BY JIM MISUNAS
The showdown for the Western Athletic Conference football championship featured drama, intrigue and a heartbreaking and thrilling finish.
Great Bend quarterback Jacob Murray was turned back inches shy of the goal-line and Garden City escaped with a 21-14 overtime victory Friday night before an overflow crowd at Memorial Stadium.
Panther left tackle Aaron Clark blocked Jasper Partin perfectly, but Murray slipped and fumbled the football as he dove close to the goal-line. Cal Marshall briefly recovered the loose ball short of the goal-line and Panther Dalton Bieker recovered the football in the end zone after the whistle blew.
“There’s nothing I can say to make this hurt go away. That’s a tough way to lose,” said Great Bend coach Erin Beck. “My heart goes out to our players. I told them to remember this feeling and make sure it doesn’t happen again. It was a heck of a ballgame, a very physical football game. I couldn’t be prouder of our players.”
Murray ran the football four times in overtime, but was stopped short of the goal-line on 4th down. Murray rushed for 98 yards and threw for 184 yards.
“I trust No. 7 (Murray) to have the football in that situation,” Beck said. “That was a heck of a job by them. Give a lot of credit to their defense.”
The Panthers had to replace all-state linebacker Peyton Mauler and wide receiver Brayden Smith, who departed with injuries.
“It was a world championship match that kept going back-and-forth,” Beck said. “I was proud of our defense and the way they competed.”
Great Bend rushed for 148 yards against a defensive line that averages 259 pounds.
“Their front four makes it very difficult on an offense,” Beck said. “They’ve got some men on the defensive side of the football. They free up their linebackers to make tackles.”
Great Bend (7-1, 3-1 WAC) missed a chance for its first unbeaten regular season in 63 years and first outright league title since 2008.
“We’ve put ourselves in good position,” Beck said. “We’re just starting the fun of playing in the 5A state playoffs.”
No. 2 seeded Great Bend plays Topeka West (1-7) at home in the 5A playoffs next week. Great Bend coach Harry Kline led the Panthers to their last unbeaten regular season in 1953. Garden City (8-0, 4-0 WAC) captures the WAC championship.
Garden City fullback Peyton Hill scored on a 3-yard run in overtime as the Buffaloes scored from the 10-yard line in three plays. The 200-pound Hill rushed for 146 yards and quarterback Jesse Nunez added 96 yards.
“We’re a tough team to stop in a 10-yard space,” said Garden City coach Brian Hill. “We knew we were going to run the football. Winning the WAC championship is what’s important.”
The game reached overtime when Garden City kicker Ezequiel Herrera missed a 20-yard field goal from the east hashmark with four seconds left in regulation.
The Buffaloes’ offensive line that averages 270 pounds paved the way for 250 rushing yards.
The Panthers led 14-7 when receiver Koy Brack caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Murray. The Buffaloes responded with a 65-yard scoring drive ignited by a 44-yard option run by Nunez.
Great Bend scored on a 90-yard drive and closed the first half on an 85-yard drive that ended with a 30-yard missed field goal by Dani Franco for a 7-7 halftime score.
Great Bend’s Nick Reed intercepted a Nunez pass at the Panther 5-yard line to start the 85-yard drive.
The Panthers moved ahead 7-0 on Murray’s 8-yard touchdown run with 3:13 left in the first half. Murray accounted for 80 yards, 49 rushing and 31 passing on the drive.
The Buffaloes answered with a 65-yard scoring drive, keyed by a crucial pass interference call on third down against the Panthers. Nunez scored on a 1-yard dive with 10:24 in the second quarter. Nunez completed key passes to Ezequiel Herrera and Jordan Herrman for first downs.
The Panthers gained 189 yards. Murray gained 63 first-half rushing yards and added 83 yards passing.
The Garden City Buffaloes gained 110 first-half yards on 24 offensive plays.
BUFFALOES 17, PANTHERS 14
GC 0 7 7 0 7 – 21
GB 7 0 7 0 0 – 14
GB—Jacob Murray 8 run (Dani Franco kick), 3:13
GC—Jesse Nunez 1 run (Ezequiel Herrera kick), 10:24
GB—Koy Brack 23 pass from Murray (Franco kick), 2:52
GC—Peyton Hill 2 run (Herrera kick), 0:21
GC—Hill 3 run (Herrera kick)
RUSHING— GC— 47-250; Hill 23-146; Nunez 22-96; Brodie Stabel 1-5; Quinton LaPointe 1-3; GB—46-148; Murray 33-98; Marshall 7-14; Bryce Lytle 2-27; Dalton Miller 3-11; team 1-(-2).
PASSING— GC—Nunez 5-11-1, 54; GB—Murray 14-24-1, 184.
RECEIVING—GC—Jordan Herrman 3-30; Jason Yi 1-10; Herrera 1-13; GB—Lytle 9-94; Koy Brack 3-70; Brayden Smith 2-20.