NICKERSON, Kan.—Nickerson High's rally started with a fourth down stop when Hesston coach Marc Marinelli gambled and lost.
Hesston led 14-0 when Marinelli's gamble on 4th-and-1 at the 40-yard line backfired on a fumbled snap from center.
O'Toole's next run was just as critical when Hesston was whistled for a late hit 15-yard penalty. O'Toole followed with a Houdini-like escape from pressure for a 28-yard touchdown behind Jalen Karber's key block.
Once the Panthers swung the momentum, they never looked back.
The Panthers outscored Hesston 50-13 in the second half to shock the Swathers 50-27 Friday in an early showdown in the Central Kansas League South Division.
O'Toole doesn't consider himself the swiftest Panther, but he looked like Tim Tebow for two plays. O'Toole escaped on the weak side both times when Hesston applied extra pressure.
"Actually, if you ask the guys they might even say I'm slow," O'Toole said. "I give my teammates all the credit because they blocked great to give me some open space. I honestly don't know how I did that. They pressured heavy the way I was throwing and I escaped out the back side both times."
Nickerson's Tyler Owen capped the second-half outburst with three rushing touchdowns, including a game-clinching 50-yard touchdown dash for a 36-21 lead when he left the Swathers' secondary in the dust.
Owen said he's not that fast either, but his game speed with a football tucked away showcased his breakaway ability.
"We kept working together as a team and some heart and fight," Owen said. "Coach (Max) Heinlein gave us a nice pep talk at halftime and we did a great job that second half. We showed we're a good team when we get everyone working together."
Defensive back Jalen Karber sparked the Panthers' defense with a pair of interceptions and a fumble recovery.
Nickerson (2-0, 2-0 CKL) overcame a nightmarish first-half that saw the Panthers lose four fumbles. Hesston (0-2, 0-1 CKL) gained 200 yards and dominated the first half 14-0.
"We played as a team and gave an all-around team effort that second half," said Nickerson coach Max Heinlein. "Every player on that team showed heart and picked up their teammates."
Heinlein said he was proud his team kept its poise when things went awry the first half.
"I give credit to those 15 seniors, who have played enough football they have developed mental toughness," he said. "We don't win that game without senior leadership. It was a rough first half. Hopefully, we learned a lesson tonight that will help us. Everyone was contributing for us."
Hesston dominated the first half with a pair of lightning-quick scoring drives. Swather quarterback completed a 20-yard touchdown pass to Tyler McCartney after Clayton Spencer recovered a fumble on the Panthers' second play.
Ryan Schadler's 9-yard touchdown made it 14-0 with 2:50 left in the first period. Hesston's Christian Graber, Collin Martin and Chance Gehrer recovered first-half fumbles. Karber's clutch interception in the endzone kept the margin at 14 points after Hesston reached the 17-yard line.
O'Toole said the Panthers showed maturity by keeping their poise and confidence.
"We kept giving the ball away, but our offensive line finally started to take control that second half," he said.
Owen's interception set up Jake Stiverson's 74-yard touchdown pass from O'Toole for a 20-14 lead.
Hesston responded with Schadler's 15-yard touchdown on the first half of the fourth period for a 21-20 lead after Keith Crittenden's interception.
Isaac Warman carried a Hesston tackler into the endzone on a highlight-reel 12-yard touchdown reception from O'Toole for a 28-21 lead with 7:13 left. The drive was kept alive on a Hesston pass interference penalty.
Hesston drove to Nickerson's 29-yard line when Tanner Vick sacked Hesston quarterback Wyatt McKinney. Hesston was flagged 15 yards for unsportmanlike conduct after an apparent reception was called incomplete.
Four plays later, Nickerson was up 42-21. Owen sprinted 50 yards for a score. Owen scored on a 6-yard dash after Karber's dazzling 40-yard return after his second interception.
Hesston quarterback McKinney completed a 351-yard passing night with a touchdown to Justin Smith. But Owen capped his night on a 35-yard touchdown, sparked by another crushing block by the 5-foot-8 Karber.
Nickerson's offensive line of center Duncan Ensminger, guards Cade Hawver and Nate Hiatt and tackles Devon Dodge and Hagen Kaufman paved the way for 269 rushing yards and 442 total yards. O'Toole accounted for four touchdowns and 225 yards total offense.
"Our offensive line dominated that second half," O'Toole said. "I give them all the credit."
Hesston coach Marinelli declined to comment after the game.