SMITH CENTER — Its vaunted rushing attack has overpowered opponents like usual for most of the season, but Smith Center was always prepared for the moment when it would have to rely on its passing game in a tight spot.
"It's kind of nice to have it in our back pocket," junior receiver Griffin Kugler said. "We just feel confident enough to use that to our advantage."
Success through the air is one of the reasons the Redmen are still alive for a three-peat after Friday night's Class 1A semifinal thriller with Plainville at Hubbard Stadium.
The back-to-back defending state champs scored the game-winning touchdown with 1:26 left when Trenton Colby hit Kugler for a 33-yard score to put Smith Center up a point. The Redmen then sealed a 20-19 win on Sergio Lambert's interception with 33 seconds left.
Smith Center (12-0) will play for its third straight state championship and 11th title in program history next weekend, facing Centralia on Saturday at Fort Hays State University's Lewis Field Stadium.
Kugler caught nine passes for 107 yards from Colby, breaking away from the Cardinal secondary on a third-and-3 play for the game-winning TD.
"That's something we've tried to do all year long for this kind of a situation," Smith Center coach Darren Sasse said of the passing attack. "It definitely paid off for us."
After Plainville went up 19-14 on quarterback Jordan Finnesy's 42-yard run with 3:38 left, the Redmen, aided by a pass interference penalty, drove into Cardinal territory and then gave Colby enough protection to find a wide-open Kugler.
"Joel (Montgomery) made a good snap and I just did my job," Colby said. "Knowing the two guys on the left side were covered, I saw Griffin wide open. He's a great route runner. I just threw the ball and let him go get it, and he went and got it to get us in the end zone.
"If teams are stopping our run like Sedgwick did early (in last week's quarterfinal) and Plainville did pretty much the whole night, we just have to rely on our pass game," Colby added. "We just had to get (Kugler) going. I mean, that kid is a great athlete."
The lead switched hands three times in the fourth quarter. Plainville threatened in the closing moments, driving to the Smith Center 38, but Finnesy's pass under duress was picked off by Lambert with 33 seconds left, allowing the Redmen to go into victory formation.
"We had some pressure up front," Sasse said. "Coach (Brock) Hutchinson dialed up something and got some pressure, made the ball be thrown maybe a little earlier than they wanted, and Sergio made a play."
Not accustomed to trailing in the fourth quarter, Kugler said the Redmen remained poised before orchestrating the game-winning drive.
"We were all in there telling each other we've got to come together," Kugler said. "This is it. This is what we like to do. We knew we would go down there and score. We all came together and it was really cool."
"Persistence and consistence, that's something that Coach (Roger) Barta started a long time ago and these guys just stay at it, stay at it and stay at it," Sasse said. "It was a great team that we played, there's no doubt about it. I think it just shows to our character that we could find a way to win."
It was the fourth straight year the Cardinals and Redmen met in the sub-state title game, with Smith Center winning the last three meetings.
Plainville edged Smith Center in total offense, 323-312, but four turnovers created by the Redmen and a blocked extra point loomed large.
The Cardinals finished 10-2, with both losses to Smith Center.
“Just didn’t make it happen, that’s it,” Plainville coach Grant Stephenson said. “Proud of the effort. Proud of all the time (the seniors) have put in the last four years.”
"Respect to them. They're a very good football team," Kugler said of the Cardinals. "We knew this was going to be a dogfight. It feels good to come out on top."
Plainville couldn't have scripted a better start, taking the early lead when Ben Hansen scooped up a Smith Center fumble and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown just over a minute into the game.
The 7-0 lead held up until Jaden Atwood scored on a 2-yard run with 3:29 left in the second quarter. Smith Center took advantage of a short field on the tying drive, after Finnesy was back to punt but went to a knee to field a low snap at the Plainville 35. The game stayed locked at 7 heading into the break.
Finnesy put the Cardinals back in front on a 13-yard run with 3:38 left in the third, but Kugler blocked the extra-point attempt to keep the score 13-7.
"I was just able to get a good jump," Kugler said. "I missed the first one, and I just figured out what I needed to do on that second one and I was able to get it."
The Cardinals had a chance to make it a two-possession game early in the fourth quarter but couldn't convert on a fourth-and-1 at the Smith Center 27, with Colby wrapping up Finnesy in the backfield.
Colby then broke loose for a 33-yard run, and then found Kugler for a 32-yard pass play, setting up Nate Hendrich's 7-yard TD with 9:32 left. Lambert's PAT put Smith Center up 14-13.
Kugler intercepted a pass on the Cardinals' next drive, but Plainville forced a Smith Center punt and quickly marched down the field for a five-play, 78-yard drive capped off by a 42-yard TD from Finnesy, who finished with 123 yards on the ground and 143 yards through the air in his final game. The two-point try failed to keep it a five-point game.
"It's really challenging," Kugler said of defending Finnesy. "You can't run up on him or he'll throw it. If you stay back, he'll run it. You just have to trust the guys up front that they're doing their jobs."
Smith Center was without the services of leading rusher Jaden Atwood on the game-winning drive. Atwood left with 10:02 remaining with a leg injury.
"We've had guys step up all year and that's what it's going to take again next week," Sasse said.
It was an entertaining battle up front, with both lines flexing their muscle at times.
"Unbelievable," Sasse said. "The only thing you hate about this game was neither team was really at 100 percent. I can't imagine what kind of game it would be if we were both with all of our guys all the time. Just unbelievable effort on both sides."
Atwood finished with 111 yards on 18 carries before leaving with the injury.
Plainville senior running back/linebacker Jared Casey rushed for 59 yards on 16 carries to cap a standout career for the Cardinals.