In one of the biggest games in recent program history, the Thomas More Prep-Marian football team proved unfazed by the moment.
The Monarchs moved into the driver’s seat for a Class 2A District 7 championship, rallying from a nine-point third quarter deficit to take a 16-12 win over Cimarron on Friday night at Lewis Field Stadium and extend their winning streak to six games.
Jace Wentling caught the game-winning touchdown pass from Kade Harris with 2:57 left, and the Monarchs forced a turnover on downs in the closing seconds.
"When you play a high school football game like that, it’s surreal," Wentling said. "You can’t get that feeling (anywhere else). You got the student body and the city cheering you on, it’s really awesome."
TMP (6-1, 4-0 district) can wrap up the district championship next week with a win at Lakin. The six wins are TMP’s most in a season since 2002 when the Monarchs went 9-4.
"They were excited to play in a game like this," TMP coach Jay Harris said. "They embraced it. They took it on wholeheartedly and made good things happen."
The Monarchs proved they were equipped to handle some adversity, shaking off two turnovers on two straight possessions and a pair of Cimarron touchdowns that staked the Bluejays’ to a 12-3 lead in the third quarter.
"They’re maturing so well," coach Harris said. "We are still young, but the maturity is there. We lost our focus a little bit after that turnover and they take it down and score. Our motto all year is focus, stay focused, especially when bad things happen. We lost that for a little bit, but we got it back."
After a defense-dominated first half, the Monarchs led 3-0 before the momentum swung Cimarron’s way in the third after TMP miscues.
The Monarchs lost a fumble at the Cimarron 30, and the Bluejays went for it all on the next play when quarterback Braxton Harrison hit Seth Ridenour for a 70-yard TD.
TMP fumbled it away again on their next possession and Cimarron took advantage when Harrison capped off the drive with a 9-yard scamper to put the Bluejays up nine with 3:34 left in the quarter.
But the Monarchs answered with their first huge offensive play of the game when Harris connected on a deep pass down the left sideline to Wentling for a 69-yard touchdown to bring TMP within 3.
"I knew I could beat the corner on the outside, and I beat him and Kade just heaved it up there and I was wide open," Wentling said.
TMP’s defense set up the game-winning touchdown after Harris intercepted a pass at the TMP 28 and returned it to the 15.
"We talked about that play at halftime and drew that up and showed that they like to run that little underneath route," Jay Harris said. "Kade read it and was right there."
Harris was briefly shaken up after taking a hard hit on the interception return, but quickly rose to his feet and hyped up the Monarch sideline.
"Tonight I felt that all the odds were against us," Wentling said. "We were the underdogs coming into this game. Cimarron’s a great team. They were getting a bit chippy in there, and that’s just football. It’s going to happen. When Kade got rocked, we knew he was going to get back up. When he came back over .. we were like, ’Yeah we’re punching this ball in and we’re going to score and we’re not going to let them score again.’ "
Harris sat out one play before moving the Monarchs to the 4-yard line with five straight runs.
On third and goal, Harris lofted up a pass to the left side for Wentling, who secured a leaping grab with 2:57 left. Wentling kicked in the extra point to make it a four-point game.
"I told Kade to throw it on my outside shoulder and I was going to catch it," Wentling said.
Cimarron (4-3, 3-1 district) moved the ball to the Monarchs’ 39 on the final drive, but TMP got back-to-back sacks junior Kenton Ginther and freshman Kolton Hagans to force a turnover on downs in the game’s final seconds.
"We knew on the last play there they had to throw the ball and it was just pin your ears back and meet at the quarterback, and that’s exactly what they did," Jay Harris said
"It was just make sure they don’t get anything behind us," Wentling said of the TMP’s mindset on the last drive. "No pass over the top. We can’t afford a big pass. We can afford those short passes because we can pursuit and make the tackle."
Wentling helped account for all of TMP’s 16 points. He put the Monarchs on the board with a 24-yard field goal in a defense-dominated first half.
Harrison threw for 131 yards and ran for 76 for Cimarron. The Bluejays played their third straight game without injured standout senior running back Tate Seaboldt.
Harris ran for 79 yards on 26 carries and was 6-of-9 passing for 140 yards with the two TDs to Wentling.