NORTON — Two possessions. Two mistakes.
That’s what allowed the Norton High School football team to take control of Thursday night’s Class 3A District 14 clash against Thomas More Prep-Marian in Norton.
It spelled doom for the Monarchs, who had their playoff hopes dashed with a 57-15 loss to end the season.
“We’ve done that a few times this year where we’ve started out slow and had a few mistakes that put them in good field position that allowed them to score early,” said TMP coach Jason Cauley. “I thought our defense played tough early. Even though we put ourselves in a tough position, they tried to hang in there and played tough. They capitalized on a couple mistakes, but we were still in the game.”
An early interception by the Monarchs set up Norton (7-2) in good field position before senior back Tevin Petrie scampered in from 4 yards out to make it 6-0 after a failed PAT only a few minutes into the game.
TMP’s next possession ended with a blocked punt that led to a 36-yard field goal by the Bluejays for a 9-0 advantage with 7:07 remaining in the first quarter.
“We weren’t, and there was something missing there,” Cauley said about the Monarchs not hitting on all cylinders early. “But they came out and played well. When you face (Jace) Ruder and you face Petrie, you’re going to have to play your best game, and we didn’t play our best game. It sucks they didn’t get to see our best. But it’s just something we have to live with and move on with and drive on. These kids right now are good football players. But one day, they are going to be great husbands and great fathers, and that’s more important.”
TMP (3-6) was able to respond with a 26-yard field goal by junior Jace Rueschhoff before Norton struck again — this time on a 75-yard run by senior quarterback Jace Ruder on the first play after the Monarchs pulled within 9-3.
“We’ve been doing pretty well running the ball against most teams,” Jace Ruder said. “The way they run their defense, we figured we could punch it up the middle like we did.”
The Norton quarterback, who will play at NCAA Division I University of North Carolina next season, was a thorn in the side of the Monarchs all game.
If he wasn’t hurting TMP with his legs, then it was his arm. His first passing TD from 44 yards out pushed the margin to 24-3 with 6:52 to play in the half.
Ruder rushed for 208 yards on 12 carries and scored three rushing TDs. He also completed 7 of 17 passes for 179 yards and two more touchdowns, with one interception.
“This is huge. This is our fourth year in a row being back in the playoffs,” Jace Ruder said. “A lot of people in the state don’t even get to experience them. The fact that our class is doing it for four years in a row is huge. I know we’re making our community proud by doing so.”
Petrie took the second offensive play of the third quarter to the house from 62 yards, making it 31-3.
The Monarchs were forced to switch things around offensively when senior quarterback David McFarland was hurt in the second quarter.
That moved senior Luke Ruder in as QB, a position he played most of last season when McFarland went down with an early season injury.
It also hampered the Monarchs’ high-powered passing game that had shredded opposing defenses this season for big yards.
“That was definitely a point of interest was their passing attack, and we knew they had done well all year with it. We knew we couldn’t take them lightly,” Jace Ruder said. “Their passing hasn’t been the best in the past, but this year, you could tell they were playing a lot better as a team, playing better on offense and had a lot better schemes. We just couldn’t take them lightly. We couldn’t overlook them.”
Luke Ruder filled in nicely, using his legs to power the TMP offense. He scored on a 74-yard scramble to pull TMP within 31-9 with 9:38 to play in the third quarter.
“That’s what coach always says is don’t stop fighting,” said Luke Ruder, who finished with six receptions for 62 yards and eight rushes for 77 yards. He completed 3 of 7 passes for 13 yards.
Jace Ruder had a touchdown run called back because of a penalty on the next drive, and Norton head coach Lucas Melvin scolded the player who committed the penalty. That infuriated a member of the Norton chain gang, who walked several yards out onto the field and yelled back at the coach, then turned toward the TMP fans who were telling him to get off the field and cursing at them.
But Jace Ruder took the next play in from 24 yards out to make it 38-9.
“That’s the mindset I have, personally,” Jace Ruder said. “Every time I get the ball, I’m going to the house every time regardless of if it’s 2 yards away or 95 yards away.”
Luke Ruder answered with a 2-yard score on TMP’s next drive.
“He’s something else,” Cauley said about Luke Ruder. “He has a great mother and a great father, but I look at him as a son because I absolutely love that kid. He was our quarterback last year, and I have a special bond with our quarterbacks —as I do with all of our team. He moved to receiver and accepted the position well and did absolutely amazing at it. They kid can go play any sport he wants to at the next level. He’s a great basketball player, and he’s a heck of a baseball player. But he’s a great football player, and I hope he does realize that because, man, that kid can do anything he wants to with the ball.”
Petrie scored from 91 yards, making it 44-15 entering the final quarter. He finished with 21 carries for 216 yards.
Jace Ruder added another rushing TD early in the fourth quarter, then added an 80-yard passing TD to his freshman brother Jonah on a fake punt late in the game with 46.9 seconds remaining to end the scoring.
The win put Norton in the playoffs as the district runner-up. The Bluejays will play at Marysville on Tuesday in the first round of the 3A playoffs.
Phillipsburg won the district and will host Riley County on Tuesday.
A win by TMP would have given the Monarchs the runner-up spot from the district.
“We haven’t made the playoffs since 2002, and we were hoping to make it this year,” Luke Ruder said. “But maybe the next few years they can get it.”
It was the final game the TMP seniors played together, which was hard for the TMP coach to witness.
“I’ve never coached one single group of kids like these young men,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to ever duplicate coaching another group of kids like them. They have great character, great integrity, great drive. They’re great athletes, but more importantly they are great people.”