SALINA — With Saturday’s win over Frontenac to capture its second Class 4A-II title in three years, Holcomb now has two rather large trophies to display at the school.
But if the Longhorns had to find something on which to hang their hats, give credit to the defense, which became stingy in the latter portion of the season and became coach Kent Teeter’s go-to group when the team needed it most.
That defense held a potent Frontenac running attack to just 44 yards on 27 carries, picked off three Raider passes and recovered two fumbles in the team’s 40-20 state championship win.
Leading the way was Reece Morss with 10 total tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception, Chance Rodriguez with eight tackles and a pick, Paden Cornelson with six tackles and a fumble recovery, and AJ Ortega with three tackles and a sack.
Andrew Morss added a sack and Carter Blackburn an interception as the Longhorns hassled and harangued the Raiders' offense most of the day.
It wasn’t easy, but Holcomb made it seem that way.
“We always seemed to pull together as a team,” Reece Morss said. “We certainly peaked at the right moments.”
The coaching staff stressed — both before the game and throughout the season — being a team, he added.
And while the team’s motto all season has been “unfinished business,” Morss said it’s time to take out that negative yet motivational prefix.
That’s because Holcomb’s game plan to contain the Frontenac runners worked to near perfection.
“We can’t overflow; we can’t over run,” he said. “That’s all the middle linebackers practiced. We’re always there for the cutback; we’re always waiting for them.”
His interception in the third quarter was huge. With Frontenac driving in the red zone at the 12-yard line, Morss was able to leap in the lane and pick off a pass with one hand.
“I don’t have any idea what happened,” he said. “I closed my eyes. It just happened to be in my hand at the right time.”
Junior Damon Kepley echoed much of what Morss said.
“We really just wanted to concentrate on stopping the run and then play the pass,” Kepley said. “All in all, we did pretty well as a team on defense.”
Holding Frontenac quarterback Peyton Brown in check was also a key, he added.
“A big emphasis on the defensive side was contain the quarterback and let the defensive tackles do some work,” Kepley said. “That’s what they did.”
Kepley was just a freshman when Holcomb won two years ago on the same field — in what was called the ice bowl — but Saturday’s balmy 63 degrees made the game more enjoyable.
“The atmosphere was great. We had a great crowd out here,” he said. “We had a lot of great people (in 2015). We executed really well.”
Cornelson, a transfer from Hugoton last season, tore his ACL in the first game of 2016. He said he had always dreamed of a state title, and he finally got it.
“I can’t even describe how this feels,” the senior said. “After everything that happened last year, this is great. This is everything I ever wanted.”
He said preparing for a team that had won six straight games was tough, but the near-shuthout first half was key.
“A key was being really physical,” he said. “We watched them on film, and they looked really physical when they played, and the coaches said it would be a big part of the game with the linebackers and D-line, and we did our job.”
For Ortega, it was all about dictating the defense.
“Our defense was just playing really good the last four games,” the senior said. “We just came into this game saying just stick to what we’ve been doing and playing high intensity football.”
The coaches called it “dominate your space,” Ortega explained, and they did just that.
Keying on the run game was critical to establish the tone early, he added.
“Our coaches wanted us to contain their quarterback because he’s a good scrambler,” Ortega said.
The defense held Brown to minus-8 yards rushing.
This win means even more than the win in 2015, Ortega added.
“I’m a senior now, and it’s my last football game,” he said. “This just means my whole world.”
Rodriguez said his interception on Frontenac’s opening drive was huge. It was a halfback option that was thrown like a wounded duck.
“We were just focusing on their pass game and everything,” he said. “We weren’t expecting them to run a trick play like that. We just stayed disciplined with what we were supposed to do.”
They all read their keys, he noted, and he was able to make a fairly simple pick.
That discipline was key for Holcomb’s defense through the season, Rodriguez added.
“We matured a lot and got a lot more disciplined, and things just started working for us,” he said. “We’ve been playing great in front of the ball.”
Rodriguez played mostly special teams in 2015 and finished his career playing that, as well as offense and defense.
“It’s a greater feeling (this time) knowing you put in all this work,” he said.