By RICK PETERSON
One of the best seasons in Washburn Rural football history came to a heartbreaking end Friday night, with perennial state power Derby roaring back from a 15-point deficit to take a 29-28 victory on senior Grady Jesseph's walk-off 25-yard field at Bowen-Glaze Stadium.
Derby, which has won six Class 6A state titles since 2013, advanced to next Saturday's state final at Emporia with an 11-1 record while Washburn Rural finished 11-1.
"Like we're talking about with the kids right now, nobody likes the ending,'' Washburn Rural coach Steve Buhler said. "We felt like we let one get away and they're going to remember that part, but in the long run, as you get older, you start to remember the good times and it's a team that's won 11 games, and looking back in the history books, they're only the second team at this school to win 11 games.
"That's something to be very proud of, and I want them to understand that, that their effort and the things they accomplished this year are things to be proud of. Yeah, we don't make it to the last weekend of the season, but when you look back at all this team and this group of seniors has accomplished in this program, you couldn't ask for anything better over the last four years for these guys and the effort and what they've given this program means an awful lot.''
Rural's season has been ended by the Panthers in back-to-back seasons, with Derby's only lead of the night coming on the final play as the game hinged on a handful of plays down the stretch.
"That's how semifinals of state playoffs are,'' Buhler said. "You're usually playing equal teams and it's whoever is going to make a play and whichever way the ball bounces every once in a while.
"They made some great plays down at the end to finish it off.''
Washburn Rural took a 28-13 lead on a 30-yard run from junior Lafayette Thompson on the first play of the fourth quarter (kick failed), but Derby needed just 1:55 to make it a one possession game, with senior quarterback Braxton Clark hitting senior Colton Ruedy for a 5-yard score (Jesseph kick).
After forcing a Rural punt, the Panthers took over at their 10-yard-line and reached the end zone in just four plays, with Clark and Ruedy hooking up for a 24-yard TD with 7:26 remaining.
The Junior Blues stopped Clark on a 2-point conversion attempt to protect a 28-26 lead and Thompson returned the ensuing kickoff 74 yards to the Derby 19.
A 21-yard run by senior quarterback Branton DeWeese on a key third down play got Rural to the 3-yard-line, but the Panthers stopped the Junior Blues on four straight runs to take over at their 4.
Clark drove Derby all the way to the Washburn Rural 2-yard-line, but Rural partially blocked a 24-yard Jesseph field goal attempt to again hang on to its slim 2-point advantage.
After holding Washburn Rural to just 3 yards on three rushes the Junior Blues left the door open for Derby with a 12-yard punt that gave the Panthers the ball at the Rural 35 with 39 seconds remaining.
An 11-yard Clark run and a 16-yard pass from Clark to Rowan Foster set up Jesseph for his 25-yard game-winner.
Jesseph was the hero for the second straight week, with his late field goal in the state quarterfinals giving the Panthers a 23-21 win over 2022 state champion Manhattan.
"Last week was the first goal we made (this season) and then this week was the second field goal we made,'' Derby coach Brandon Clark said with a chuckle. "I don't like kicking the ball.''
Clark had a 21 of 32 passing night for 274 yards and four touchdowns while Ruedy had seven catches for 119 yards and senior Derek Hubbard had 95 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
Senior JC Heim led Rural with 75 rushing yards on 23 carries while Thompson had 73 yards on 13 totes, DeWeese 65 yards on 11 carries and TJ Minikwu 12 attempts for 63 yards.
DeWeese completed five of eight pass attempts for 61 yards.
Derby will play 11-1 Gardner-Edgerton at 1 p.m. next Saturday at Welch Stadium, with Gardner-Edgerton advancing with a 35-3 win over Blue Valley.
"Our job's not done yet,'' Brandon Clark said. "This wasn't our goal to win state semifinals, but it's part of the goal and it's special.
"I've known these seniors since they've been in diapers so it's a pretty special moment to have this senior class come out with a victory and make it to state.''
DERBY 29, WASHBURN RURAL 28
Derby (11-1) 0 13 0 16 -- 29
Washburn Rural (11-1) 6 8 8 6 -- 28
Washburn Rural -- Thompson 11 run (kick blocked)
Derby -- Ruedy 40 pass from Clark (kick blocked)
Washburn Rural -- Osburn 8 pass from DeWeese (Leonard run)
Derby -- Foster 2 pass from Clark (Jesseph kick)
Washburn Rural -- JC Heim 1 run (Hayes pass from DeWeese)
Washburn Rural -- Thompson 30 run (kick failed)
Derby -- Ruedy 5 pass from Clark (Jesseph kick)
Derby -- Ruedy 24 pass from Clark (run failed)
Derby -- Jesseph 25 FG
Rushing -- Derby: Hubbard 17-95, Clark 10-23, Brame 1-(minus)-1. Washburn Rural: JC Heim 23-75, Thompson 13-73, DeWeese 11-65, Minikwu 12-63, Baum 4-17, Team 1-(minus)-5.
Passing -- Derby: Clark 21-32-0, 274 yards. Washburn Rural: DeWeese 5-8-0, 61.
Receiving -- Derby: Ruedy 7-119, Bledsoe 5-56, Brame 4-68, Lujan 3-13, Foster 2-18. Washburn Rural: Roth 2-29, Osburn 2-21, Hayes 1-11.
Punting -- Derby: Jesseph 2-31.0. Washburn Rural: DeWeese 1-33.0; Creager 3-25.3.