Gardner Kharon Brown didn’t know just how much he loved his Lawrence High football team until the Lions found themselves a play away from elimination in the Class 6A playoffs Friday night at Gardner-Edgerton.
The first-round shootout between the Trailblazers and Lions would be decided on one play. With 12 seconds remaining on the clock and LHS clinging to a two-point lead, GEHS junior kicker Tim Mitchell had a chance to send his team to the second round with a 35-yard field goal.
After Lawrence coach Dirk Wedd used two of his three remaining timeouts to ice Mitchell, the snap finally came with everyone in the stadium on their feet. Mitchell’s kick cleared the swarm of humanity at the line of scrimmage, but landed on the blue end-zone turf, and LHS won a thriller, 34-32.
“I swore I was gonna block it. I swore I was,” Brown said, “and when I didn’t, I just turned around, and I looked up, and it was just in the air for so long. It was like slow motion. I felt like it was the national championship.”
The senior lineman actually thought the kick, which didn’t veer off course, had gone through the uprights until he heard the reaction of the LHS fans in attendance. That was the moment he realized how close the season had come to ending.
“This is the best team I’ve been on in my entire life,” Brown said, “and I just didn’t want it to end.”
The Trailblazers (6-4), like the Lions (8-2), had moved the ball with ease throughout the game. Neither team punted.
GEHS had the ball last with a chance to win after moving it 50 yards in just more than a minute. But once Gardner got into the red zone, LHS stuffed the Blazers’ stud running back, Traevohn Wrench (50 carries, 328 yards, three touchdowns), on first down, limiting him to two yards. That forced Gardner quarterback Jared Hobby to spike the ball and stop the clock with 18 seconds left. On third-and-eight, the Lions secondary covered up Gardner’s receivers in the end zone, and Hobby’s pass to the back-right corner fell incomplete.
Wedd pointed to that series when judging the LHS defense, which surrendered 471 yards in the win.
“They’ve had unbelievable character,” the coach said. “You can talk all you want about giving up 8 billion yards defensively, but when they had to, they found a way to do it (get a stop).”
In a preview of what the LHS offense (486 total yards) had in store for the Blazers, the Lions opened their first possession with an easy touchdown. On first-and-15, quarterback Brad Strauss handed the ball off to receiver Will Thompson, who then gave the ball to running back Tyrone Jenkins. The double reverse left Drake Hofer wide-open deep, and Jenkins heaved the ball Hofer’s way for a 75-yard touchdown.
The Lions did as they pleased on offense all night — Thompson finished with 168 receiving yards and two touchdowns, Hofer had 112 yards, and fellow receiver Erick Mayo had 93 yards and a TD.
But LHS turnovers kept the Blazers alive late. After Wrench scored a 23-yard rushing touchdown with 10:08 left in the game to cut Lawrence’s lead to 34-32, the Lions’ ensuing drive ended with Strauss fumbling the ball inside the GEHS 20-yard line after picking up what would have been first-down yardage. The Blazers’ Max Knorr recovered the ball at the 16.
Gardner picked up a pair of first downs but stalled out after crossing midfield. On fourth-and-seven from the LHS 40, Wrench could only muster one yard and was dragged to the turf by Brown.
Lawrence took over with three minutes left, and in two plays they had picked up a first down. But on a first-down run from midfield, Strauss fumbled again at the end of a 20-yard run, giving Gardner one last chance when Brenton Damron recovered the ball.
Strauss played with an injured right foot and had felt sick all day leading up to the game. Still, he completed 21 of his 28 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns. And he didn’t make any excuses about the turnovers.
“I was just trying to make bigger plays, break more tackles than I probably should have,” he said.
In the minutes following the win, Strauss smiled in relief at the end of a crazy day and wild playoff win.
“Our guys played so hard,” he said, “fought till the end and squeaked it out.”
Lawrence High will host Shawnee Mission West at 7 p.m. Friday in the state quarterfinals.