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Norton beats Smith Center on late safety

Blue Jays take it 16-14
Norton defeated MCL rival Smith Center 16-14 at home on Friday, September 4, 2020.  (Photo: Everett Royer, www.ksportsimages.com)
Norton defeated MCL rival Smith Center 16-14 at home on Friday, September 4, 2020. (Photo: Everett Royer, www.ksportsimages.com)(Everett J Royer)
Published: Sep. 4, 2020 at 11:33 PM CDT
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NORTON, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Entering this fall, Norton 6-foot-4, 262-pound senior defensive lineman Christien Hawks had played in 30 games with 136 tackles, 19 for loss. Hawks, a University of Kansas commit, helped the Bluejays reach the 2019 state title game, Norton’s first trip in 30 years. He is ranked as the state’s No. 8 prospect, according to 247 Sports, a recruiting leader.

Senior 5-foot-10, 210-pound Aiden Wicker participated in five contests in his first two falls. Wicker elected not to play football in ’19. Wicker realized he made a big mistake earlier last year. He displayed strong offseason work ethic and played alongside Hawks on the line.

On Friday, Hawks and Wicker delivered multiple big moments in Norton’s 16-14 season-opening home victory versus rival Smith Center at Travis Field. Norton celebrated senior night beforehand.

“Defense was lights out tonight,” coach Lucas Melvin said. “It was unbelievable. Good stuff. Just happy for the kids. You always want to beat Smith Center, just so tough to beat.”

Hawks and Wicker had discussed the game all week. Wicker kept telling Hawks at practice, “I can’t wait for Friday.” Hawks said “me neither.”

“The first one to tell me,” Hawks said.

Norton broke a 14-14 tie with the Redmen had a bad punt snap with 5 minutes, 18 seconds left. The ball went out the back of the end zone for a safety.

The contest opened Kansas football’s return to play from the coronavirus pandemic that had halted KSHSAA sports since the state basketball tournament semifinals last March.

Norton, ranked sixth in Class 2A, has just six seniors and 27 total players, the smallest roster in Melvin’s 14th seasons as head coach. Wicker came to Melvin, who “absolutely” wanted him back out.

“It’s been huge,” Melvin said. “I told him, he’s my secret weapon, because he didn’t play last year. But I also told him, ’Dang it, you could have been maybe part of a state championship if you had been on the team last year. He’s a good player, and you know what I like about Wicker – was he was humble enough to say I screwed up. I should have been out last year.”

The Bluejays beat their longtime Mid-Continent League foes for the first time since a 32-0 win in Week 4 of 2014. Smith Center, the defending state runner-up in Class 1A, is ranked third in 1A in the CIK poll.

“I missed it a lot,” Wicker said. “I was trying to do other sports, tried to do baseball, but just glad to be back, have fun again with my friends and my family.”

Norton, which never trailed, limited Smith Center to 35 carries for 104 yards. Hawks lined up directly on the center virtually all game and delivered a pair of tackles for loss.

Melvin said Hawks, Wicker, junior linebacker Devan Mullins and the defensive ends all did a “a great job.” Norton especially contained between the tackles. The Bluejays had one defensive back on the field.

“We put one of our linebackers right in the face of the tight end,” Melvin said. “And just tried to get a bunch of people in the way to allow our linebackers to run around and make plays, and they did.”

As well, SC struggled with snaps throughout, especially late.

With the game tied at 14, Smith Center lined up to punt from its own 15-yard line. The ball went over senior Griffin Kugler’s head. He managed to knock the ball out of the end zone for a safety and the game’s final points.

“One of those mistakes by a young kid,” Smith Center coach Darren Sasse said.

Norton lost a fumble on its next offensive play, and Smith Center recovered at the Bluejay 38-yard line. The Redmen had a five-yard loss off a snap issue and eventually needed to punt. Smith Center regained possession with 1:20 left at its own 48-yard line.

SC delivered a four-yard run on its first play, and Hawks was slow to get up after he took a helmet to the groin. Coaches asked if Hawks wanted to come out, but he stayed in. On the next play, Smith Center struggled with the snap.

“We have got to work on it,” Sasse said. “We knew we had a little bit of trouble. A lot of it had to do with (Hawks) across.”

Senior Gavin Sproul broke through and forced the fumble. Wicker recovered and held the ball high in celebration.

“I just saw a chance to hit someone and knock the ball loose to win,” Wicker said.

Norton ran out the clock to secure a Senior Night victory.

“When he picked up that fumble, I was gassed at that point, but I was like, ’Yess!” Hawks said. “I mean, it was the perfect way to just seal the deal, and I was so proud of him for coming out. Because last year he said after the first game, he regretted it so much. And he came out and he proved himself. And that’s a kid that will work hard all the time. … Hardest work in my class by far.”

Because of COVID-19 concerns, Norton’s weight room was shut down some in July. Instead of senior night for the last home game, teams have elected to do senior night before the first home contest.

“The way I could have imagined – the most perfect, heartfelt way,” Hawks said of the night.

Hawks was honored both for football and band, where he plays the saxophone. His dad, Jeremy, is a former football/track standout at Norton and Fort Hays, and longtime Bluejay assistant coach.

Norton senior Jonah Ruder, a first team all-state wide receiver last fall, moved to quarterback. The left-hander, with multiple Division II offers, had touchdown runs of 14 and three yards. Norton led 14-0 with 3:38 left in the first half. Ruder finished 9 of 15 for 108 yards, along with 19 carries for 34 yards.

“Whenever you play the first game, you have got to figure out what you can and can’t do,” Sasse said. “We found some things that we need to work on for sure, but don’t want to take any credit away from Norton. They played a great game.”

Smith Center scored with 18 seconds left in the first half on a diving 29-yard touchdown catch from Kugler. It marked the 17th of his career, a new SC record. Norton led 14-6 at halftime. With 4:11 remaining in the third quarter, Kugler caught a 25-yard scoring pass between two defenders and the two-point conversion to tie at 14.

On the penultimate play before the safety, Smith Center went to Kugler, though Norton junior Kolton Field, in 1-on-1 coverage, knocked down the ball to force fourth down and the eventual safety and victory.

Teams are not having a postgame handshake because of COVID. After the game, Norton and Smith Center walked to the center of the field and took a knee facing each other. Melvin offered a short speech and prayed for the teams.

Norton had a short bus ride up to the locker rooms. Wicker’s legs stiffened up on the bus, and he needed assistance onto the bleachers because of cramps through his thighs. Coach Melvin helped stretch his legs. Wicker laid down on the bleachers, completely spent, happy to be back playing football again.

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