HUTCHINSON — Charles West was on his back, arms tightly wrapped around the football, looking up into the sky.
He just laid there, in the end zone, immediately after catching the game-winning touchdown in Garden City Community College’s dramatic, 24-21 win over Hutchinson on Saturday at Gowans Stadium.
There was no explosive celebration or emotion of any kind. There was just exhaustion, as West and the No. 2-ranked Broncbusters battled past the No. 4 Blue Dragons in an instant classic of a KJCCC conference game.
Of course, the celebration eventually enveloped West as he jogged to the sideline, where pandemonium had broken out after West caught the 6-yard pass from David Moore to give the Busters (9-0) the lead with 18 seconds remaining, capping a mammoth 14-play, 84-yard drive in just under four minutes.
“Honestly, I was dead tired,” West said of the play, where he ran to the flat from the slot in the trips-bunch formation, and was wide open for the score, sealing at least a share of the KJCCC conference title and taking another step toward an NJCAA national championship bid. It also denied Hutchinson (8-2) its first conference title since 2014.
“I was just tearing up a bit ago,” Moore said of the win. “That was the best feeling ever, especially the way we won.”
The way they won was eerily reminiscent of the Busters’ 25-22 win over Arizona Western two years ago in the NJCAA championship game.
“I felt like I’ve been here before,” West, who red-shirted on that 2016 team, said of the last drive.
The Busters engineered a national championship drive in the waning seconds of that game. This time, the heroics just kept the Busters' national championship hopes alive.
But for much of the game Saturday, the Dragons kept the Busters' hopes in doubt.
Hutchinson scored on its first drive of the game, when a pump-and-go pass from Mason Schucker found Jaylen Erwin streaking past a pair of Buster defenders for 52 yards and a 7-0 lead. The Busters tied the game at 7 on an 11-play, 39-yard drive that featured three third-down conversions and was capped by Dedrick Mills’ 4-yard touchdown run.
That’s where the score stood at half, before Hutchinson's Dezmon Jackson broke off a 97-yard run for a 14-7 Hutch lead to begin the second half. Garden City answered on a 22-yard pass from Moore to Dominick Watt with 5:38 to go in the third quarter, and the Busters took their first lead on Ben Raybon’s short field goal at the end of the quarter.
Hutch regained the lead, 21-17, on an 18-yard burst from Jackson with 9:39 to play, setting up the Broncbusters' game-winning drive.
The drive began like most of the others on the day for the Busters’ offense — a run stuffed for a short gain. GCCC averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.
But then the Busters went to the air. They had thrown the ball just five times all game, before throwing it seven times on the final drive.
Moore hit Jahod Booker on back-to-back plays for 26 combined yards, the latter of which converted a third down.
Then Moore found West out of the backfield, and West made a defender miss for what could have only been a short gain but ended up gaining 16 yards.
After an incompletion, Moore found Booker again for 12 yards, and Hutchinson took its final timeout with 2:05 left on the clock. It was clear — the drive would either win it for the Busters, or Hutchinson would hold on for the win.
“We just had to be persistent and keep doing what we were doing,” West said. “We just preach, ‘Keep going, keep going.’ We know nobody is better than us.”
Out of the timeout, the Dragons got a big play from Clarence Hicks, who sacked Moore for a loss of 7.
The Busters kept going, and Moore found Keyshaun Jones for 16 yards to make it third-and-1. But it was the next play that was the biggest play of the game for Jones.
Moore scrambled to his left on the third down and was stopped short of the first down marker, but the quarterback held the ball out in front of his body in a desperate attempt to reach the first down. Instead, the ball came bouncing out and backwards, where Jones scooped it up and ran forward to pick up the first down regardless.
“That fumble probably saved the game, honestly,” West said with a smile that was only on his face because of Jones’ heads-up play.
That gave the Busters a first down at the Hutch 17, and GCCC went back to the ground.
West picked up 2 yards, and then 5 more. Then, Moore scrambled for a yard, setting up a fourth-and-2 with the Busters’ season hopes riding on the next play.
They went to their “big” package, which includes a couple of the Busters’ biggest defensive players, and bullied their way forward for 3 yards and the first down behind bruiser Dedrick Mills.
Switching out half the offense to spread Hutchinson out, the Busters may have confused the Dragons’ defense on the ensuing play, and Moore found a wide open West for the easy game-winner.
“To beat us, you’ve got to be willing to stand up and play to the very last second, because our players are going to play hard for the whole 60 minutes,” Sims said.
They only needed 59 minutes and 42 seconds on Saturday.
Contact J. Levi Burnfin at email@example.com.