Bend but don’t break.
That was something the Hays High School football team did nearly perfectly Friday night in a Western Athletic Conference battle against Garden City.
Every time the Buffaloes starting moving the football, the HHS defense rose to the occasion.
Except for one play, and it proved to be the difference in a 7-3 loss at Lewis Field Stadium.
“That play they scored on, we just had a missed coverage, weren’t communicating loud enough in the secondary,” said senior quarterback/defensive back Hunter Brown. “Our guys were just in the wrong spot, and they took advantage of it.”
It happened with less than two minutes remaining before halftime. The Indians (2-2, 2-1) already had flexed their muscles on defense, holding the high-powered Buffaloes to zero points and a missed field goal that banged off the bottom post in the first two quarters.
But with Garden City facing first and 10 at the HHS 21, the one breakdown defensively broke the back of the Indians.
Garden City senior quarterback Garrett Doll found senior David Artega wide open in the secondary, and he hauled in the spiral and waltzed into the end zone untouched for a 7-0 lead with 1:49 to play before halftime.
“It just shows that we really worked hard out there,” said junior linebacker Wyatt Scheve. “We competed with a team like Garden City. It really impresses me that one play is how the outcome can be determined.”
It proved to be the longest completion of the game for Doll, who finished 14 of 24 passing for 174 yards — including 151 in the first half.
“On the vertical route, it was,” HHS coach Randall Rath said about the lone time the defense faltered. “That happens. They’re 15- to 17-year-old kids. We were in cover four, and they split us. It just happened. Our kids the second half didn’t let that happen to them because they ran the same play twice, and we had it covered and flushed him out of the pocket.”
With the exception of Doll, the Hays High defense held steady. They allowed only 71 rushing yards on 32 attempts the entire game, and held the Garden City quarterback to only 23 passing yards in the second half.
And the Indians allowed Garden City inside the red zone only once, which resulted in the missed 24-yard field goal in the first quarter after the Buffaloes reached the HHS 7.
“Neither team really threatened inside the 20 either side the whole football game,” Rath said. “The defenses really dominated.”
Garden City had steamrolled its first three opponents this year, giving up an interception returned for a touchdown as the only points entering Friday.
When senior Logan Clark split the uprights with a 33-yard field goal with 7:11 to play in the third quarter, it marked the first offensive points the Buffaloes had given up this season.
But the field goal came after Hays High couldn’t take advantage of good field position after a short punt. The Indians started the drive at the Garden City 32 with the strong south wind at their backs but could manage only one first down on the possession and stalled at the 16-yard line, leading to the field goal to pull within 7-3.
“The weather played a little bit of a factor in things,” said Garden City coach Brian Hill. “But I think it was two good football teams going at it and battling. That’s what happens when you get two teams that are fighting for WAC position.”
The defensive battle continued into the fourth quarter, and when the Indians needed a stop late to get the ball back with a chance at the win, they got the stop they needed.
Hays High stopped three straight running plays by Garden City, forcing a punt that gave the Indians the ball back with 52 seconds to play at their own 44.
“That was big. Our defense stepped up,” Scheve said. “One play, otherwise it would have been a shutout.”
Three straight incompletions followed by a 10-yard pass from Brown gave HHS a first down. Another 6-yard completion to junior Keaton Markley advanced the ball again. When a personal foul penalty was whistled after the completion, the ball moved to the Garden City 25 with eight seconds to play.
But Brown’s long pass into the end zone was intercepted, ending the game as time expired.
“You saw when we tried to throw the ball at the end, Hunter was running for his life,” Rath said. “We’re just not exceptionally big up front. On the pass rush, they just bull rushed us and ran over us. Hunter didn’t have time to even throw the football, but he did a great job. We’ll get better at that.”
Garden City’s pass rush kept Brown scrambling most of the game. He completed only two of nine attempts for 16 yards.
The Buffaloes also kept the HHS running attack in check, allowing only 54 yards on 31 attempts.
“And their defense was ranked No. 2 in 6A,” Rath said. “Defensively, they’re really good. And offensively, the spread it around. Defensively, I thought we played as well or better. We just had a break in coverage. It’s the difference in the football game when it’s 7-3. There’s not a lot of room for error. I’m just really proud of them.”
Markley led the way with 10 carries for 25 yards for Hays High.
“They have two pretty big kids in the middle, and if you don’t get into them, they’re going to push you around,” Brown said. “But I think for the most part, our line did a good job and got the push that we needed. We just have to execute more.”
Garden City, the defending WAC champs, scored 86 points in its first three games but struggled against the HHS defense.
“Whenever we would spread the offense out, they’d play a three-man front — allowing another defender out wide,” Doll said. “It was kind of tough to throw the ball against that. Whenever we would bring the fullback in, they’d go to a four-man front to make it easier on the run game. They were pretty well-coached.”
The loss snapped the Indians’ two-game winning streak, both coming against WAC opponents.
“It’s pretty emotional,” Scheve said. “We win this, and we’d be outright champs if we could beat Dodge City. It’s very emotional.”
Hays High will travel to Valley Center for a 7 p.m. non-conference game Friday.