The Jays drew first blood with a safety by T.J. Britton at the 4:20 mark in the first quarter, but that defensive score was all the offense Gehlen could muster in the second half as the home squad watched the Panthers run up a two-score lead before the half.
K-P running back Nick Kuchel put the Panthers on the board with 11:20 to go in the second quarter with a 13-yard run and scored again with just :11 on the clock before the half on a 74-yard run, follwed by a Mike Beckstrom pass to Kuchel for the two-point conversion.
(Photo by Ty Capron)
"That was disappointing," said Gunter. "We had them pinned down deep. We even punted in their end of the field just to pin them deep and get out at halftime being less than one score down. Boy he just made us pay on that one. Credit to our kids not to hang their heads in the second half and come back."
The Jays did come back with two second-half scores of their own, first on a 20-yard pass from quarterback Jason Rohe to Brandon Loutsch with 2:06 remaining in the third quarter and again on a one-yard touchdown run by Alex Loutsch with 6:14 to go in the game.
After struggling offensively in the first half, Gunter said that getting things going in the second half was all a matter of confidence.
"I don't know what we changed. We just focused on doing a better job on the o-line, being confident that we could score," said Gunter. "We've scored pretty quickly all year, so we felt two scores down, it was not out of the question for us to come back and win the football game."
The offense did play better the second half, but the comeback would have been much more difficult without the great performance by the Jays' defense. Gehlen held the Panthers to two first downs in the second half and kept K-P from adding to the lead, allowing the offense to make up ground faster.
"When you're playing good defense like that, field position begins to turn your way," said Gunter. "I don't know if wind was a big factor, but it was a significant factor. We knew we were going to have the wind in the fourth quarter and we felt pretty good with that. We knew we were going to have good field position, at least in the fourth quarter. That was an advantage for us."
The Panthers did have opportunities at the end of the game to take the lead or win the game, but Gehlen's defense stepped up. On K-P's final offensive play, the Jays sacked Beckstrom to end the threat. Gunter said that the plan was just to contain the quarterback and make him try to throw downfield into the wind.
"We knew they had to throw and they were going into the wind and we knew they weren't going to be able to throw it real deep," said Gunter. "We just played a soft cover and we really didn't blitz the quarterback. We wanted to corral him a little bit and hope he didn't get away from us and then make a good play. Our defense did a great job on that. They had two possessions there and all they had to do was get down in field goal range and our defense managed to hold them down at that end of the field."
The Jays' defense was led by T.J. Britton and Brian Kilker with seven solo tackles and one assisted tackle each. Nick Hoffman had six unassisted tackles and two assisted, Zach Holtgrewe had three unassisted tackles and three assisted, Joe Wells had four tackles and an interception and Alex Loutsch and Luke Langel each had fumble recoveries for a defense that held K-P to 211 yards of total offense and seven first downs for the entire game.
The Panthers actually outgained Gehlen with the Jays totalling only 177 yards of offense, but Gehlen turned the ball over only once and had just four penalties to K-P's 11.
Rohe was 10 of 21 passing for 85 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Wells caught five passes for 55 yards, while Brandon Loutsch had three receptions for 30 yards and a touchdown. Alex Loutsch was Gehlen's leading rusher with 64 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries and Wells gained 31 yards on the ground in two carries.
Gunter said that Gehlen's lack of offensive production had a lot to do with the Panthers' defense.
"Kingsley took away a lot of our offense. They played a great game defensively," said Gunter. "We had a hard time adjusting and then figuring out what to do. They took Joe and manned him up and took him away a little bit. They took away our boots and nakeds and things like that with defensive end play that was really strong. It was just a good job by Kingsley shutting us down. I feel real fortunate to come out of the game with a win."
The Panthers were led offensively by Kuchel with 149 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 25 carries. Isiah Corbin added 27 yards on five carries and Beckstrom was 1 of 7 passing for 30 yards and one interception. Kyle Ross had the Panthers' only reception of the game for 30 yards.
The Jays and Panthers are two teams heading in different directions at this point in the season. After starting off 5-0, K-P has lost its last two games and is in danger of missing the playoffs. Gehlen is 5-2 after an 0-2 start, battling back into the playoff picture after digging an early hole. Gunter said that the players deserve a lot of credit for the amount of determination it has taken to get the team into this position.
"When you talk to the boys after you're 0-2 and you go, "We have to win seven games in a row," it's a daunting proposition, but the kids have handled it well," said Gunter. "They've focused. We won an overtime game over Woodbury and we come back and sneak this one out against Kingsley. Maybe we're destined to get seven in a row, but it's still going to take a lot of hard work."
The three-way tie with Gehlen, K-P and Wall Lake is still entirely up in the air through the last two weeks of the season. The head-to-head tie-breaker does not declare a clear cut leader as Gehlen has defeated Kingsley, the Panthers have beaten Wall Lake and Wall Lake owns a win over the Jays. The Panthers have the easiest road the rest of the way with Odebolt-Arthur at home and Sac City on the road. Wall Lake still has Galva-Holstein in the last week of the season, while the Jays take it on the road to Lawton-Bronson and come home to face River Valley in a Thursday game the final week of the season. Gehlen was in a similar positon last season with two games to go, needing a win over then-second place Schaller-Crestland to make the playoffs. Gunter said that this scenario feels like last season all over again.
"It feels exactly the same way to me," said Gunter. "We have to go on the road, get that big road win and set it up for that last game with River Valley. We never have played well at Lawton, so we're looking to change that around."