'Hounds sprint into title game

Monday, November 11, 2019
Sophomore Zapher Lea (13) high-points a pass in the corner of the end zone to give the 'Hounds a 22-6 lead. (Chris Allen/Democrat-News)

SLATER -- Ever since the Sweet Springs football team lost the 2018 district championship game at Fayette, the goal was to return to that round and win it.

The Greyhounds got that chance Friday with a 44-32 victory at Slater in the Class 1, District 5 Tournament semifinals as senior Hunter Sims ran for 155 yards and two touchdowns and passed for two more scores.

"Man, it was a tough football game," remarked Sweet Springs head coach Kris Conley. "We knew it would be going in."

The 'Hounds had their four-headed rushing attack in full gear, grinding out 22 first down and 505 yards on the ground -- led by junior Grant Knipmeyer's 177 yards on 18 carries.

"They were the most well-coached football team we've played this year," declared Wildcats head coach Michael Horton. "I've always though the Flexbone was the toughest offense to defend, and when you have athletes like they do, it's even tougher."

Sims reeled off 22 yards on the first snap from scrimmage and sophomore Cole Lovercamp added another 22 yards before Sims scored from a yard out. Junior Keegan Zdybel hooked up with senior Aden Campbell on a 21-yard pass, but Slater was stopped on downs at the 'Hounds' 15-yard line.

Knipmeyer ran for 30 yards and Sims took the ball the final 14 yards for another Sweet Springs score, but this time the 'Cats struck back with Zydbel's 36-yard bootleg.

Lovercamp ran for 22 yards and Sims for 16 before sophomore Zapher Lea went high to catch Sims' 6-yard scoring strike three minutes into the second period. Slater answered again, a 24-yard catch by sophomore Tyler Malin leading to Zdybel's 10-yard keeper for a touchdown.

The 'Cats then caught the game's first big break, on the game's lone turnover. Lovercamp reeled off a 32-yard run, but then fumbled the ball -- recovered by senior Chandler Zdybel at the Slater 26-yard line. A pair of Zdybel passes gained 54 yards, but the 'Hounds again came up big on fourth down -- getting the ball back at their own 20 with 1:50 left in the half.

Knipmeyer ran right for 16 yards, Lovercamp picked up 17 yards sweeping left and senior Jacob Hall busted up the middle for 22 yards. After Sims nearly had a pass intercepted by Zydbel at the goal line, he threw a fourth-down pass to junior Wade Phillips for a 15-yard TD with 2.7 seconds to go.

"What about that Hunter Sims? Ice in his veins," Conley said.

"We talk about being aggressive," he noted. "We're used to playing that no-huddle all of the time. We're seasoned. We're ready for that."

Going into the second half with a 30-12 lead, Sweet Springs wanted to use the clock and prevent big plays. While they accomplished the former, the Purple was hard to contain -- especially the Zdybel-Campbell combo, which struck for three scores, the first on a 74-yard bomb in the first minute of the third period.

The 'Hounds used over four-and-a-half minutes to go 58 yards on 10 plays to on a 6-yard Sims run, but fewer than two minutes later Zdybel connected with Campbell again for a 39-yard TD to close the margin to 38-26. Sweet Springs used eight plays on its next series, capped by Knipmeyer's 7-yard touchdown run with 23 seconds remaining in the third frame.

"Our kids are very strong-willed," Conley said. "We kept saying throughout the game, 'resilient and relentless.' That's how I felt we played."

So were the 'Cats, especially Zdybel -- who Conley called "an absolute nightmare" who he compared favorably to senior Jackson Beaman of top-ranked Lincoln. An 18-yard pass to Campbell -- his seventh catch for 177 yards -- kept Slater alive with 10:39 left in the game.

The 'Hounds went back to the ground with a 14-play series that used up all but two minutes of the remaining time. The 'Cats got the ball back at their own 24, but on fourth down with a minute remaining Lea knocked down a pass and Sweet Springs could line up in the "victory" formation the rest of the way.

Zdybel ran for 107 yards and passed for 254 for Slater (7-4), who reached its second straight district semifinal without ever having played that deep into a season before last year. Horton will face a challenge to replace 11 seniors, but he's finding that "kids want to be part of a winning program," so is confident he can keep the numbers up to support a talented group of underclassmen.

Meanwhile, the 'Hounds (8-3) will get another shot at a district championship Friday at top-seeded, seventh-ranked Marceline -- a traditional power.

"We've got a lot of experience now with this seniors class," Conley asserted. "Last season we weren't sure where we could end up and were excited to be there.

"I don't know if we believed that we belonged there" last year, he said. "With the way we've played this season, our kids believe we've earned it."

Contact Chris Allen at callen@marshallnews.com

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