Running backs La’Darrian Page and Chris Clay both had huge games, while return specialist Gage McKinnis busted a game-changing punt return and the HCC defense made several huge plays as the 20th-ranked Blue Dragons upended No. 9 Fort Scott 30-17 in the Region VI semifinals on Sunday afternoon at Frary Field.
The Blue Dragons (7-3), winners of five straight games for the first time since 1999, will play in the Region VI championship game next Sunday, Nov. 16 in a 5 p.m. kickoff at Cessna Stadium in Wichita. The Blue Dragons will play No. 3 Butler in the championship game.
“It just goes to show you that when people believe in something, it’s possible,” HCC head coach Rion Rhoades said. “That’s how our season has evolved. There was a point in time that our kids started to believe. As a coach, that’s your job is to convince them that they could do it.
That’s where we are at. They believe and they are playing together.”
“It's amazing,” sophomore quarterback Bryant Johnson said. “This is possibly the best experience I've had playing sports. In high school, we went to the playoffs, but it’s not the same thing. This has been an unbelievable experience.”
Fort Scott (8-2) shut out HCC in the regular-season meeting on Sept. 20 at Gowans Stadium. With Sunday’s victory, the Blue Dragons are 5-0 all-time in the playoffs against the Greyhounds, 2-0 at Frary Field.
Page ran for 136 yards on 26 carries and two touchdowns to lead HCC.
Right behind Page was Clay, who ran for a season-high 135 yards and a team-high eighth touchdown.
The Blue Dragons controlled the ball for 34 minutes, 45 seconds, rolling up 282 rushing yards and 350 total yards against the Jayhawk Conference’s No. 1 defense that posted five shutouts this season.
Johnson completed 4 of 6 passes, hitting four different receivers, for 68 yards and one touchdown.
Defensively, the Blue Dragons gave up 104 rushing yards and 157 yards passing. The Blue Dragons forced two turnovers, including a key fumble that was forced by Vincent Harris late in the second quarter when the Greyhounds were poised to score.
McKinnis, the third-leading punt returner in the Jayhawk Conference, had four returns for a season-high 116 yards. But with Fort Scott holding all the momentum early in the fourth quarter in a 10-10 tie, McKinnis electrified the capacity crowd with a 65-yard punt return to the Fort Scott 10. Three plays later, Clay scored to give the Dragons the lead for good.
“It was a big play,” McKinnis said. “We needed to get the momentum back on our side. We needed to punch it in after getting good field position and we did.”
Added Rhoades: “To me, two plays really bailed us out of tough situations. Gage’s was one of them. In the first half when Vince Harris stripped the ball when a guy was about to go in and score. That had a big impact on the first half. Gage is a great young man and a great player. He had some big-time blocks on that play as well.”
Fort Scott was led by Brandon Kinnie, the top receiver in the league, who had seven catches for 121 yards and one touchdown. The Dragon defense held the league’s second-leading rusher, Jasmin Hopkins, to 65 yards on 19 carries and one score.
The Blue Dragons set the tone early with a defensive 3-and-out and then the offense dialing long distance whDustin Weissbeck for a 34-yard touchdown pass and a 7-0 lead with 8:01 to play in the opening quarter.
HCC went up 10-0 on the first play of the second quarter when freshman Kelly Roberts booted a 31-yard field goal to cap a 11-play, 33-yard drive. HCC forced a turnover late in the second quarter to preserve that 10-point lead into halftime.
The third quarter was all Fort Scott.
The Greyhounds blocked a Dragon punt for a safety to cut the Dragon lead to 10-2 with 9:36 to play in the third quarter. After the free kick, Fort Scott marched 57 yards in four plays and scored on a Hopkins 4-yard run. Kinnie caught a two-point conversion pass and tied the game at 10-all with 1:54 to go in the third quarter.
Fort Scott continued to exert pressure on the Dragons, blocking a field goal early in the fourth quarter. But the HCC defense forced a 3-and-out. That’s when McKinnis broke his 65-yard punt return to the Fort Scott 10. Three plays later, Clay scored on a 5-yard touchdown run and the Dragons re-claimed the lead at 17-10 with 9:36 to play in the fourth quarter.
Thatcher Starling and Jamin Raigioza sacked Fort Scott quarterback Derek Helton to force another 3-and-out. After a touchdown on the punt, the Dragons put together a huge drive that lasted 11 plays and took 5:28 off the block. Converting twice on third down, HCC went up 24-10 when Page broke loose for a 17-yard touchdown run with 2:55 to play.
Fort Scott came right back with a four-play, 58 yard scoring drive that was capped off by Kinnie’s 46-yard touchdown catch with 2:08 remaining.
The Dragons recovered the on-side kick, and Page put the Greyhounds away with 1:59 to go when he gashed Fort Scott for a 42-yard TD run and a 30-17 lead.
GAME NOTES - The Blue Dragons are now 4-11 all-time in the Region VI/Jayhawk Conference playoffs. … HCC snaps an eight-game semifinal losing streak. … La’Darrian Page jumped from 10th to sixth on the Blue Dragon single-season rushing list with 1,260 yards. … Page had his seventh 100-yard rushing game of the season. Chris Clay had his third 100-yard rushing game. … HCC head coach Rion Rhoades tied Moe Cotter for 10th on the HCC coaching list with his ninth victory.
Head Coach Rion Rhoades
On Bryant Johnson …
“Our offense and coaches believes in Bryant. The like him and want to play for him. That’s a good characteristic for a quarterback to have.”
On the difference from the first meeting with Fort Scott … “We are just playing better. This team is a lot different than the team that played them the last time. WE are playing better in all phases of the game.”
On the HCC defense …
“Our defense did a great job today. I don’t think we played a complete game because we gave up some plays today, but I am proud of our defense.
They were battling hard. They held a good team to 10 points, that’s pretty good.”
Freshman Gage McKinnis
On breaking big returns …
“We practice every week on setting up a big return. It’s annoying when teams don’t kick it to you, but they did today and it gave us a chance.”
On getting to the Region VI championship game … “It’s big. It’s huge for our college. We are getting the program turned around. It’s been a blast. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Redshirt freshman Jacob Lattimer
On Gage McKinnis’ punt return …
"That was a momentum changer. It was probably the best play of the game for us.”
Sophomore La’Darrian Page
On playing Fort Scott again …
“They shut us out last time, and I don't know if they underestimated us this time or what. We had to come out and hit them in the mouth.”