The opening plays of the first and second halves didn’t solely end Kapaun Mount Carmel’s football season on Friday.
But coupled with a rash of turnovers, they made the degree of difficulty too great for the Crusaders to advance to the Class 5A championship.
Salina South’s Zach Nachbar returned the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown, and teammate Cade Calvert recovered a fumble on the second-half kickoff to fuel the Cougars’ 34-24 victory over Kapaun in a 5A semifinal at Cessna Stadium.
Salina South (10-2) will play Blue Valley, a 38-33 winner over Blue Valley West, on Nov. 30 in Emporia for the title. Kapaun finished 10-2 after reaching the semifinals for the first time in 23 years.
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Kapaun committed five turnovers, including three second-half fumbles that led to touchdowns by Salina South running back Mike Jones. Jones finished with 23 carries for 137 yards.
“We knew we had to force some turnovers and we couldn’t have any turnovers,” said Kapaun receiver Jack McGrath, who caught nine passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. “That didn’t happen. That’s football and it sucks.”
Nachbar’s kickoff return 15 seconds into the game lifted the chill for Salina South fans. And after the Cougars’ Avery Mitchell intercepted Kapaun quarterback Brock Monty’s second pass of the game, Salina South marched 68 yards for a touchdown and a 13-0 lead.
“It’s just so disappointing,” Kapaun coach Dan Adelhardt said. “Every day, we talk about valuing the football, and that’s been the secret to our success.”
Kapaun’s lone first-half points came on Matthew Wells’ 20-yard field goal. And the Crusaders, who overcame a 14-point deficit in their quarterfinal victory over Salina Central, trailed just 13-3 at halftime after holding the high-powered Cougars scoreless in the second quarter.
“That’s exactly what we were thinking about,” Kapaun running back Ethan Harp said of last week’s comeback. “We were down 14 and we were able to come back. Tonight, we were only down 10.”
But Kapaun mishandled the second-half kickoff and Calvert outdueled the Crusaders’ Alexander Norris for the fumble recovery at Kapaun’s 22. Salina South pushed its lead to 20-3 on Jones’ 3-yard run less than two minutes later.
Calvert pounced on another loose ball on Kapaun’s next possession, as Harp lost the ball trying to gain extra yards near midfield. Jones made the Crusaders pay with a 35-yard touchdown run on a counter play that made it 27-3.
Kapaun responded with a 12-play, 74-yard drive for its first touchdown on a 13-yard pass from Monty to McGrath. But early in the fourth quarter, Monty and Dempsey couldn’t connect on a handoff and South’s John McNabb recovered at Kapaun’s 13.
Two plays later, Jones scored on a 10-yard run to push the Cougars’ lead to 34-10.
“It wasn’t the cleanest game we’ve played all year, but obviously, the turnovers were big, big, big,” Salina South coach Sam Sellers said. “I was really proud of our third quarter.
“We kind of challenged them at halftime and bottom line is we got to where we wanted to get to.”
Kapaun battled to the end, scoring two touchdowns in the final minute. Harp ran one in from four yards out with 46 seconds remaining. Then after the Crusaders recovered an onside kick, Monty hit Norris for a 13-yard touchdown with six seconds to play.
Monty finished 20 of 30 passing for 212 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“We tried to make it interesting,” Adelhardt said. “We were really going to be excited if we got the last two-point conversion. We just made too many mistakes against a really good team.”
SS—Nachbar 97 kickoff return (Kraus kick)
SS—McCullough 3 run (kick failed)
K—Wells 20 FG
SS—Jones 3 run (Kraus kick)
SS—Jones 35 run (Kraus kick)
K—McGrath 13 pass from Monty (Wells kick)
SS—Jones 10 run (Kraus kick)
K—Harp 4 run (Dempsey run)
K—Norris 13 pass from Monty (run failed)
Rushing—Salina South, Jones 23-137, Stonebraker 13-46, Wassenberg 1-10, Fox 4-9, McCullough 2-3, Stegmaier 1-(-1). Kapaun, Harp 12-59, Monty 14-49, Dempsey 8-10, Norris 3-8
Passing—Salina South, Stonebraker 7-14-97-0. Kapaun, Monty, 20-30-212-2.
Receiving—Salina South, Nachbar 4-66, Roets 3-31. Kapaun, McGrath 9-93, Lickteig 3-32, Dempsey 2-30, Norris 2-24, Puritty 3-22, Hickerson 1-11.