Editor's Note: This is the 10th in a series of articles highlighting the Top 10 sports stories of 2017 as voted upon by The Telegram Staff. The No. 1 sports story of 2017 profiles the Holcomb Longhorns football team, which won the Class 4A-II state title in late November for the second time in three seasons.
SALINA — It was only two years to the same Saturday in November that the Holcomb Longhorns trudged onto the frozen turf at Salina Stadium and faced the coldest, iciest field conditions anyone could remember.
But they also recalled that they were able to overcome the frigid elements and overpower Holton to win the Class 4A-II state football championship, 21-0 — its first state football title in school history.
So when they arrived Friday night in advance of Saturday’s title game in the same town, on the same field, against Frontenac’s Raiders, it was an eerie feeling to see the that the forecast was for the sun shining and game time temperature to be in the low 60s.
But that didn’t seem to be any more bother to the Longhorns than the bone-chilling cold of 2015, as they once again prevailed in their biggest game of the season, claiming a 40-20 victory over the out-matched Raiders from southeast Kansas.
Just as they did two years prior, the Longhorns jumped on the Raiders early, thanks to some opportune turnovers by the Holcomb defense. The Longhorns scored two first quarter touchdowns, building a 14-0 lead, and extended it to 27-0 at one point in the second before going into the intermission up 27-6.
“The first half was how we wanted to see the game go,” Holcomb coach Kent Teeter said. “Their drive late was scary because that gave them some momentum to start the third quarter.”
A Reece Morss 2-yard touchdown run with 5:50 to go in the first was followed by a 16-yard Trey Gilbert-to-Chance Rodriguez touchdown pass that made it 14-0 with just 12 seconds left in the opening period.
Those two scores were set up with interceptions by the tenacious Longhorn defense, which limited Frontenac to just 44 yards rushing on 27 attempts for the game.
“We were able to handle them up front, and our D-line and inside linebackers did a great job of controlling the line of scrimmage,” Teeter said. “They’re an awfully good team, and they showed they can pass the ball, too, so we gave up a few big plays, but we made a lot of big plays ourselves.”
The season motto of this unsung group had been 'Unfinished business,' and when the game was over and Teeter gathered his team near mid-field, he simply said, “Finished business.”
The Raiders did get on the board late in the second quarter after the Longhorns extended the lead to 27-0 on a 6-yard Gilbert run and an 85-yard bomb from Gilbert to Peyton Leonard.
Frontenac’s first score came with just 48 seconds showing on the clock before the half, when Peyton Brown found Brendan Ishimura for 28-yards on a post pattern.
The Raiders made things a little exciting in the third quarter, when Brown hit Zachary Rosebrough for 35 yards at the 9:59 mark, bringing them to within 27-13.
“I thought the momentum had started to swing at that point,” Teeter said. “But then our defense (specifically Reece Morss) came up big, and we were then able to get some more big passes by Trey to let us get some breathing room.”
It was the dynamic duo of Gilbert to Rodriguez that enabled the Longhorns to sock this one away in the fourth, when they hooked up on TD strikes of 52 and 5 yards, before Frontenac scored with 3:20 to play when Brown and Ishimura connected from the 8-yard line.
While Holcomb’s running game garnered its near average with 167 yards (Morss 73, Kaden Tichenor 52, Gilbert 45), it was Gilbert’s passing that broke this one open. The senior was 12-of-20 for 264 yards with one interception. That provided a 431-yard offensive output.
“This feels so different and so much better because you play a much bigger role this time,” a smiling Gilbert said afterward. “Our game plan was to run, but then it was apparent the passing game was opening up for us. Our line gave me time to throw, and the plays just come from the coaches. It was a great game plan.”
Rodriguez, who has been Gilbert’s sidekick since they were in elementary school, finished with four catches for 80 yards and the three TDs while Leonard had three catches for 109 yards. Three other players also were on the receiving end, making five in all who caught a ball from Gilbert.
“Trey just does a great job of seeing the field,” Rodriguez said. “We were able to get some good plays called, and we just always seem to know what the other is doing and where he is.”
Rodriguez echoed Gilbert’s words as to how different this one felt compared to his sophomore season, when he was mostly on special teams.
“Tons more — this is more bigger,” Rodriguez said. “I think everyone was doubtful early in the season, but we came together as a team, and being able to say ‘finished business,’ means everything.”
And while Teeter thought his team’s control of the line, ability to establish a good ground game, and opportunistic passing were keys, it was his defense that paved the way for this victory.
“We had wanted to make them one-dimensional,” he said. “And I thought we ended up being able to do that. They can throw the ball for sure, but for the most part, we limited big plays.”
And in a moment of levity, Teeter was reminded that in his four years of coaching the Longhorns that his quarterback in all four years has had a first name of Trey — first his son for 2014 and 2015 and now Gilbert in 2016 and 2017.
"Whoever is our quarterback next year, we're changing his first name, or finding a good one named Trey," Teeter joked.
It was that kind of feeling when the sun started to sink on Salina Stadium. Two-for-two. It sounded good to Holcomb's championship team.
Frontenac’s Brown finished the game 16-of-28 for 227 yards and 3 TDs, but had the two big picks, along with Jake Wilbert’s early interception on the Raiders’ second play of the game in the first quarter. Ishimura finished with 105 yards and two scores on five catches.
The dominating performance and their second 4A-II state title in three seasons puts a capstone on the Longhorns’ 12-1 season record. The Longhorns also improved their record to 44-7 under Teeter. They will drop to 3A next year as the state high schools undergo a massive restructuring of classifications for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.