BY BUDDY TABLER
Special to the Tribune
NICKERSON — Two goal-line stands and Mason Perez’s fumble return for a touchdown sparked Larned past Nickerson 21-16 in Friday’s crucial 3A District football game.
Larned’s Tristan Burger and Brayden Lemuz intercepted passes in the Indian endzone, Perez returned a fumble 95 yards for a touchdown and Larned blocked a punt to set up the first touchdown.
Larned (4-2, 3-0 District) has clinched a 3A playoff berth and plays Hugoton (2-4, 2-1 District) next week. Nickerson (2-4, 1-2 District) has played three District games decided by a total of eight points.
Nickerson coach John Wellman said, “We’ve lost three games this year because of turnovers and penalties. It’s preventing us from being a good ball club.”
It certainly was a difference maker Friday night.
Larned scored 21 first half points on a crisp, cool evening. The game was dominated by mistakes and missed opportunities by both teams.
Larned averted a near disastrous start after fumbling the opening kickoff at the Indian 5-yard line. A 5-yard Nickerson penalty and stout Larned defense led by Reed McNett, Sebastian Whittington and Jace Snyder turned back the Panthers at the 1-yard line.
Later in the first quarter Larned blocked a Nickerson punt attempt at the Panther 35-yard line. Brock Skelton scooted 35 yards for a touchdown and Fernando Herrera’s kick made it 7-0.
the Indians had a 7-0 lead.
Perez returned a punt 30 yards to the Nickerson 14. Two plays later, Skelton caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Dillan Smith for a 14-0 lead.
Nickerson’s best drive reached Larned’s 5-yard line. With Jarin Gomez carrying the ball toward the goal-line, Perez ripped the football from his arms and sprinted 95 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead. The play stunned the Nickerson sidelines as even the officials seemed unsure of what had happened.
Perez’s 65-yard touchdown run was called back on a penalty. Following a Nickerson possession, Perez returned a punt 29 yards but was injured on the play. Larned lost its offensive spark without Perez, who did not return as the Indians went scoreless.
“We went flat after Mason got hurt,” said Larned coach Tad Remy. “We missed assignments and did not recognize their defenses. Give credit to Nickerson. They kept battling and made a game of it.”
Nickerson scored two fourth quarter touchdowns and converted two 2-point running plays. Noah Salazar scored on a 35-yard run and Bryce Isley caught a 26-yard touchdown pass from Tre Garcia.
Larned preserved the victory with fourth quarter interceptions in the endzone by Burger and and Lemuz that turned back potential Nickerson scores.
“Those were big plays,” Remy said. “Our defense played well tonight and those two guys really made big plays.”
Larned’s Smith passed for 91 yards and the Indians added 109 yards rushing. Nickerson gained 225 yards rushing and 99 yards passing.
Larned 14 7 0 0 – 21
Nickerson 0 0 0 16 – 16
L—Brock Skelton 35 run (Fernando Herrera kick); L—Skelton 6 pass from Dillan Smith (Herrera kick); L—Mason Perez 95 fumble return (Herrera kick); N—Noah Salazar 35 run (Jarin Gomez run); N—Bryce Isley 25 pass from Garcia (Garcia run)