Othella Lewis offered no apologies.
“As long as you get the W, you get another game,” said Lewis, Salina South’s senior defensive tackle. “It’s kill or be killed.”
South, 9-1, lived to see another day after Lewis’ 22-yard interception return to the Kapaun 3-yard line set up a Sam Corona touchdown run to make it 19-7 with three minutes left as the cougars held on for a 19-14 win in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
Both teams teetered on the edge of disaster for much of the night, combining for seven turnovers and coming up empty time and again on offense.
Kapaun (6-4), got within reach on Brock Monty’s 40-yard touchdown strike to Joe Hickerson with 52 seconds left, but South’s Braden Burley covered the onside kick and the Cougars picked up a first down on fourth-and-1 to run out the clock.
“Too many lost opportunities,” Kapaun coach Dan Adelhardt said, shaking his head. “The defense was phenomenal after the first drive but we had too many lost opportunities.”
South, which dominated offensively in the first half, managed just 72 yards after intermission, missing a 26-yard field goal late in the third period after the defense stopped Kapaun on downs at the Crusader 14-yard line. The Cougars’ best drive ended on their third lost fumble with 7 1/2 minutes left at the Kapaun 24.
Kapaun also was frustrated, turning the ball over three times on downs and twice on interceptions in the second half. The last pick nearly was the final straw.
“I was on the defensive line and saw (Monty) look my way the play before, so I just jumped up and grabbed it,” said Lewis, who picked it off at the 25-yard line, cradled the ball in both arms and bolted toward the end zone before he was dragged down. “It was just the Cougars doing what the Cougars do.”
It took three runs up the middle before Corona finally barreled into the end zone.
Adelhardt said that while Lewis’ pick hurt, the Crusaders’ failure to keep drives alive was just as deflating.
“It was the last one, but not any bigger than any of the others,” he said. “The most disappointing was all the fourth-and-ones and we couldn’t get it.”
For South, which finished with 272 yards total offense, Corona rushed 24 times for 140 yards in just his second game at running back, filling in for injured Eric McCullough and DeAngelo Turner. Dalton Wassenberg was 10 for 17 passing for 110 yards but had just one second-half completion.
“I played running back when I was a freshman, so moving to defense was a big change and moving back to offense was another change, but I got a lot of help from the offensive line,” said Corona, who scored the Cougars’ first touchdown on a 7-yard run to cap the game’s opening drive. “When all the mistakes happened, everybody just came up and said, ‘Short memory, keep playing hard.’
“Our defense really stepped up big for us tonight.”
Kapaun, after falling behind on Corona’s first touchdown – the extra point was blocked – took a 7-6 lead with 1:33 left in the opening quarter after Nate O’Neal recovered a fumble at midfield and returning it 40 yards to the Cougar 10. Alexander Norris ran twice, taking it 1 yard for the touchdown, and Luke Singer kicked the point after.
South answered with a 13-play, 65-yard drive, scoring on Wassenberg’s 1-yard run with 7:29 left in the half to lead 13-7 at the break.
Kapaun, which finished with 257 yards, had just 55 at intermission, thanks in large part to the South defense, which harassed Monty in the pocket and offered little room for the backs to run.
“We knew it would be a close game,” said South defensive lineman Burlew, who sacked Monty twice and repeatedly chased him out of the pocket. “Our offense was trying hard but the defense just had the motor tonight and kept it going.”
Alexander had 50 of Kapaun’s 68 rushing yards and Monty completed 13 of 31 passes for 189 yards with three interceptions.
“They did a good job up front, running to the football,” Adelhardt said of South’s defense.
SS — Corona 7 run (kick failed)
K — Norris 1 run (Singer kick)
SS — Wassenberg 1 run (Avila-Castro kick)
SS — Corona 2 run (run failed)
K — Hickerson 40 pass from Monty (Singer kick)
Rushing — Kapaun: Norris 15-50, Medina 1-8, Monty 11-7, Channel 3-3. Salina South: Corona 24-140, Stegmaier 7-34, Burlew 1-1, Wassenberg 10-(-11).
Passing — Kapaun: Monty 13-31-0-189. Salina South: Wassenberg 10-17-0-110.
Receiving — Kapaun: Hullings 1-52, Hickerson 2-50, Baez 3-32, Channel 3-26, Norris 3-16, Degenhardt 1-13. Salina South: Becker 4-38, Marcotte 3-38, Weir 2-19, Stegmaier 1-15.