JUNCTION CITY — The end of the season came a week earlier than the Junction City Blue Jays, and their fans, hoped for Friday night. Two-time defending Class 6A champion Derby proved to be far too powerful, beating Junction City 62-27 in the final game at Al Simpler Stadium.

Defensive struggles plagued the Blue Jays all night as they fought to contain the dual threat in the Panther backfield in quarterback Lem Wash and running back Dylan Edwards.

“Very tough game,” Junction City head coach Randall Zimmerman said of his team’s sub-state performance. “Derby just beat us tonight, they just flat beat us. The only chance we had was to get out in front of them, and we’re very young defensively. And tonight we just had kids who were playing completely out of position.”

On this night, the Jays’ defense routinely gave up 5 yards (or more) per play . Late in the game, junior linebacker Keghan McConnell penetrated the offensive line to sack Wash for a 7-yard loss. But on the next play, the Panthers found a gap and rushed for a first down to keep their drive alive. They later went on to score another touchdown.

“They’re just very good, and we had really young kids out there trying to make tackles who were put in positions they probably, you know, I don’t believe they should have been,” Zimmerman said.

The defensive struggles led to offensive pressure as the Blue Jays (9-2) were forced to make plays early.

Quarterback Andrew Khoury, who completed 67% of his passes this season, struggled throughout the night.

“(It was) probably the pressure of being behind and trying to press and make plays,” Zimmerman said. “We knew we had to make plays. We were struggling stopping them, and we knew we had to make plays. There was just no margin for error. I think that’s what got him.

“He’s a great kid — he’s an unbelievably great kid. Very intelligent, great leader,” he added. “Love the kid to death and every one of these kids. ... I say that and I genuinely mean it. And that’s what makes it so hard.”

Late in the first half, Junction City looked to capitalize on a series of mistakes by the Panthers (8-2). After officials penalized the Panthers for holding call and a personal foul, they faced third-and-24. Wash tossed the ball toward the end zone, where Junction City senior Javon George intercepted the pass.

The momentum shift was short lived for the Jays, however: They were forced to punt with less than a minute remaining.

Derby put the finishing touches on the win by crossing the goal line with less than 10 seconds remaining.

The Blue Jays bookended their 2020 campaign with losses; they lost the opener to Bishop Carroll, 29-28, before winning nine straight games entering Friday.

The continued growth of a team that battled through the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions this fall, Zimmerman said, made him proud.

“That’s what this game is about,” he said. “Football is kind of a little nugget to get them reeled in to teach them some life skills. This game will wear off, and the score will wear off. And they will remember the year and they’ll remember the good times — during the senior retreat and the pregame meals — and how 2020 was so different. Those are the things that these kids will remember forever. Then just the growth that these kids make. Some kids just absolutely have to have activities. Some absolutely have to have the structure and discipline that we can provide. I’m just really proud of the kids and the year they put together.”