Between the Eastern Kansas League schedule and the Kansas high school playoffs, St. Thomas Aquinas and Mill Valley have seen plenty of each other over the past few years.
The only thing different about Friday’s latest showdown at Mill Valley was the afternoon start time and the unseasonable 90-degree heat that fueled the thunderstorms that caused kickoff to be moved up in the first place.
The familiarity showed in a 28-21 victory for Aquinas where the Saints couldn’t relax until they took a knee to kill off the game’s final minute.
Mill Valley (1-3) was pushing for the game-tying score late in the fourth quarter as the skies to the west grew increasingly ominous. Aquinas sophomore defensive back Will Gavin stepped in front of a third-down pass from Mill Valley quarterback Cooper Marsh with 4:27 to play, intercepting it in the end zone.
“I saw the no. 1 receiver go in motion toward the near side, and we’re in man-to-man coverage there,” Gavin said. “I just thought it would be easier if I took him. I saw him going on the drag route, and I just undercut it. It just happened so fast.”
The Saints’ offense, which only had one successful drive up to that point in the second half, killed the time remaining. Junior Tank Young, who finished with 121 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 21 carries, picked up 45 of those yards on the final drive.
“This was a long game. They fought us good, they didn’t quit, they kept finding,” Young said.
This proved to be the toughest test of the season thus far for St. Thomas Aquinas, which improved to 4-0 on the season. The Saints were in the unique position of wrapping up their latest victory before the sun set, but Young, for one, was ready to play under the lights again.
“Leaving school early, playing at 4 p.m. midday was way different,” Young said. “I can’t wait for Friday to come back up.”
There was some discussion as the week progressed as to when, or if, kickoff would be moved. The 4 p.m. start was ideal, as lightning was approaching the area around Mill Valley when the game ended.
“Once we figured out when it was, everybody was ready to go whenever,” Aquinas coach Randy Dreiling said. “They always play us hard. I think that’s the 10th time we’ve played them in six years. They know us, and they’ve got some playmakers.”
The Saints used a trio of big plays in the final two minutes of the second quarter to turn a tie game into a 14-point lead going into the half. Charlie McCormick broke a 7-7 tie by turning a counter play into a 76-yard touchdown jaunt.
Saints sophomore Dajni Brooks intercepted his second pass of the game in the final minute. Quarterback Blake Anderson found Tom Downey for a 23-yard touchdown on the next play.
Mill Valley’s Marsh, who threw for 128 yards and ran for 117 yards, rebounded in the third quarter, tying the game with a pair of touchdown passes.
That’s when the Saints responded with their lone scoring drive, and the defense was able to make the lead hold in the fourth quarter.
“We had three sophomores making interceptions, two of them in the end zones. When you stop drives, that’s critical,” Dreiling said.
Next up for Aquinas is a showdown with Blue Valley West, and hopefully a return to the Friday night lights.