McPHERSON — When Ark City fell behind by 13 points in the Class 4A semifinals Friday night at McPherson, the Bulldogs did not panic.
Similarly, when Ark City began the season with a 1-4 record and entered the playoffs at 2-6, the Bulldogs did not panic.
Ark City is headed to its first state championship since 1986 after defeating McPherson, 28-27. The Bulldogs will face St. James - who was a 36-35 winner over Bishop Miege - in next Friday’s 4A State Championship at Gowans Stadium.
"This moment is amazing; it’s very hard to describe right now," Ark City head coach Jon Wiemers said. "All the adversity these guys have had this year with everything that is going on, for these guys to stay this focused all season and still believe in what we’re trying to accomplish is amazing."
While Ark City was making its first semifinal appearance since 1988, McPherson was back in the semifinals for the fourth straight season. However, the Bullpups know heartbreak all too well as they have ended their season in the semifinals each of the past four seasons.
In those four games, the Bullpups have lost by 7, 1, 7, and 1.
"It’s a tough loss - our guys fought like crazy, but at the end of the day big plays and turnovers [were the difference]," McPherson head coach Jace Pavlovich said. "That’s just not going to get it done against a very good football team."
McPherson had a 27-14 lead with 6:30 left in the third quarter. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns - and connected on both extra points - late in the third quarter to take a one-point lead entering the fourth.
Even when the Bulldogs were down two scores, Wiemers stressed running the ball.
"We knew we needed to run the ball," Wiemers said. "They had a good plan for us when they were rushing three and dropping eight. We were running the ball and getting 2-3 yards, and I told the team we needed to get more than that. The offensive line really stepped up."
Each team scored four touchdowns. Ark City kicker Cadon Clark was 4 for 4 on extra points, while McPherson freshman Blaise Hoover was 3 for 4.
"He’s our guy," Pavlovich said in reference to Hoover. "He sustained an injury in practice about three weeks ago, and he hasn’t been the same since.
"You can’t put this loss on any one person. We made a lot of mistakes tonight, and you also have to give credit to Ark City."
McPherson went right down the field on its first possession and scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run by Brycen Labertew.
Later in the first quarter, Ark City blocked a McPherson punt and took over in Bullpup territory. However, the McPherson defense stood tall and forced a 4th and 9. On fourth down, Ark City appeared to be stopped short, but the Bulldogs fumbled the ball forward and recovered in what would end up being a 20-yard gain that gave the Bulldogs 1st and goal.
Ark City sophomore quarterback Gabe Welch rushed from a yard out on the next play to tie the game at 7.
When McPherson’s Jaytin Gumm scored an 8-yard rushing touchdown midway through the second, Ark City’s Devon Watkins returned the ensuing kickoff all the way to the McPherson 2. Watkins’ return set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Welch to tie the game at 14.
The Bullpups would go into halftime with a 21-14 lead when senior quarterback Dylan Rinker fired a ball to Trey Buckbee for a 56-yard touchdown with 1:25 left in the half.
Rinker, a first-year starer, threw it to Buckbee through a tight window, then Buckbee raced down the left sideline for a touchdown.
The Bullpups took their biggest lead of the game midway through the third quarter when Gumm - who rushed for a game-high 146 yards - found a hole and exploded for an 18-yard touchdown.
After the missed extra point, the Bullpups led 27-13.
Ark City needed to respond, and the Bulldogs did on their next possession. On 4th and 1 inside McPherson territory, the Bulldogs successfully went with play action when Welch found Lance Blubaugh for a 15-yard gain.
On the next play, Wyatt Bahm scored a 2-yard rushing touchdown to cut the McPherson lead to six.
Momentum rapidly swung in the favor of Ark City with 38 seconds remaining in the third when Bahm blasted free for a 56-yard rushing touchdown.
In the first half, Ark City was held to under 50 yards of rushing. Led by Bahm’s 134 yards, the Bulldogs rushed for over 100 yards in the second half.
"They did a better job of running the ball against us in the second half," Pavlovich said. "Ark City earned it tonight, it’s just plain and simple."
Neither team scored in the fourth. The Bullpups marched into Bulldog territory on two different occasions. The game ended when Rinker - who threw for 239 yards on 21 of 28 passing - was intercepted by Watkins at the McPherson 5-yard line with less than 10 seconds left.
"Dylan is a tremendous leader," Pavlovich said. "He’s going to be very successful in life as a result of his personal characteristics he has."
The Bullpups end their season with a 10-2 record. McPherson’s senior class will finish high school with a career record of 42-6.
"These seniors have been a tremendous bunch for four years and they’ve gotten better and better," Pavlovich said. "We fell short of our ultimate goal, but at the end of the day we’re going to look back on it and these kids had a tremendous experience playing football here.
"They left our program better than they found it."
Ark City, now 6-6, will face St. James Academy (7-4) in Friday’s 4A State Championship.
"We have to get better every day," Wiemers said. "That’s all I tell the kids."