SALINA — Entering the Class 5A District 6 finale, the Great Bend Panthers and their vaunted running game had steamrolled three of their previous four opponents.
But Salina South neutralized the Panthers’ run game and rallied from a 21-7 deficit, scoring 19 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 26-21 victory on Friday night at Salina Stadium.
“We lost all momentum in the second half and couldn’t get off the ropes,” Great Bend head coach Bo Black said. “We couldn’t run the ball when we had to run the ball and couldn’t stop (Salina South) when we had to stop them.”
With a state playoff berth at stake, the Panthers clung to a 21-20 lead after South place-kicker Chris Wearing missed a 46-yard field goal with 2:05 remaining.
Taking over at its own 20, Great Bend went three-and-out as it tried to melt the final minutes off the clock, but was forced to punt. The Cougars’ Cody Busby then made the play of the game, returning Nick Warren’s punt 53 yards down the left sideline to the GBHS 2-yard line with 42 seconds left.
“Just watching it live, we like we missed a couple of tackles,” Black said. “(Busby) got to the wall and had a good return.
“(Before the punt), we needed a first down. It was second-and-5, but we never got it. We really struggled running the ball consistently the entire game and it was the flip side of what we’ve been talking about all year. If we can run the ball and have success, we’re a pretty good football team, and we were unable to run it tonight.”
On second down, quarterback Christian Linenberger’s 1-yard plunge with 19 seconds remaining completed the Cougars’ comeback and punched their ticket to the playoffs.
South (4-5) will play at Bishop Carroll in Wichita this coming Friday night in a first-round playoff game. District champion Hays (8-1) defeated Salina Central and will entertain powerhouse Hutchinson in an opening-round game.
Great Bend closes its season at 4-4.
“They just outplayed us in the second half and our hat goes off to them,” Black said of the Cougars. “They had a good game plan, and beat us with physical football in the end.
“We tried to adapt with some things that aren’t our forte’ and dropped some balls in some situations and struggled in pass protection.”
Great Bend led the entire way, up until the final 19 seconds. Scoring drives were culminated by a 25-yard TD reception to wide receiver Mauricio Uribe from quarterback Mitch Kottas, followed by a Josh Lopez 18-yard touchdown run and later a Kottas 1-yard TD.
But Kottas completed only 6 of 20 passes for 110 yards for the game and threw three interceptions. Coupled with a sputtering run game, the Panthers found themselves on their heels during the final period.
Great Bend’s ball-controlling, smash-mouth brand of football churned out over 1,031 rushing yards during its previous four games. But the Cougars limited the Panthers to just 92 yards on 35 carries, most of which came from Lopez, a junior running back, who had 21 carries for 71 yards, including an 18-yard TD run that gave GBHS an early 14-0 lead.
But Kottas was intercepted by the Cougars’ Adam Mar near the three-minute mark before halftime, and South drove 58 yards, capped by a 6-yard touchdown scamper by Linenberger to cut the lead to 14-7 at the 44-second mark.
After the ensuing kickoff, South got another opportunity after Kottas was picked off by Zach Nachbar on a pass to the right sideline. But the Cougars’ Wearing missed a 40-yard field-goal attempt as time expired in the first half.
The X-factor in the second half for South was sophomore scatback Mike Jones, who had 10 carries for 82 yards. He totaled 42 yards on four straight carries during one critical drive, setting up a 45-yard TD pass from Linenberger to Mar, the first of three fourth-quarter scores for the Cougars.
Jones’ 16-yard touchdown scamper with 6:38 remaining pulled South within 21-20, although Wearing slipped and missed on the extra-point kick.
Still, the Cougars had another comeback in them, with Busby taking a starring role with his long kick return.
“It is hard to talk about,” Black said. “Coming off that loss, it’s hard what to say to your kids and hard to say what you think about it.
“The only thing we said to them was that the seniors have had the opportunity to play a great game for four years and contributed a lot. We really did some special things this year. The win or loss doesn’t define what kind of people they are.”
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
Class 5A District
At Salina Stadium
Salina South 26, Great Bend 21
Great Bend 0 14 7 0 — 21
Salina South 0 7 0 19 — 26
Great Bend — Mauricio Uribe 25 pass from Mitch Kottas (Mario Espino kick), 10:06
Great Bend — Joshua Lopez 18 run (Espino kick), 4:27
Salina South — Christian Linenberger 6 run (Chris Wearing kick), 0:44
Great Bend — Kottas 1 run (Espino kick), 3:19
Salina South — Aaron Mar 45 pass from Linenberger, (kick failed), 10:56
Salina South — Mike Jones 16 run (Wearing kick), 6:38
Salina South — Linenberger 1 run (run failed), 0:19
First Downs 10 12
Total Net Yards 202 301
Rushes-yards 35-92 47-206
Passing yards 110 95
Comp-Att-Int 6-20-3 6-12-2
Punts-Avg 6-40.2 2-28.5
Fumbles-Lost 1-1 1-1
Penalties-Yards 6-47 8-60
RUSHING — Salina South, Linenberger 20-95, Cody Busby 11-15, Jones 10-82, Mike Shirk 1-5, Andrew Jewell 1-5, Brady Munsch 1-4; Great Bend, Lopez 21-77, Kottas 9-11, Jonathan Allende 2-3, Jeremy Sigler 2-minus-6), Connor Sell 1-7.
PASSING — Salina South, Linenberger 6-12-2 95; Great Bend, Kottas 6-20-3 110
RECEIVING — Salina South, Mar 2-54, Avery Mitchell 1-18, Andrew Burns 1-11, Michael Gier 1-8, Munsch 1-4; Great Bend, Uribe 2-43, Sell 2-62, Allende 1-3, Lopez 1-2
GBHS DEFENSIVE STATISTICS
Sigler, 12 tackles, fumble recocery; Sell 10 tackles, pass deflection. caused fumble, blocked FG attempt, 1 tackle for loss; Matt Marshall, 9 tackles; Hunter Harrison, 9 tackles; Chad Touslee, 10 tackles, 1 tackle for loss; Greg Burley, 8 tackles; John Verbeck, 7 tackles; Chris Burley, 5 tackles, 2 INTs, 1tackle for loss; Tyler Uselton, 4 tackles, 1 tackle for loss.
Nov. 5 First Round
Leavenworth at SM West
Olathe East at Olathe Northwest
Lawrence at Olathe South
SM East at SM Northwest
Washburn Rural at Wichita Heights
Wichita South at Garden City
Derby at Wichita Northwest
Dodge City at Manhattan
Nov. 5 First Round
Highland Park at Bishop Miege
Lansing at Blue Valley
Mill Valley at Shawnee Heights
Gardner-Edgerton at Bonner Springs
Salina South at Bishop Carroll
Andover Central at Emporia
McPherson at Kapaun Mount Carmel
Hutchinson at Hays