Hutchinson offensive lineman Josh Rivas has come to understand something about his running back, Blaik Middleton, after a season together.
“He will run until failure,” said Rivas, a 6-foot-5, 315-pound sophomore. “He will not stop until there is absolutely nothing left in the tank.”
Free State found this out the hard way on Friday night, as Middleton ran for 357 yards and six touchdowns on 21 carries, leading the Salthawks to a 42-14 win in the Class 6A semifinals.
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Hutchinson will face undefeated Shawnee Mission East, 36-35 double-overtime winners over Olathe North, next Saturday in Emporia for the state title. It is Hutchinson’s first time in the title game since losing to Shawnee Mission West in 2012.
“All the credit to the offensive line,” Middleton said. “Whenever you’re in a game, there’s adrenaline, sure, but with the way the offensive line was blocking for me that just made it that much easier. If there’s any praise, it should go to them, for how they played.”
Hutchinson (8-4) has won seven state titles in the last 12 years, with the last championship coming on the Class 5A level in 2011.
This is the Salthawks’ first season under coach Ryan Cornelsen, and the run to the title game comes after a 2-4 start this season.
“This is a great group of kids, and I told them when districts started that I just didn’t want this season to end,” Cornelsen said. “I just love being around them, love practicing with them. I don’t want it to be over.”
Middleton held off Free State (8-4) almost single-handedly in the first half, scoring on runs of 54, 38, 66 and 57 yards to give Hutchinson a 28-14 lead at halftime.
The Firebirds’ two touchdowns came on runs by Carson Bowen, nephew of Kansas football coach Clint Bowen.
In the second half, with Middleton and the Salthawks needing just a little help to close the game out, the defense delivered. They came through with a goal-line stand and picked off Free State quarterback Bryce Torneden three times. The Firebirds turned the ball over five times total, with a pair of lost fumbles in the first half.
“What happened was we really started working together,” said Hutchinson defensive back Peyton Pendergrass, who had two interceptions. “And once we got on the same page, we started stopping them.”
Middleton wasn’t done yet, either. He set up a 3-yard touchdown run with a 65-yard run from the Salthawks’ own 9-yard line midway through the third quarter, then capped off his big day with a 29-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter for a 42-14 lead.
Most of Middleton’s touchdowns followed a pattern — a quick burst through the first level, then an all-out foot race with the Free State defensive backs to the goal line.
“The holes ... they were maybe this big,” Free State coach Bob Lisher said, holding his hands about a foot apart. “And he’s getting through them. What can you do about that? We didn’t get it done and Hutchinson did ... give them all the credit.”
After the game, Cornelsen gathered his team at midfield, a wide smile plastered on his face. His tone was even and calm.
“I want you to remember that the goal was never to just get there, which is what we’ve been saying all along,” Cornelsen said. “The goal was to win it.”
H—Middleton 54 run (Culley kick)
H—Middleton 38 run (Culley kick)
FS—Bowen 7 run (Clark kick)
H—Middleton 66 run (Culley kick)
FS—Bowen 13 run (Clark kick)
H—Middleton 57 run (Culley kick)
H—Middleton 3 run (Culley kick)
H—Middleton 29 run (Culley kick)
Rushing – Hutchinson, Middleton 21-357, Hardenberger 10-16, Wintz 11-98, Patterson 1-0, Maldonado 3-8. Free State, Torneden 19-72, Bowen 13-100, Sanders 2-3.
Passing – Hutchinson, Wintz 1-3-4-1. Free State, Torneden 7-14-98-3.
Receiving – Hutchinson, Stoecklein 1-4. Free State, Sanders 2-15, Spain 3-56, Keating 1-14, Lewis 1-13.