Neither a water-logged field nor the Halstead defense could slow down the Marion High School rushing attack Friday, as the Warriors rolled up 325 yards and 6 touchdowns to slay the visiting Dragons, 40-22, at Warriors Stadium.
Marion took the momentum on Halstead’s opening drive when the Dragons gambled on fourth-and-1 at their own 29-yard line. Quarterback Jonah McKee never got out of the backfield, as Warriors Evan Slater, Spencer Fugitt, Kyle Hett, and Morgan Wheeler downed him for a 3-yard loss.
“Our kids got a great push,” Marion head coach Grant Thierolf said. “Evan Slater just blew the whole play up.”
“The whole idea was to be relentless for the whole night,” Wheeler said. “That first series set the tone for the game.”
Taking over on the Halstead 26, Marion immediately took advantage of the short field. A 17-yard run by quarterback Taylor Heidebrecht set up a 1-yard scoring plunge by Brody Carroll, and Grif Case’s extra point gave the Warriors the lead, 7-0.
On the next Marion possession, punter Kyle Palic dropped back on fourth down at the Warriors 35 to kick the ball away, but the snap sailed over his head. Palic picked up the loose ball, sidestepped Halstead defenders, and found blockers and open space ahead of him. The Dragons caught up with him at the Halstead 15, but Palic’s 50-yard run turned potential disaster into a golden opportunity.
“It’s always a punter’s worst fear, a snap over your head, but everyone blocked for me and I ran it — it worked out fine,” Palic said.
Heidebrecht made certain of that two plays later with an 11-yard touchdown run. Case’s extra point boosted the Warriors’ lead to 14-0.
Any doubts Heidebrecht was at less than full speed after last week’s game-ending injury against Trinity Catholic were erased on the next series. After moving from the Marion 35 to the Halstead 48, Heidebrecht took off around left end, slipped out of a tackle, and raced down the sideline to the end zone. The Warriors led 21-0 with 6:48 remaining in the half after Case’s extra point.
The defense kept Halstead scoreless by generating turnovers on each of the next two Dragons possessions.
A throw to the sideline by McKee at the Marion 31 hit the ground behind the line of scrimmage, and the Halstead receiver made no move to go after the ball. Realizing the ball was live because the throw was a lateral, James Jones covered the ball for the Warriors at the Marion 32.
Free safety Jacob Harper came up with another big play on the next Halstead series, snuffing out a drive with a pass interception.
Marion roared out of the locker room with a 69-yard scoring drive to open the third quarter. With the offensive line continuing to open big holes, Heidebrecht did most of the damage, with runs of 17 and 21 yards. Carroll punched it in from the 1 to put the Warriors ahead, 27-0.
“That’s the best we’ve played together as an offensive line all season,” lineman Isaac Baldwin said. “At the beginning of the season the offensive line wasn’t cohesive, but once we started making plays together, once we started understanding each other, it built to this point.”
Slater ended Halstead’s next drive by recovering a fumble at the Dragons 43. Heidebrecht, Carroll, and James Jones alternated carries on a relentless drive that Carroll topped off with a 1-yard touchdown dive. With 3:27 left in the third quarter, Marion held a commanding 33-0 lead over the Dragons, who were the pre-season favorite to win the Central Kansas League North division.
A flagrant facemask penalty on Marion on the ensuing kickoff gave Halstead the ball on the 50-yard line, and McKee finally put the Dragons on the board with a 17-yard cutback scoring run that made the score 33-6.
The Dragons then tried an onside kick that failed miserably, as the ball settled in the mud after rolling only 3 yards, setting Marion up on the Halstead 43.
The Warriors ended any possibility of a Halstead comeback by eating up 6 minutes of the clock with a 12-play scoring drive. Carroll capped the drive with his third 1-yard scoring run of the game, and Case nailed the extra point to increase the lead to 40-6 with 6:48 remaining.
Halstead collected two fumble recoveries that led to two meaningless touchdowns to account for the 40-22 final.
“Our defensive tackles were fantastic tonight. Evan Slater, Nick Meyer, Isaac Baldwin, and Blake Stringer got such a good push in the gaps that they made the quarterback and fullback bubble back every time the option was run,” Thierolf said, explaining how the Warriors held the Dragons to 176 yards on the ground, well below their season average.
“Our coaches did really well in showing us exactly how Halstead was going to be,” Baldwin said. “I could hear them yelling out the play before they were even running the ball a lot of times.”
Beating Halstead in the first game of district play puts the Warriors in position to secure a trip to the playoffs by winning one of their final two regular season games.
Hillsboro is up next for the Warriors, and the undefeated Trojans, who have held their last three opponents scoreless, present a tough challenge. Thierolf said his coaching staff was going straight to the film room to start preparing.
“We’ll start that tonight, in about 25 minutes,” Thierolf said.
The Warrriors and the Trojans play Friday at Tabor College in Hillsboro.