Ode to the playoffs
Chieftains improve on last year with 9-2 mark after Saturday’s loss to Hayden
Tonganoxie has been busy in the last few weeks acquiring plaques and receiving accolades.
On Saturday, however, the magical ride ended.
The team that earned its first playoff win and first district title since 1995 went up against a mighty Hayden team from Topeka.
The Chieftains just couldn't extend their season for another wonderful week.
A 27-14 setback sent Tonganoxie home for good. The Chieftains finished with a 9-2 record, while Hayden, last year's state runner-up, improved to 11-0.
After forcing Tonganoxie to punt on the Chieftains' first drive, the Wildcats looked to be in business with a punt return for a touchdown. The play, however, was called back because of a penalty, and that early momentum was erased.
In fact, it was a strange play in the second half that gave the underdog Chieftains hope and put a bit of a scare into the hometown Wildcats.
After stopping Hayden on third-and-one from the 1-yard line in the second quarter, Tonganoxie needed the same result against the gigantic Wildcat line on fourth down.
The Chieftains got so much more.
While being stopped short of the first down, a Wildcat fumbled the ball.
Enter senior Garrett Palmer.
The senior, an unlikely hero for a Tonganoxie score, transformed from defender to ball carrier.
As most of Hayden's players still were in the pile near the goal line, Palmer headed south with fellow senior Zach Ditty behind him.
With many HHS players watching in bewilderment, the Wildcat juggernaut suddenly found itself trailing the visiting Chieftains, 6-0.
Who better to scoop up the ball and run the ball than Palmer, who after the game wasn't sure what his 40-yard dash time was clocked at.
"Slow," Palmer said with a faint grin.
A greyhound he's not, but Palmer was off to the races Saturday at Hayden.
Actually, according to assistant coach Matt Bond, Palmer runs the 40 in about 5 seconds flat.
And for teammate Ross Starcher, the big play couldn't have happened to a better Chieftain.
"Garrett gives it his all on every play," Starcher said.
Palmer had so many things running through his mind when he scooped up the ball and just ran. But when he heard Ditty yell "Go, go, go," Palmer knew he had the touchdown.
Favored by 26 according to computer ratings, Hayden had a potential upset on its hands.
But the giant quickly awoke, scoring 27 unanswered points against the visiting Chieftains on an unseasonably warm November afternoon.
Tonganoxie faced a team with three linemen weighing 326 or more and many others weighing at least 240.
THS coach Mark Elston noted that it felt as if he were facing a team as big as K-State or Kansas.
One player, tight end Nick Stringer, is said to be headed to Manhattan to play football for the Wildcats.
But all that didn't seem to scare the Chieftains.
"We had guys with hearts four times as big as their chest cavity," Elston said.
Hayden clearly had the upper hand.
The Wildcats doubled the Chieftains first-down production (14-7) and out-rushed the visitors, 173-86. But Hayden's top rusher, Kyle Ingenthron, was limited to 62 yards.
It was the pass that ultimately hurt the Chieftains.
A 57-yard bomb from quarterback Chris Dieker to receiver Josh Torrez put Hayden up, 14-6, with 37.9 seconds left in the half.
Overall , Dieker was 4-for-7 with 131 yards, while Starcher was 4-for-13 for 20 yards and an interception.
As for Tonganoxie, the offense had its moments, but the Chieftains couldn't sustain big enough throughout much of the game.
Trailing 27-6, though, Elston spiced up the formation.
Using the polecat -- or swinging gate -- Tonganoxie marched from midfield using the unorthodox formation that puts the center and quarterback on the ball and the rest of the line a considerable distance away to the right or left.
Tonganoxie scored with 1:03 left in the game on a 13-yard pass play from Starcher to Sam Mitchell. The two connected again on the two-point conversion, but Hayden then ran the clock out for the win.
The 2:30 p.m. kickoff signaled the first afternoon game for the Chieftains in some time, but Mitchell said that wasn't a problem for Tonganoxie.
"We came out ready to play," Mitchell said.
The Tonganoxie defense was the team's biggest asset.
When Dieker did pass, he was chased on several occasions by the likes of Kent Fleming and Bryan Morris. Fleming rang up sacks on Dieker, while Morris and other Chieftains forced some hurries. Even Palmer tallied a sack against the Wildcats.
The playoff loss ends Tonganoxie's season at 9-2 and marks the end of prep careers for eight seniors -- Palmer, Starcher, Mitchell, Ditty, Clay Lamb, Daniel Workman, Andy Eisman and Kaleb Lawrence.
Hayden advanced to the state quarterfinals where they will face Eudora (8-3). The Cardinals defeated Coffeyville on Saturday, 35-8.
Hayden and Eudora will meet at 7 p.m. Friday in Eudora.
The winner will take on the Holton-Fort Scott winner Nov. 19 in substate.
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