Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane, shall we?
During the 2014 Kansas High School Football Playoffs, the Ell-Saline Cardinals pulled off three consecutive victories, defeating Sedgwick in the regional championship, then moving on to take down perennial powerhouse LaCrosse in the sectional championship before moving into the 2A-1A State Championship Game with a win over Phillipsburg in the sub-state championship.
Ell-Saline entered each of those games as an underdog, yet through sheer will, determination and a pinch of luck, the Cardinals managed to pull off the upset in thrilling fashion each time, leaving Ell-Saline supporters with a few more gray hairs and much shorter fingernails . This “bend, but don’t break” mentality earned the beloved 2014 team a new moniker: the Cardiac Cards.
On Friday night, Ell-Saline opened up the 2017 Kansas High School Football Playoffs as it had in 2014 – on the road at Sedgwick in a Heart of America League grudge match, with the winner joining the remaining seven teams in class 2A-1A in advancing on to the sectional championship. With so many parallels to the 2014 Ell-Saline playoff push, it came as no surprise that once the dust settled in Sedgwick, the Cardiac Cards had returned.
Battling a toe injury, junior quarterback Nick Davenport began the night on the Ell-Saline sidelines, making way for sophomore back-up QB Sawyer Kramer to take the reigns. With Kramer under center, the game plan for the Cardinal offense changed entirely, forcing a team that has thrived throughout the season by utilizing a balanced offensive scheme to become overwhelmingly run-heavy.
Working out of the wishbone with Kramer at the helm, Ell-Saline ran early and often in the first half, jumping out to an early 7-0 lead just over two minutes into the game on the strength of a 34-yard touchdown run from senior slot back Zaide Korb.
Sedgwick responded with lightning quickness, as junior quarterback Hooper Schroeder dialed up his senior receiver Brayden Francis on a 63-yard touchdown strike to draw even at 7-7.
Schroeder would strike again on the opening play of the second quarter, plunging into the end zone on a QB keeper from a yard out on 2nd and Goal to give Sedgwick a 14-7 advantage. While Ell-Saline continued to move the ball well between the twenties, the Cards were forced into a pair of turnovers on downs in the first half.
A few minutes later, Schroeder and Francis connected for six once again, this time on a 58-yard bomb to give the hometown Cardinals a 21-7 over the visitors from Brookville, while also forcing Ell-Saline Cardinal head coach Terry King’s hand. The Cards would need the ability to pass the football in order to stage a comeback, and that meant Davenport would need to return to the game.
Following a 26-yard Francis field goal to make the score 24-7 with 3:12 to go before halftime, the Cards got one final offensive series to try to build momentum going into the locker room That’s exactly what Ell-Saline did. With :19 remaining before halftime, Davenport snuck it across the goal line for a Cardinal touchdown, pulling the Cards within ten at halftime, 24-14.
On the initial drive of the second half, Sedgwick threw down the gauntlet as Schroeder and Francis teamed up for the hat trick, this time on a beautifully-thrown 27-yard touchdown pass, giving Sedgwick a 31-14 lead. It appeared Ell-Saline was destined for a first-round exit. But let’s not forget. We’re talking about the Cardiac Cards here, and the EKG was fully-charged and ready for action.
Showing a little bit of skill and a ton of heart, Davenport threw the Cardinals on his shoulders despite the bum wheel, taking it between the tackles for a 3-yard touchdown run with 4:01 to play in the 3rd quarter, cutting the Sedgwick lead back down to ten at 31-21.
On the initial play from scrimmage in the 4th quarter, Davenport found paydirt yet again, this time on a 2-yard touchdown plunge, pulling the Cards to within three at 31-28. Following a 29-yard Francis field goal, Ell-Saline got the football back with just over nine minutes to play in the game, trailing 34-28.
Just moments later it was sophomore tailback Luke Parks, playing in his first game of the season following a major injury in the preseason, giving Ell-Saline it’s first lead since a 7-0 advantage early in the first quarter on a 12-yard run to the house, putting the Cards up by the slimmest of margins, 35-34.
Davenport showed his defensive prowess on the next Sedgwick possession. Following an offensive pass interference penalty against Sedgwick, they found themselves pinned in deep, facing a 2nd and 17 from their own 8-yard line that pushed the football back to the Sedgwick 7-yard line
With 2:20 left to play, Ell-Saline sealed the victory with another Davenport touchdown scamper, this time from four yards out to make the scere 34-21. Sedgwick would score one final touchdown with just 1:52 left to play, but the ensuring on-side kick, while deflected off a couple of Ell-Saline up backs and was lose momentarily, was recovered by Davenport, allowing the Cards to eat up the majority of the game’s remaining moments, pinning Sedgwick deep for one final lateral-laden frenzy as time expired, which after multiple Sedgwick laterals, was eventually fumbled and recovered by Davenport.
Ell-Saline moved to 8-1 on the season with victory and will return home next Friday to face an extremely stiff test from the 7-3 Plainville Cardinals, who advanced on with a 21-0 victory over Meade on Friday evening.
With the loss, Sedgwick has now lost at home in the regional championship game for four consecutive years and finishes their 2017 campaign at 5-5.
By Morgan Lillich