With bolstered depth and versatility, overcoming a key injury or two hasn’t been overly problematic for the Hays High Indians so far this season.
Despite missing a couple key pieces on offense in Friday’s home opener, the Indians had enough firepower to notch a comfortable 27-13 Western Athletic Conference win over Liberal at Lewis Field Stadium.
Hays had to do some shuffling on offense after running back Roy Moroni left the game in the first half with an apparent ankle injury. The Indians were already without Division I prospect receiver Jaren Kanak, who injured his foot in last week’s game at Great Bend.
Quarterback Dylan Dreiling, who returned after missing the Great Bend game with a stomach ailment, started Friday’s game at QB and then moved over to running back after Moroni’s injury. Receiver Jordan Dale went back to quarterback after putting up a huge rushing game last week while filling in for Dreiling.
Dreiling and Dale made for a formidable 1-2 punch on the ground, and Hays High turned in another stout defensive outing as the Indians moved to 3-0.
"Good programs, when someone goes down, the next guy steps up," Hays High coach Tony Crough said. "Over the last couple years, if something happened to someone, we kind of panicked because we didn’t have anyone ready. So now we’ve got guys stepping in.
"... You felt like we were a couple plays away from that thing being 49-0 or 49-7. But at the same time, when you have backups in and guys doing different parts on the offense they haven’t done, it’s tough to really get over the top."
HHS was in control throughout, but Crough said the Indians will need to have cleaner performances down the road in big games.
"We played well enough to win, for sure; there’s never anything wrong with that," he said. "But not well enough to win big games. Liberal came out and gave us their best, and we played well enough to beat them.
"But when it gets down the road and we’re trying to win some really big ones, we’re going to have to shore up a lot of things."
Hays High defense forced four turnovers — two interceptions and two fumble recoveries.
"We were all really aggressive," HHS senior defensive end and Kansas State commit Gaven Haselhorst said. "We had a plan to come out really aggressive, and we’d win, and that’s what we did."
Hays High seized the momentum from the start after forcing a turnover on Liberal’s first play from scrimmage. The ball popped up high in the air after being jarred loose on a Liberal carry, falling into the arms of Haselhorst for a fumble recovery.
"It felt like it was floating for 10 seconds," Haselhorst said. "It was weird. .. That started us out really good."
HHS scored on its second play when Dale took Dreiling’s screen pass 47 yards for a touchdown.
The Indians turned it over on downs deep in Liberal territory on its next two possessions but went up 14-0 after Dreiling took a handoff 16 yards for a touchdown with 7:18 left in the second quarter.
Liberal made it a 14-7 game after a 3-yard TD from Alex Esparza. Hays High was forced to punt on its next possession, but Dalton Dale picked off a Liberal pass to give the Indians the ball at the Liberal 22-yard line.
Hays High cashed in with a 2-yard run by Dale to go up 21-7. Liberal crossed into Indians territory but Bill Scott intercepted a deep pass on the last play of the half.
Dreiling scored again on a 3-yard run in the third quarter to push the lead to 27-7. The junior finished with 100 yards on 17 carries.
"We knew that if something happened to Roy we could plug Dylan in there (at running back)," Crough said. "He’s practiced it a little bit. He only knew a couple plays at running back but he’s the quarterback so he knows what’s going on. We do have depth at quarterback, so we knew we could plug him in there. He’s a heck of a runner."
On the ensuing kickoff after Dreiling’s third-quarter TD, Liberal’s Jaylin Staten had an 82-yard return to the HHS 2, but a block-in-the-back penalty moved Liberal backed to the 20, and Hays High then recovered a fumble for the Indians to end the threat.
Hays High outgained Liberal 406 to 200.
"We have such a solid defense that has made huge strides in getting better," Crough said. "We are so close to being just a very elite defense. .. When we get to the level where we can get off the field on third and long yardage situations and not make foolish penalties, our defense is going to be so dang good — we already are — and we’re going to be elite at some point. We’re close."
Liberal’s second touchdown was inconsequential, coming with just 12 seconds left on a 40-yard TD run by Easton Zapien.
Dale followed up last week’s 224-yard rushing and four-touchdown performance with a solid game. He ran for 59 yards, completed 9 of 12 passes for 98 yards, and also caught three passes for 58 yards before moving back to quarterback.
"He’s going to make the right reads, and, for the most part, make the throws he’s supposed to," Crough said. "He’s a solid kid, solid leader. If we need him to play quarterback he can step in and get the job done."
Crough said the Indians narrowly missed out on several big-gainers.
"Offensively, we have to convert on some of those big plays," Crough said. "We had some good calls. Coach (Cole) Cherryholmes and our offensive staff had some really nice things drawn up and we just missed them, and that’s frustrating. But it’s going to happen; it’s high school football.
"We missed four or five of them there that we should have made better plays on. And we had some bad penalties, and defense not getting off the field on some long yardage situations.
"But I think a lot of it’s going to come together. With some injuries and things, we’re trying to piece together where guys are going to fit."
Moroni rushed for 81 yards on nine carries before leaving with the injury.
Crough said he’s hopeful Kanak and Moroni are back next Friday when the Indians travel to Garden City.
Hays High 27, Liberal 13
HHS — Dale 47 pass from Dreiling (Fields kick)
HHS — Dreiling 16 run (Fields kick)
Liberal — Esparza 2 run (Schwindt kick)
HHS — Dale 2 run (Fields kick)
HHS — Dreiling 3 run (kick failed)
Liberal — Zapien 40 run (two-point try failed)