ELLIS — In a game packed with big plays and momentum shifts, Thomas More Prep-Marian’s Jace Wentling ended the Battle of Big Creek in stunning fashion.
With the score tied at 21 in Friday’s district matchup, Ellis drove to the TMP 20-yard line with 18 seconds left before Wentling delivered the kind of clutch play all high school football players dream of making.
The TMP junior defensive back jumped an out route, picked off the pass and took it to the house for an 85-yard pick six with 3 seconds left to break the tie and lift the Monarchs to a riveting 28-21 win.
"As a high school football player … nothing is a better feeling than that," Wentling said. "It can’t get any better than that right there."
Wentling’s heroics helped the Monarchs move to 4-1 for the first time since 2003 and just the second time since 1989. TMP is 2-0 in Class 2A, District 7 play.
After Wentling read the route and snatched the ball, he ran down the sideline before cutting back up the middle to breakaway for the score. The Monarchs have scored on interception returns in each of their last three games.
"We were in cover 2 and I had the flats," Wentling said. "I saw No. 30 (Mason Gottschalk) coming on the out route, I knew he was he going to go right to him, so I just intercepted it.
"I saw two guys on the inside (on the return) that I had to beat. I knew I could beat them right there."
TMP coach Jay Harris credited the Monarch defense for suggesting a late change in coverage.
"We’d been running a different coverage all night," Harris said. "The defense saw that we would be better in that coverage, so that’s what we called after their suggestion to run it. It paid off huge.
"That’s instincts to jump that route like (Wentling) did and then the desire to get to the end zone. Three weeks in a row with a pick six, none of them bigger than that one right there."
In a roller coaster battle, Harris credited the Monarchs for staying poised and shaking off big plays by the Railers.
"We are still young, but they’ve been playing enough that they keep their heads about them and just keep battling," Harris said.
"If we had a bad play or a broken play, I think everybody was agreeance — we were like, ‘Next play, next play. That plays over, nothing you can do about it, go to the next play,’ "Wentling said.
After trailing 12-6 at halftime, TMP grabbed its first lead late in the third quarter after quarterback Kade Harris scored on an 8-yard run. Wentling kicked in the extra point to make it 13-12.
Ellis regained the lead when Tegan Cain made a 31-yard field goal with 8:08 left to make it 15-13.
TMP took back the lead again after Lance Lang capped off a drive with an 8-yard TD run, and Harris ran in the two-point conversion to put TMP up 21-15 with 4:52 left.
The Railers answered back quickly when Konnor Pfeifer’s 54 yard run knotted up the score at 21 with 3:44 left, but an errant snap prevented the Railers from tacking on the extra point and taking the lead.
TMP was forced to punt on the ensuing possession, giving Ellis a chance at a game-winning drive. Tyson Jimenez broke past the Monarch secondary and nearly hauled in a 40-yard touchdown pass from Cain, but Jimenez was unable to secure a tough catch in the end zone. Jimenez landed hard on the play and was tended to by training staff before being able to walk to the sideline under his own power.
Ellis kept the drive alive by converting on a fourth down and moving the ball to the red zone before Wentling’s interception. After the pick six, Wentling knocked in the extra point, and time expired on the ensuing kickoff.
TMP had trouble wrapping up running backs Gottschalk and Pfeifer and receiver Jimenez. Gottschalk helped spark the Railers early with a 71-yard run to set up a Pfeifer 8-yard score.
"We had some trouble tackling early on, but we shored that up," Harris said. "We did a better job but we still missed some big tackles. Something we definitely got to work on."
Kade Harris accounted for three touchdowns for TMP, rushing for two scores and throwing a 37-yard TD pass to Wentling on a 4th-and-17 play in the first quarter.
Ellis dropped to 1-4 on the season and 0-2 in district play, but the Railers showed their grit, Harris said.
"I told the guys last year after the season, I said, ‘The team that’s going to be out for us and the team that’s going to be one of our toughest games is going to be Ellis,’" Harris said. "They proved it, that’s for sure."
TMP will look to continue its bid for a breakthrough season on the road next Friday against Kismet-Southwestern Heights.
"It’s a great feeling," Wentling said of the Monarchs sporting a 4-1 record. "I feel like we can do something special this year."