The Ell-Saline Cardinals survived a back-and-forth battle Friday evening to begin district play with a 36-30 win over the Republic County Buffaloes on Senior Night in Brookville.
While Republic County (0-6, 0-1) came into the matchup with a 24-game losing streak dating back to the 2016 season, the Buffaloes certainly did not play like a winless squad, giving Ell-Saline (5-1, 1-0) all they wanted and more.
The Buffaloes returned the game’s opening kickoff to the Ell-Saline 45 yard-line. Ten rushing plays later, Republic County junior tailback Kaleb Talkington ran it off the left edge for a five-yard touchdown, then followed it up with a two-point conversion run to put the Buffaloes ahead 8-0.
Ell-Saline would answer quickly with a four-play, 74-yard touchdown drive, highlighted by a 41-yard touchdown run from Cardinal senior tailback Sawyer Kramer. Junior signal caller T.J. Morrical rushed off the right guard for the two-point conversion to nod the game 8-8.
Early in the second quarter, the Buffaloes regained the advantage on a 1-yard touchdown plunge from junior tailback Jared Baxa. Following a failed two-point conversion, Republic County held a 14-8 lead. After forcing a punt, the Buffaloes got the football back, but with 5:35 to go before halftime, Kramer recovered a Republic County fumble near midfield to halt the Republic County momentum.
After forcing a three-and-out on the Buffaloes’ next possession, Ell-Saline senior Luke Parks returned a Republic County punt 50 yards down the near sideline for six. The ensuing extra point gave the Cardinals its first lead of the night at 15-14 with 2:02 to play before halftime.
Republic County marched back down the field trying to add points before halftime, but Baxa was stopped on a run at the 1-yard-line as time expired in the first half.
Ell-Saline got the football to begin the second half, and just 57 seconds into the third quarter, Cardinal junior tailback Keenan Drees broke free for a 42-yard touchdown run to put Ell-Saline ahead 22-14.
The Buffaloes would answer yet again on the ensuing possession, marching 65 yards on eight plays, capped off by a 2-yard Baxa touchdown run to pull Republic County within two, then sophomore Nevan Benyshek found the end zone on the two-point conversation attempt to pull the Buffaloes even at 22-22.
After both teams traded punts, Ell-Saline would go back ahead in this see-saw affair, this time on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Morrical to senior Owen Bradley to give the Cardinals a 29-22 lead with 8:00 remaning in the fourth quarter.
That’s when Republic County put together its most impressive drive of the night. Facing 4th-and-8 from the Ell-Saline 9-yard-line, sophomore quarterback Brody Boyer connected with sophomore receiver Blake Auraud in the corner of the end zone to cap off an 11-play, 66-yard drive, taking 6:10 off the clock in the process. However, the Buffaloes still trailed by one before lining up for the all-important two-point conversion. Baxa toted the rock off the right edge, and with full extension, fought the nose of the football across the goal line to convert the conversion, giving Republic County a 30-29 advantage with just 1:43 remaining.
Ell-Saline had one final possession to avoid the upset, and on Senior Night in Brookville, it was a pair of juniors who came away heroes.
Facing 4th-and-10 from the Republic County 36-yard-line, Morrical rolled to his left and uncorked a beautiful pass down the field to Drees, who fought through a pass interference penalty to rise high and haul in the pass inside the 10-yard-line, then muscled his way into the end zone to give Ell-Saline the 36-30 lead with just 52 seconds remaining.
On the first place from scrimmage following the kickoff, Kramer picked off Boyer’s pass near midfield to end the drama and deliver victory to the Cardinals.
Ell-Saline finished the night with 319 yards of total offense. Morrical went 9-for-17 through the air for 130 yards and two touchdowns. Bradley hauled in three grabs for 47 yards and a score, while Drees added two catches for 52 yards and the game-winning touchdown catch.
On the ground, the Cardinals amassed 189 yards on 18 carries, with Kramer leading the way with six rushes for 74 yards and a touchdown.
Ell-Saline will continue district play on the road next Friday night, making the short trip to Salina to face off with the Sacred Heart Knights. The Knights fell 60-0 to Smith Center in the other District 5 matchup in Class 1-A Friday evening.