When the Marion High School Warriors stuffed Moundridge on a 2-point conversion attempt to preserve a thrilling fourth-quarter comeback and win 21-20 Friday, they might just have owed Hoisington High School an assist.
“We played JV against Hoisington in 2009 — Helmer, Tacha, and me and the rest of our guys — and we had three or four goal-line stops right there on the 1-yard line,” Warrior senior Cory Hiebert said.
“So every single time we come down to a big play like that when we have to stop them, I always bring that back and I say ‘Hoisington, guys, Hoisington,” and they get pumped up and do what they need to do.”
What the Warriors needed to do was to recover quickly from a stunning 47-yard touchdown run by Moundridge back Troy Unrau that pulled the Wildcats to within one point with 1:03 remaining in the game. Moundridge chose to go for the win by attempting a 2-point conversion.
“You’ve just got to make one big play – that’s what we talked about,” Marion head coach Grant Thierolf said about the time-out encouragement he gave to the team prior to the conversion attempt.
The Warriors, with senior Dakin Ledford leading the charge, gang tackled Wildcat Daniel Ratzlaff at the 2, and then went on to cover an onside kick and run out the clock for the win.
“Dakin made a great play on the goal line on the 2-point play,” Thierolf said.
On a night when Marion’s senior leadership came to the fore, none stood out more than Cole Lewman, who rushed for 102 yards and all three Warrior touchdowns, completed two key passes, intercepted a Wildcat pass, and covered the last-ditch Moundridge onside kick attempt.
Marion took the lead on their first drive of the game, starting with good field position at the Wildcat 47. Warrior back Colten Johnson saved the drive from stalling out with a clutch six-yard plunge on fourth-and-4 from the 11-yard line. Lewman scored from the 5 on the next play, and Grif Case kicked the extra point for a 7-0 lead at 5:06 remaining in the first quarter.
But while the Marion defense kept the Wildcats out of the end zone until the end of the first half, the Warrior offense went stagnant after the opening drive.
“That’s my fault,” Thierolf said. “They adjusted to some things we were doing, and I didn’t adjust and got stubborn about some things.”
Moundridge took over at their own 31-yard line with 4:56 remaining, and three plays later Ratzlaff ripped through the heart of the Warrior defense for 35 yards, down to the Marion 15. Wildcat Trey Unrau’s carry on the next play gave Moundridge a second-and-1 at the Marion 6.
It looked like Marion would survive the threat after a chop block penalty nullified an apparent Ratzlaff touchdown. Stops for losses by Johnson and Lewman put Moundridge back on the 25-yard line facing fourth down.
But the Warriors gave up their second big play of the drive when Unrau caught a pass in the flat and ran all the way to the end zone for the score with only 34 seconds remaining. The Wildcat extra point sent the teams to the locker room at half with the score knotted 7-7.
Marion received the opening kick of the second half, with Taylor Heidebrecht returning the ball to the Marion 25. A steady dose of Lewman and Johnson moved the ball into Moundridge territory, but the Warriors gave the ball up when they came up short on a fourth-and-3 play at the Wildcat 34-yard line.
Moundridge responded by driving deep into Marion territory, converting twice on fourth downs, including once on a Marion facemask penalty.
The Wildcats faced another fourth down at the Marion 8, needing five yards for a first down. This time a wall of Warriors snuffed out Ratzlaff short of the first down, giving Marion the ball on their own 5-yard line.
Three plays later at the start of the fourth quarter, Moundridge got the first big break of the game by forcing a Johnson fumble that the Wildcats recovered at the Marion 13.
Ratzlaff scored on a three-yard run five plays later, and with the extra point the Warriors found themselves trailing in their homecoming game 14 – 7, with 9:46 remaining in the game.
Receiver Jacob Harper gave Marion’s next drive a big boost when he hauled in a Lewman pass along the right sideline for 28 yards to move the Warriors into Wildcat territory at the Moundridge 37.
Johnson had to work fourth-down magic again, this time bolting eight yards behind a massive push from the offensive line to give Marion new life at the Wildcat 22. Three plays later, Lewman slipped around the right side for a touchdown, pulling the Warriors to within one, 14-13.
Marion elected to run for the two-point conversion, but Johnson was stopped, and Marion trailed with only 6:07 remaining.
Moundridge took over at the Wildcat 25 after the kickoff, looking to take time off the clock. But after converting one first down, the Warrior defense stiffened. On what would prove to be the second-most important defensive play of the game, Marion defenders slammed the door shut on a fourth-and-1 Ratzlaff run, handing the ball back to the offense at the Moundridge 43 with 3:33 remaining.
“David Helmer and Jon Tacha made a great play on fourth down,” Thierolf said.
An offside penalty against the Wildcats moved the ball to the 38, where Lewman attempted a pass to Ledford in the middle of the field. The ball was deflected into the air and gathered in by the Wildcat’s Unrau, who raced down the right sideline.
But the officials had blown the play dead, calling Moundridge for a pass interference penalty. Marion retained possession with a new set of downs at the 23-yard line.
After a Johnson rushing attempt, Lewman improved on his previous touchdown by evading Wildcat tacklers for a 23-yard scoring romp, giving Marion a 19-14 lead.
Lewman took the ball again on the 2-point conversion attempt, but was grabbed quickly by Moundridge defenders. Falling to the ground, Lewman managed to pitch the ball back to Johnson at the 5, and the Warrior back hurtled into the end zone for what would prove to be the winning points and a 21-14 lead with 2:41 remaining.
“I was hoping he was there,” Lewman said when asked if he knew where Johnson was. “I looked up and he was there and I got it out as quick as I could.”
“It was just a great play by Cole,” Johnson said. “He was almost down, and he got the pitch to me. You just get in the mindset where you will do anything to win for your team.”
Thierolf’s postgame comments started with praise for the Wildcats.
“I thought Moundridge came out and played great. Their kids were focused and they did a lot of good things,” Thierolf said, noting the Wildcats outgained the Warriors in total yards.
“With that being said, I was very proud of our kids,” Thierolf said. “Sometimes learning how to win in those situations is as important as anything else, and our kids learned how to win tonight in a tough situation.
“I’m not going to say we played great, but we played great when we had to,” he said.
“We knew this was going to be the best team we’ve seen,” Lewman said. “Our seniors showed a lot of leadership tonight and stepped up when we needed it. Everybody that was out there on that field, they all did their part.”
Theirolf praised the leadership of his seniors as well.
“I’m just really proud of our seniors for hanging in there – they’ve become a resilient group of kids,” Thierolf said. “Early in their career they didn’t have a whole lot of success, then the last couple of years they started to feel that success, and it’s just very gratifying to watch them grow this year.”
Lewman led the team in rushing with 102 yards on 10 attempts, and Johnson toted the ball 15 times for 54 yards.
Ledford and Harper each had one reception out of five attempts by Lewman.
Hiebert led the defensive surge with 14 total tackles, one more than Ledford. Johnson had 10, while Brody Carroll and Lewman both collected nine tackles.
With the win the Warriors improved their record to 4-0, and will travel Friday to Sedgwick for their next test, with kickoff scheduled for 7 p.m.