By BRETT MARSHALL
ULYSSES — All season the Hugoton Eagles have looked to Caleb Gifford to make big plays. Most had come on the offensive side of the ball.
But on a cold, rainy night at Maxwell Field, it was a big fumble recovery by the senior — his second of the night — that set up teammate Keithan Martin's 36-yard touchdown run with just 2:25 left in a game that provided a dramatic 20-19 victory over Ulysses in a Class 4A district title showdown and preserved the Eagles' first unbeaten regular season since 1984.
Both teams will be playing in the Class 4A bi-district playoffs Tuesday, Ulysses (5-4) travels to Wellington, while Hugoton (9-0) gets a home game against Clearwater, a team that eliminated Ulysses in 2008. Kickoff for both games will be 7 p.m.
"It was a heckuva football game, it had everything," Hugoton coach Clint Merritt said. "Both teams had opportunities, both teams fumbled it away and that's why it was so close. The weather, the crowd and then the excitement at the end. We just happened to come up with the big play late."
The game, played with the temperature hovering in the upper 30s, started in typical Hugoton fashion — a hard running ground attack that concluded with a Gifford 1-yard touchdown plunge on the Eagles' opening drive of the game. It was a drive that took six minutes, nine seconds on 14 plays, covering 77 yards. Hiram Urquindez' extra point made it 7-0 with 5:51 left in the opening quarter.
Then the fumbles came crashing down on Hugoton. The Eagles turned the ball over four times on fumbles that allowed Ulysses to get back into the game. The first Tiger opportunity came when Tyler Haney picked up a Zach Dunlap drop on a handoff and returned it 54 yards with 11:09 left before halftime.
"Turnovers played a big part on both sides," Ulysses coach Jason Kenny said. "They have a good team and we congratulate them. Now, we've got to bounce back and guard against a letdown. We'll have to dig down and get ready to go to Wellington."
Hugoton struck next on another short Gifford touchdown run from four yards out at the 6:10 mark.
The short, 33-yard drive came following Gifford's recovery of a Josh Rodriguez bobble.
Ulysses took advantage of another Hugoton mishap, this time recovering a fumbled punt, then took only two plays to cover 30 yards with Josh Jarnagin scampering 24 yards for the score. A miss snap on the point-after resulted in an incomplete pass and it was 14-13 Eagles at the 3:33 mark of the second quarter.
"We were very calm with the kids," Merritt said of halftime. "We were winning every facet of the game, including fumbles, and doing everything offensively we wanted to do. We just gave them the short field and good teams take advantage of that."
Included in the 216-yard rushing effort in the first half by Hugoton was Gifford's 23 carries, 172-yard performance.
"He was his usual self in that first half," Merritt said of Gifford. "We're just trying to take care of him and he'll be OK. He's the type of kid who's been around the ball all year and he came up with the big play."
Ulysses took the lead late in the third quarter after both teams had traded punts on stalled drives. Rodriguez sprinted 56 yards on a counter play with 3:38 left in the quarter, and the Tigers were up 19-14.
That set up a frantic fourth quarter when both teams turned the ball over, but the final one, and biggest, came with 3:21 to play by Rodriguez when he fumbled and Coltin Ghumm pounced on it. Hugoton (9-0) had the ball at the Tigers' 40 and in only two plays the Eagles were in the end zone.
Ulysses' final drive died on another fumble with 1:41 left when Ulysses quarterback Bryce Moral had the ball jarred loose and Gifford pounced on it.
Gifford finished with 30 carries for 194 yards for Hugoton.
Hugoton 20, Ulysses 19
Hugoton 7 7 0 6 — 20
Ulysses 0 13 6 0 — 19
H - Caleb Gifford 1 run (Hiram Urquindez kick), 5:51
U - Tyler Haney 54 fumble return (Pedro Sanchez kick), 11:09
H - Gifford 1 run (Urquindez kick), 6:10
U - Josh Jarnagin 24 run (pass failed), 3:33
U - Josh Rodriguez 56 run (run failed), 3:38
H - Martin 36 run (run failed), 2:25
Team Statistics HUG ULY
First Downs 16 8
Rushes-Yards 58-330 42-217
Passing Yards 17 14
Passes (Att-Com-Int) 1-1-0 5-2-0
Fumbles-Lost 6-5 4-4
Penalties-Yards 4-40 8-70
Punts-Avg. 1-40.0 5-36.8
Time of Possession 24:49 23:11
Rushing — Hugoton: Beltz 4-18, Dunlap 4-(-10), Martin 20-128, Gifford 30-194. Ulysses: Moral 8-13, Jarnagin 14-49, Rodriguez 8-83, Ungles 1-(-2), Nichols 6-33, Sandoval 5-41.
Passing — Hugoton: Dunlap 1-1-0--17. Ulysses: Moral 5-2-0--14.
Receiving — Hugoton: Watkins 1-17. Ulysses: Rodriguez 1-11, Simpson 1-3.