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Playoff feel as Wallace County tops Hoxie in nail-biter

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

HOXIE - Wallace County High School took a 17-0 lead late by the end of the first half. However, Hoxie, helped by several big plays from sophomore running back Connor Katt, came all the way back and had a chance to tie the game at 30, but missed a two-point conversion.

With 2 minutes, 21 seconds remaining, Hoxie, down eight, took over at its own 15-yard line. The Indians drove to their 23 before Wallace County senior Tyrell Springsteel tackled Hoxie quarterback Chase Kennedy on fourth down with 56 seconds remaining.

As soon as Kennedy hit the ground, the Wallace County side celebrated. Wildcat coach Kevin Ayers simply mouthed, "What a game."

In a contest that resembled the postseason, Wallace County held on for a 36-28 victory. After the game, Ayers was emotionally and mentally drained, feelings he normally has in November.

"I was proud of our kids for just staying in there and just battling, because it was," Ayers said. "If you don't stay in there and battle, this game flips around completely in the other direction just because of how explosive they are."

Wallace County, ranked No. 4 in Eight-Man Division II in the statewide media poll, moved to 2-0. Hoxie, receiving votes in Eight-Man Division I, dropped to 1-1.

It's the fourth straight season Wallace County and Hoxie have matched up; the Wildcats have won the last three by eight, 14 and eight points.

"It was a tough game," Kennedy said. "It felt like the playoffs."

Hoxie had trouble moving the ball on the final possession an eight-play drive that netted just eight yards.

The quick, shifty Kennedy tried to create off every snap and rushed six times. He threw one incompletion and completed a 14-yard pass for a first down.

On fourth and 11, Kennedy -- who primarily took shotgun snaps -- raced up to the line and took the snap under center. He gained a yard before Springsteel tackled him.

"We got mixed up on our play-calling," Kennedy said. "We didn't get the play in right. I just didn't make the right play. I should have looked to pass a little more, I think. I was supposed to look for a pass, but we got confused, and I was supposed to take a shotgun instead of under center and we got messed up. Caught up in the moment a little."

Kennedy and Wallace County's speedy senior quarterback Kyle Gfeller had some trouble on a wet and swampy conditions from heavy rains earlier in the week. Kennedy fell down on the game's first play and no one could cut back effectively. Gfeller's body was caked in mud after one of the top games of his career.

"You take a step and you sink a lot," Kennedy said.

"You had to be very sure-footed," Gfeller added.

Gfeller fought cramps midway through the third quarter and senior Cayden Daily had to take some snaps at quarterback, including a 4-yard touchdown run with 5:15 remaining. Gfeller had never cramped before, but still finished with 26 carries for 133 yards and three scores, a 69-yard kickoff return for a TD, a 13-yard punt return and 16 tackles. He also completed 4 of 6 passes for 33 yards.

"He definitely rose to the challenge tonight," Ayers said.

In the first half, Wallace County scored the game's first 17 points on a 35-yard field goal and TD runs of 4 and 53 yards, all from Gfeller.

With 3:38 remaining before halftime, the Wildcats had fourth-and-10 from Hoxie's 37-yard line. Ayers elected to go for it. Wallace County fumbled the snap and Hoxie senior Mitchel Johnson sacked Gfeller.

"Very difficult call when we went for it on fourth down," Ayers said. "If we get a good kick, we are going to gain 10 to 15 yards."

Three plays later, Hoxie cut the score to 17-8 on a 20-yard TD run from junior Josh Heim. Early in the third quarter, Kennedy scored from 12 yards to cut the deficit to 17-14.

"In the game of football, and I think even especially in the game of eight-man football, that momentum swings and you are fighting and clawing for all of your worth," Ayers said.

Immediately after Kennedy's TD, Gfeller returned the kickoff for a score.

"I had tremendous blocking up front," Gfeller said.

Wallace County tacked on Daily's run for a 30-14 lead after sophomore Hardin Perry blocked a punt.

Hoxie, though, responded with a scoring runs of 75 and eight yards from Katt, who finished with 15 carries and 178 yards and two TDs.

Hoxie didn't convert the second two-point conversion, and trailed 30-28.

"That, 17-0 lead, I was like 'This isn't even close to enough against these guys,' and it definitely was not," Ayers said.

Wallace County scored midway through the fourth quarter on Gfeller's 17-yard run before the Wildcats stopped the Indians twice - including in the final minute.

"We were kind of falling apart, but leaders have to just step up, pull the team together," Gfeller said.  "We got a big stop."