Since he was born, Matt Pauly doesn’t know if he has missed a Friday night football game at Garden Plain.
Garden Plain is a town that revolves around high school football. The boys in the community are bred to be football players. Pauly has been indoctrinated in the culture since berth.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Pauly has been dreaming his whole life of a night like Friday: quarterbacking the Owls in a 32-21 victory over Conway Springs on senior night to improve to 8-0, win the Class 2A, District 6 championship and beat their chief rival, Conway Springs, for the first time in four years.
“Watching them grow up, I wanted to be a Garden Plain Owl football player so bad,” said Pauly, who had a team-high 125 total yards and a touchdown. “Just being out here and seeing what those guys did to big teams like this. And now we’re doing it. It’s just surreal.
“There’s nothing like beating your rival.”
Like every time Garden Plain and Conway Springs clash, the rivalry game is seemingly always decided by turnovers and Friday’s game was no different.
Conway Springs gained more total yards than Garden Plain, 345-310, and more first downs, 22-18, and controlled the clock, 27:50 time of possession to 20:10, but those advantages were negated because the Cardinals turned the ball over three times and their defense did not force any.
The first momentum-swinging turnover occurred late in the first quarter when Garden Plain’s Blake Long forced a fumble on a sack and the Owls recovered deep in Conway Springs’ territory. A few plays later, Long was plowing his way six yards for his second rushing touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Conway Springs answered back with a methodical drive down the field that came to an untimely end when Garden Plain linebacker Jordan Thomas jumped a route and intercepted a quick pass to the left side to squash the red-zone threat.
The Cardinals finally pieced together a touchdown drive in the second quarter, but Garden Plain answered back with a touchdown drive of its own to extend its halftime lead to 20-7. Pauly completed a 39-yard pass to Trey Smith, then twisted his way to the end zone for a 10-yard score on a spin move that left three defenders on the ground.
“I liked our physicality, and I liked how we came off the ball and how we handled things when they did good things,” Garden Plain coach Ken Dusenbury said. “When we were challenged, I thought our kids rose to the challenge pretty well.”
Every time Conway Springs threatened in the second half, Garden Plain had an answer.
Conway Springs tailback Peyton Winter, who finished with 198 rushing yards and three touchdowns, injected the Cardinals with some confidence on the second half’s first drive when he broke off a long run, then scored on a 4th-and-2 play to trim the deficit to 20-14.
That score held until the fourth quarter, but Garden Plain answered back with a gritty touchdown drive of its own that featured a dazzling play by Pauly to stay to break a tackle, stay on his feet and dive to convert a 4th-and-5 and then a 10-yard scoring run by Tranden Daerr.
Conway Springs, which had won this rivalry game three years in a row and five of the previous six meetings, would not go down easy. The Cardinals executed a seven-minute drive capped with a Winter touchdown to cut Garden Plain’s lead to 26-21 with 3:22 remaining.
“I liked the way our kids fought and the way they didn’t ever lay down,” Conway Springs coach Matt Biehler said. “They took it back to Garden Plain and it was a ball game tonight. That’s a good team over there and maybe we’ll see them again in the playoffs.”
But when Garden Plain needed to keep the clock moving with first downs, it turned to another senior in John Nowak, who like Pauly had never experienced a win over Conway Springs.
Nowak, with his 5-foot-9, 210-pound frame, said that was all the motivation he needed on senior night.
“’Don’t let one guy tackle you’ is what coach likes to say every day,” Nowak said. “That’s how I’ve always ran the ball and how I’ve been taught to run the ball here at Garden Plain.”
With the game on the line — a 3rd-and-2 where if Conway Springs stopped Garden Plain, then it could potentially get the ball back — Nowak’s number was called, and he didn’t disappoint. He burst through the left side of the offensive line and pumped his legs until he was finally torn down at the four-yard line.
One play later, Nowak plunged into the end zone for the score to seal the victory.
“We haven’t beaten Conway since I’ve been in high school, so as a community this is a big win for us,” Nowak said. “It feels good to actually finally beat them, especially when coach trusts us seniors to come out and lead the team. That’s what we did.”
Garden Plain (8-0) will play Fredonia (4-4) next Friday in the opening round of the 2A playoffs, while Conway Springs (6-2) will host Cherryvale (5-3). If both continue to win, they would meet again in the game to go to the state title game.
With 1:53 remaining in the fourth quarter, play was paused for 30 minutes for an injury to Conway Springs junior Aiden May. He was carried off the field in a stretcher with a neck brace, but he was moving his lower extremities and waved to the crowd while being taken off the field and transported to the nearest hospital.
Immediately following the game, Biehler said there was no final update but that May was “doing okay and he had good feeling everywhere.” Biehler said the stretcher and ambulance were precautionary measures and that he believes May is not facing a long-term injury.
Garden Plain 32, Conway Springs 21
GP—Long 3 run (Haukap kick), 8:58, 1st
GP—Long 6 run (Haukap kick), 2:19, 1st
CS—Winter 4 run (Jones kick), 4:49, 2nd
GP—Pauly 10 run (kick blocked), 0:22, 2nd
CS—Winter 2 run (Jones kick), 9:46, 3rd
GP—Daerr 10 run (run failed), 11:54, 4th
CS—Winter 5 run (Jones kick), 3:22, 4th
GP—Nowak 4 run (run failed), 0:57, 4th
Rushing—Conway Springs, Winter 25-198, Hilger 20-112, Ebenkamp 1-13, Jones 3-9; Garden Plain, Pauly 13-86, Nowak 7-73, Long 17-70, Daerr 7-42.
Passing—Conway Springs, Hilger 2-9-2-13; Garden Plain, Pauly 1-6-0-39.
Receiving—Conway Springs, Schulte 1-11, Wright 1-2; Garden Plain, Smith 1-39.