With both teams out of playoff contention, and little more to play for than pride, Thursday night’s tilt between Iola High and Baxter Springs turned into a battle of wills.
And oh, what a battle it was.
A contest that featured a little bit of everything culminated in a thrilling goal-line stand by the Mustangs as time ran out — in the game and the season — for a 20-13 victory.
The win gives Iola a bit of salve on a 3-4 campaign disrupted by a coronavirus-fueled quarantine and a late three-game losing streak that kept the Mustangs out of the playoffs.
On the other side of the ledger, Baxter Springs ended the year winless at 0-7.
“We knew they’d be hungry, not having a win,” Mustang head coach David Daugharthy said. “I’ve been on an 0-9 team, so I knew what it was like in high school to be ‘oh-fer.’ It’s tough. You’re going to be hungry every time you step on that field.”
The action kept fans on the very edge to the last play of the game.
The Mustangs led, 14-13, with under a minute left, and thought they’d clinched victory when senior defensive back Isaac Badders stepped in front of a desperation fourth-and-11 pass by the Lions’ Garett Paxson at midfield.
Badders weaved between would-be tacklers, then raced down the right sideline to the end zone.
The touchdown brought the crowd, and Badders’s teammates, into a frenzy. But it also meant Baxter Springs would get possession once again, and still within a touchdown.
(Had he kneeled on the ball, Iola would have been able to run out the clock without gaining a first down.)
Daugharthy thought the same. “I said that right as he was returning it,” he said. “But I’m also happy he returned it because I admire what that kid has given to the program.”
The problem was, Iola was flagged for excessive celebration after Badders’ score, pushing the ensuing kickoff back to the Mustang 25. Then, the Lions deflected Henrik Sieh’s extra-point kick, keeping the spread at 7.
And it was about to get even more exciting.
The Lions recovered Iola’s squib kick at the Mustang 39 with 47 seconds left. Paxton raced around the left end for 15 yards, then found Kain McCully open down the right sideline.
McCully made it to the 2, diving for the pylon as he was driven out of bounds with 21 seconds left. An offside penalty on the Mustangs before the next snap inched the ball to the 1.
With no timeouts left, Baxter Springs chose to stick to its ground game, a fateful decision as it turned out.
Paxton’s sneak attempt was thwarted, then with the seconds ticking away the Lions eschewed a spike to stop the clock. Paxton tried the left side of the line, but he was greeted by a gang of tacklers, led by Iola’s Drayden Reiter, who pulled him to the ground at the 4.
By then, it was too late for another play. A jubilant Iola bunch erupted, while the Lions staggered off the field in stunned disbelief.
“Really, two weeks in a row, this defense played its hearts out,” Daugharthy said. “They played really, really solid.”
“It’s great to end on a high note,” Badders said. “It comes down to grit and how much dog we have in us, how much we fight.”
THE frenzied finish was a far cry from the start of the contest.
The visiting Lions — who entered Thursday’s matchup on a 15-game losing streak, and having scored in double digits only once this season — controlled the game for much of the first half, and converted a pair of long touchdowns to jump out to a 13-0 lead.
Iola found its footing in the waning moments of the second quarter.
The key play was senior quarterback Bradyn Cole’s 44-yard pass to classmate Drake Sellman, putting the Mustangs at first-and-goal from the 4.
Junior tailback Trent Jones plowed his way in from there on a 1-yard touchdown, closing the gap to 13-7.
Iola forced a three-and-out to start the second half, then found itself in prime scoring position when the Baxter Springs punter was tackled before he could get the ball kicked.
The Mustangs withstood a pair of holding penalties that nullified would-be touchdowns, with Jones twice converting key first-down runs, which led to his 2-yard touchdown at the 7:03 mark. SIeh’s extra point gave Iola its first lead of the contest, 14-13.
“We came out sluggish,” Daugharthy said. “We got a couple big plays. So far this year, it’s been tough to build on anything, and to get a big play to stop the bleeding. We stopped the bleeding, and that’s what encouraged me, not just for tonight, but moving forward.
“We took a stand and started to get a little bit of momentum.”
The Lions missed on a pair of scoring chances after that. Baxter Springs drove to the Mustang 15, but the drive stalled, and a subsequent field goal attempt came up inches short.
Then, after a holding penalty on Iola’s subsequent drive erased another long Sellman catch, the Mustangs were forced to punt.
Baxter Springs marched 49 yards, but got no closer than Iola’s 27, and a fourth-down Paxton pass was broken up in the end zone.
Then came the memorable finale, with the intensity on both sides rivaling anything you’ll see this fall in the postseason playoffs.
Unofficially, Jones bulldozed his way for 125 yards on 27 carries, with two touchdowns. Cole was 14 of 25 for 152 yards. Sellman had five receptions for 93.
Baxter Springs did most of its damage on the ground, rushing for 153 yards, led by Hayden Lake’s 82 yards. Paxton rushed for 47 yards and threw for 72 more. McCully had 51 yards receiving.
The Mustangs will bid adieu to 14 seniors from this year’s squad, a fact not lost on Daugharthy.
“This is my first senior class,” he noted. “I came here when these guys were freshmen.
“Even if they haven’t been here all four years, they’ve given so much to this program. Through the ups and downs, they stayed with it no matter what, and that’s a valuable life skill. You could see just by how happy they were what it means to them. I’m really proud of what they’ve given. They’re going to truly be missed.”
Baxter Springs 7-6-0-0—13
BS — McCully 33 yd pass from Paxson (Riley kick)
BS — Lake 41 yd run (PAT failed)
Iola — Jones 1 yd run (Sieh kick)
Iola — Jones 2 yd run (Sieh kick)
Iola — Badders 45 yd interception return (PAT failed)