Topeka For two quarters of football, Tye Hughes’ Kansas Shrine Bowl experience was forgettable, to say the least. The recent Free State High graduate went into the locker room at halftime with two muffed punts and just five total yards of offense.
But, with one flick of the wrist late in the third quarter, all the first-half heartache vanished.
Hughes made up for his shaky start with a 19-yard touchdown catch with 15 seconds left in the period, propelling the East team to 22-19 win at Washburn University’s Yager Stadium.
With his squad trailing, 13-6, Hughes took advantage of a defensive mismatch deep in West territory. He broke open down the middle of the field and hauled in a strike from McLouth High’s Marc Walbridge.
“We saw that the safety had to cover one-on-one with me,” said Hughes, who will continue his career this fall at Baker University. “The quarterback read it and I just gave him a move to the outside and I was wide open. It was just a big relief. That just got us all ready to go again. I think it got us back in the game and got our minds set to win it.”
The West squad, which entered with seven consecutive wins, regained the lead midway through the fourth quarter. Hughes nearly scored again on the ensuing possession, but couldn’t hang on to a pass from Topeka High’s Raymond Solis when he was hit by Wichita Collegiate’s Markus Phox at the goal line.
The scoring opportunity didn’t disappear, though, as the East scored two plays later to go in front for good. The defense sealed the win with a pair of stops in the final minutes.
“Words can’t even describe it. I was going crazy,” Hughes said. “It was probably the most intense game I’ve ever played in in my life.”
Hughes tied for the team lead with four receptions for 25 yards. He also returned four punts for 13 total yards — both team-highs.
Free State was represented on the sideline as well, as Firebirds head coach Bob Lisher served as an assistant for the game. Oddly enough, Lisher was the East’s head coach when the West started its seven-game win streak with a 10-9 victory at Pittsburg State in 2006.
“I helped end (the streak), so I feel pretty good now,” Lisher said.
McLouth duo share win
Walbridge entered his final high school game with two goals: throw and touchdown pass and snap the West’s win streak. The four-year MHS starter didn’t get many opportunities, but still managed to accomplish both feats.
The Fort Scott Community College signee only played two series in the first half — neither resulting in scores — but came up big on the East’s final possession of the third quarter when he connected with Hughes to give his team its first lead of the contest.
“We actually ran that play Tuesday night in a scrimmage,” Walbridge said. “I knew (Hughes) was going to be wide open, so I didn’t want to throw an incompletion. I knew it was there right from the get-go.”
Following the touchdown, Walbridge hooked up with Blue Valley West’s Conley Wilkins for a two-point conversion. He finished a perfect 7-of-7 passing for 69 yards. His longest completion went for 30 yards to Blue Valley Northwest’s Austin Moses.
Like Hughes, Walbridge got to share the field with his high school coach one more time, as Bulldog head coach Chris Stewart was an East assistant. The duo had plenty of hometown support, as the cheer squad and several teammates were on hand for the game.
“They have a lot of commitment and they want to see us do well,” Stewart said. “It was just a wonderful feeling to have that many people out there supporting us.”
Area players shine
Baldwin product Dayton Valentine wasn’t targeted much until late in the game, but the tight end came up big when it mattered most. The Kansas State University signee hauled in two passes for 30 yards in the second half.
Valentine’s second reception, a 10-yard strike from Solis at the East’s 43-yard line, helped set up the game-winning score just minutes later.
“It’s awesome to come out here and be a part of something bigger than yourself,” Valentine said. “In these past eight or nine days, I met some really great guys. Just to come together here at the end and put it all together, it was just awesome.”
Eudora grad Nick Becker also played a pivotal role late, getting in on a sack of Bishop Carroll quarterback Zeke Palmer with just 15 seconds remaining. The Cardinal graduate, who finished with three total tackles, also got in on a sack in the first half near the East goal line.
Becker and his teammates erupted when they broke up a West desperation play reminiscent of Cal-Stanford as time expired.
“It means so much. We have this great group of guys,” Becker said. “Every year is different. The West thought, just because they had consecutive wins, it would be like that again, but our guys stepped it up. I couldn’t have asked for a better game.”