That mentality paid off as Hutchinson knocked off Garden City 28-21 on Saturday at Gowans Stadium, making Homecoming a real celebration.
"We did pretty much the same things we've done all year, but we played this game like it was the last game of the season," said sophomore defensive back A.J. Wallace, who had nine tackles and delivered several punishing hits against the Broncbusters. "We all came together and pulled it out as a team."
HCC's victory secured a home game for the first round of the Jayhawk Conference Playoffs, which begin on Sunday, Oct. 24. Kickoff will be at 1:30 p.m. at Gowans Stadium.
Heading into night games on Saturday, the Dragons (5-3, 4-3) – which clinched the third seed for the playoffs – will play host to Independence, Dodge City or Highland.
Official pairings will be released on Sunday.
But a home game would not have been possible if head coach Craig Jersild's players didn't get off the deck after the Dodge City disaster.
"I told the guys that I've never been more proud of a group in my life as far as a football team goes after what happened to us last Saturday night," Jersild said. "We played emotionless football (against Dodge City) and we probably did a poor job coaching them.
"This week for the guys to display the effort and everything they did was phenomenal."
Sophomore quarterback Robert Coates competed 16 of 31 passes for 246 yards and three touchdown passes. Coates became HCC's all-time leading passer – surpassing PJ Peters – with 3,220 career yards. He also tied Peters for career touchdown passes with 28.
Records aside, Coates and the entire Blue Dragon offense wanted to make amends for last week's loss at Dodge City where the offense struggled mightily. Just 58 seconds into the game Saturday, that's just what they started to do.
Coates scrambled to his left and launched a 78-yard touchdown pass to Steven Daniels, who broke his route after Coates waved him off. The Dragons went on to score 28 first-half points.
"Everybody seemed more focused and we had a good week of practice," Coates said. "We laid it on the line today and play it like it's your last game. We tried to leave it on the field today."
Added Daniels: "It was really big because we needed to start off good. We started off with seven, so the defense came out and did what they had to do."
Coates accounted for 279 total yards and four touchdowns against the Broncbusters, but the Coates-to-Daniels combination was lethal on Saturday. Daniels caught seven balls for 147 yards, both career highs for him and the 147 receiving yards was a season high for HCC this season. Coates and Daniels connected for a pair of touchdowns as well.
The Dragons produced their most efficient offensive half of the season in the first half in building a surprising 28-7 halftime lead. HCC scored on its first two possessions of the game and had rolled up 225 yards total offense in the first half alone.
After Coates and Daniels hooked up for their 78-yard TD bomb – the seventh longest pass in Blue Dragon football history – the Dragons efficiently went on an 80-yard drive that lasted 10 plays and 3 minutes, 20 seconds in duration. Renel Saintil capped off the drive with a 23-yard TD pass from Coates and HCC led 14-0 with 8:30 left in the first quarter.
A pair of pass interference calls aided Garden City on its only scoring drive of the first half. The Busters got on the board when Rodrecus Windsor found Jermaine Barnett on a 13-yard TD pass to cut the Dragon lead to 14-7 with 12:37 left in the first half.
Two series later, Daniels and Coates once again struck paydirt. Coates led the Dragons on a seven-play, 44-yard drive and finished it off with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Daniels, who made a nifty move past a Garden City defender into the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 6:31 left in the half.
"Stevie made some outstanding catches for us today and avoided people and made people miss," Jersild said. "He was an outstanding football player today."
Perhaps the biggest play of the game came late in the first half. With Garden City punting on its own 32, David Dixon blocked Grant Stephenson's punt and the Dragons took the ball over at the Buster 1-yard line. Coates plunged into the end zone on the next play to give the Dragons a 28-7 lead with 47 seconds left in the half.
"I really have to credit our offense the way the executed and the efficiency we had. We hadn't done that much this year and we really needed that," Jersild said. "It's time for us to start doing that. It's time to start playing good football."
The Dragons had 354 total yards against Garden City. They had to survive a pair of second-half fumbles that made things close at the end.
The first turnover turned into a three-play, 81-yard Garden City scoring drive that was highlighted by Ricky Musgrave's 71-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 28-14 with 8:57 left in the third quarter.
The other fumble set Garden City up in great field position and the Busters were sitting first-and-goal at the HCC 6 midway through the final quarter. But the Dragons made four key stopped, holding Musgrave to a 2-yard loss and forcing three incomplete passes by Windsor, the fourth-down pass broken up by Cornelius Minafield.
"That shows the tenacity that our defense has. They never say die," Jersild said. "We played fast and hoped for the best. We made some mistakes, but we made some huge plays today. There was a lot of great hitting going on. That was the most physical we've played all year.
"After last week, we stepped it this performance," Wallace said. "A week of hard practice showed today."
The Busters cut the lead to 28-21 with 1:15 left in the game when Chris Nelson found Barnett with an 18-yard touchdown pass. But HCC's Dallas Browning recovered the onsides kick and secured Hutchinson's second-straight victory over Garden City.