to 287 in total offense, 195 of those yards on the ground. But when the Indians had to make plays -- or take advantage of Junction City's mistakes -- they did.
"We had our opportunities to win it," Junction City coach Randall Zimmerman said. "They made the plays when they had them available to them. We didn't make the plays and hats off to them. They are a good team."
Delton got the Indians on the board first, an 8-yard touchdown pass to senior Adam Klaus early in the second quarter. Hays High added to its lead right before half on a 2-yard Delton touchdown run, which was set up by a 42-yard pass from Delton to senior wide receiver Lane Clark two plays prior.
Hays High led 14-0 at the break.
"It was huge," Cornelsen said of the first-half shutout. "They have some great running backs. And not to let them get in the end zone was big. We caused some turnovers and I thought our special teams played pretty good field position."
The third quarter was a tumultuous one for the Indians. After each fumbled on its first play of the second half, Junction City finally got things together and went 55 yards on six plays, finishing with a 2-yard touchdown run by senior Jerma'l Campbell.
A three and out by Hays High on its next possession gave the ball right back to the Blue Jays with a short field to work with, leading to a 12-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Will Ervin to senior tight end Semaj Johnson.
The score was 14-13 Indians after senior Clayton Riedel blocked the extra point attempt.
Hays High's self destruction culminated when it got the ball back and long-snapper Connor Rule sent the ball sailing over the head of punter Kiowa Higdon, who corralled the loose ball in the end zone for a safety.
That gave Junction City its only lead of the game at 15-14 with 4:06 to play in the third quarter.
"We definitely came out flat at halftime," Delton said. "Last year, the same thing happened to us against them. Basically we learned from our mistakes last year and came back to win the game."
The key moment in the game came on back-to-back plays late in the third quarter, when the Hays High defense forced a fumble in Blue Jay territory, and Weigel bulldozed his way for a 24-yard touchdown run on the next play for the Indians.
Junction City put together a nice drive on its next possession, but the Indian defense finally stiffened, getting the Blue Jays to turn the ball over on downs.
This led to a six play, 63-yard drive that ended with a 14-yard touchdown run by Whittington, giving the Indians a 27-15 lead with 6:51 to play.
"Whenever that happens, everyone just gets adrenaline going," Riedel said of the team's big defensive plays in the second half. "It gets the whole team pumped and it helps out everybody."
Junction City answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive that took only 1 minute and 29 seconds off the clock, cutting its deficit back to five points.
The Blue Jays would get the ball back with 3:25 to play, and made it to the Hays High 36-yard line before turning the ball over on downs to effectively end the game.
"I was very excited for so many new faces and new young players to rise up and play against a team with a lot of depth," Cornelsen said. "I was really pleased that we battled through that and played hard and found a way to win."
The extent of Delton's injury was unknown following Friday's game, and his status for Hays High's contest with McPherson (1-0) this week is to be determined.