It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
Not after it had worked so hard to get in this position.
McPherson High’s football team, which had awakened from its first-half snooze to stage a spirited comeback to grab a 25-21 lead over Mulvane in the first round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs, fell back asleep in the final 1:54 of the game to see its season ended with a shocking 28-25 loss to the upstart Wildcats, who somehow had lost to an El Dorado team that MHS scored 46 first-half points against and also entered Friday night with a losing record.
The Wildcats raced 73 yards in 85 seconds to score the winning touchdown, a wide-open 5-yard flip from RJ Rieger to Jace Price that came with 29 seconds left in the game. A 48-yard pass from Rieger to a wide-open Ethan Evans had put the Wildcats in business just when it appeared the Bullpups were going to escape to set up a highly anticipated second-round battle with Topeka Hayden.
“Hats off to them. First off you’ve got to credit them, they really came to play,” a devastated MHS coach Tom Young said. “They played well all night. I don’t think we were as mentally prepared as we were through the districts. We played three great games in a row and maybe we should have guarded against this a little more as coaches.”
MHS had picked off Top 5-ranked teams Abilene, Buhler and Hays to earn a first-round home game, which many thought to be a mere formality.
But it was evident early the Bullpups left a lot on the field in the district as they came out super flat. Mulvane converted a pair of MHS fumbles into touchdowns and mind-blowingly led 21-3 in the second quarter before the Bullpups scored just before the half on a Cody Starkel pass to Payton Stephens that covered 24 yards, with Ty Hart tacking on a 2-pointer to make it 21-11.
MHS clawed within 21-18 in the third quarter on a 9-yard Nathan Nutter blast up the middle and then took the lead at the 8:00 mark in the final period on a 12-yard Hart gallop.
After MHS forced Mulvane to punt the ball away, the Bullpups started a drive with 5:22 to go and moved right down the field, forcing the Wildcats to use all their timeouts. The last came after a second-down play in which Starkel was sacked.
Starkel then threw a pair of incompletions, which gave the Wildcats the ball with 1:54 to go at their own 27. After two Rieger incompletions, he found Evans open for 48 yards. Those two hooked up for 15 more and then MHS was hit with its fourth personal foul of the night, which moved the ball to the 5 and set up the winning score.
“We didn’t play well and had a lot of mistakes,” Young said. “It wasn’t any one particular position I don’t think. Mistakes were made and we probably could have called a little better game, I could have offensively in different situations.”
After a meager offensive first half, MHS finished with 381 yards, normally good enough to win. Starkel threw for 222, but fired it 31 times, far more than the Bullpups normally do. Hart rushed for 107 yards on 15 carries, but 49 of that came on one run as the Wildcats were for the most part stout against the run.
Stephens had a career night with nine catches for 179 yards, including 48 on the last play of the game when a Hail Mary came up 5 yards from winning the game.
The Bullpups finished 7-3, quite commendable since many thought they would not even get out of district play, much less win the title. They had won seven straight before losing and would have been home next week had they won. They also beat a tremendous Hays team without starting quarterback Kyler Kinnamon, who missed the final two games with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder.
“After we beat Abilene, I told the players no matter what happens the rest of the way we’ve had a very good season up to this point,” said Young, who has led the team into the playoffs in each of his nine years. “The encouragement was to go on and win the rest of them and have what could be called a great season. It didn’t happen, but we still had what I would call a very good season.”
Mulvane now gets to host Hayden since it played on the road this week and Hayden was home.
• STATISTICS •
• MHS Listed First •
First Downs — 21, 13. Rushes-Yards — 35-159; 38-65. Passing — 16-31-0-222; 15-29-2-214. Punts-Avg. — 4-32.3; 5-36.4. Fumbles-Lost — 3-2; 0-0. Penalties-Yards — 4-50; 7-75.
• INDIVIDUAL LEADERS •
• Rushing •
MHS — Hart 15-107, Starkel 15-28, Nutter 5-24.
Mulvane — Brown 13-28, Rieger 18-20, Price 4-11, Dulaney 3-6.
• Passing •
MHS — Starkel 16-31-0-222.
Mulvane — Rieger 15-29-2-214.
• Receiving •
MHS — Stephens 9-179, Stoppel 3-20, Hart 2-3, Jost 1-11, Baldwin 1-9.
Mulvane — Evans 5-91, Price 5-73, Dulaney 5-50.