JUNCTION CITY — Friday night’s game has been circled for some time.
The reason: It was the final regular-season game for Junction City at Al Simpler Stadium.
The Blue Jays made it a night to remember, as they rolled to a 62-15 win over Emporia.
It was a measure of revenge for Junction City, which had lost to Emporia three years in a row, all knocking the Blue Jays out of the hunt for the Centennial League title and forcing them to open the playoffs on the road.
This year was different, as the Blue Jays won by nearly 50 points to improve to 6-1 overall and 6-0 in league play.
Friday marked the third consecutive game that Junction City forced a running clock during the second half of play.
“Our kids took it to heart all week long and yep, very, very pleased with the win tonight,” Junction City head coach Randall Zimmerman said. “I’m very pleased that our kids have come a long way. They’ve really worked hard.”
Seniors Russell Wilkey and Marcello Bussey shared the excitement of getting a win over the Spartans to end their prep career on a high note.
“It feels good to finally break the streak that Emporia had at beating us, and get the ‘dub’ (win) for the city,” Bussey said.
“It was a lot of stress this week, coaches putting a lot on us,” Wilkey echoed. “But we just came out here and we knew if we did our thing, it was going to be just like it was.”
After winning the coin toss, Emporia deferred to the second half, which allowed Junction City to receive the opening kick.
It took Junction City 45 seconds to move 80 yards in five plays, including the 34-yard strike to Bussey for the first touchdown.
Seven of the eight Blue Jays first half possessions ended with trips to the end zone — a statement of how the team’s motto of “Together” has taken shape this year.
“We’ve just made big strides all year, I think,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve just really improved. Our kids have really did a nice job of responding to the challenges we’ve placed on them. And they’re just doing a really, really good job. Defensively, we’re playing so well. They’re not giving up yards, they’re not giving up much offensively, and that gives gives our offense the ball back quite a bit. We were pretty efficient tonight, I think, until we brought the young kids in. We scored every possession except for one, and that was a turnover. So (a) good night overall.”
In total, the Blue Jays held on to the ball just shy of six minutes in the first half, with quick drives and big plays. The longest possession for the Jays in the first half was 1:38 — a surprising fact to Zimmerman.
“Yeah, I believe it,” he said. “We were hitting big plays. It wasn’t one play. It was pretty efficient — it was just bang bang. We really wanted to play incredibly fast offensively, and our kids are starting to get into a flow.”
With the high tempo, Junction City rolled to the 49-7 lead at the break.
Just over three minutes into the second half, senior DJ Giddens strode in to the end zone for the score and a running clock for the remainder of the game.
The large lead allowed younger players a chance for more reps at the varsity level.
Quarterback David Rowell was under center, and with a mixture of handoffs and throws, moved the ball down field for a touchdown late in the contest.
Sophomore Timothy Nguyen drove the point-after attempt straight through the uprights for his first varsity extra point of his career. As he ran to the sideline with his special teams unit, the rest of the Blue Jays greeted him with a hero’s welcome.
“It’s just a blast watching that happen,” Zimmerman said. “And it’s so fun how our kids accept each other so much. Every kid’s heartbeat was on the line when he was kicking there. You could tell our kids genuinely care for each other. That wasn’t always the case this year. But our kids have really come around.”
While the offense had much success throughout the contest, there was a period in the first quarter when a touchdown was called back because of a holding penalty. That flag led to more flags being thrown as both teams opened the game with miscues.
“I was so frustrated the whole first half with all of that,” Zimmerman said. “I’m going to have to look ... we’re going to have to look at it and evaluate really what was going on there. But there’s a lot of flags in the first half, a lot of flags.”
Two of the flags went Junction City’s way with pass interference being called twice on Emporia near the end zone which resulted in a fresh set of downs in Spartan territory.
Junction City has a short turnaround heading on the road Thursday to face Highland Park in Topeka. Zimmerman, who preaches consistency, praised the team’s ability to adjust earlier this season and said they will work through it again for the final week of the regular season.
“We’ve got to hit the field running Monday afternoon, and we will,” he said. “I know our kids will. They’re hungry to do it.”
Zimmerman said the challenge will be working with the junior varsity players who suit up as backups for the varsity team, as they have a game Monday which will put them a bit behind in the planning process.
“We’ll handle it,” he said. “We’ll have a quick meeting on Monday, introduce the game plan to our varsity guys, get out here and get loosened up and walk through all of our game plan. And the way our kids are with each other, those older guys are going to be helping us teach those younger kids when they come back on Tuesday.”
Each game has playoff implication this late in the season.
The benefit of a Thursday night game is that the team can watch Friday night’s games and guess who they might play in the first round of the state football playoffs. The bracket will not be finalized until Oct. 24, when the Kansas High School Activities Association releases the schedule.
Zimmerman said his coaching staff has been eyeing possible games, but will wait until the list is released to formulate appropriate game plans, he said.
“We’ve been watching that for last couple of weeks,” he said. “Us coaches are watching different things and we’ve already started breaking down different opponents and those kind of things in anticipation of it. Now obviously we’re not putting game plans together, because we won’t know that until that Saturday morning. But we’ll have a really, really good idea who we might see after Thursday night.”
Before the playoffs begin, the Blue Jays will take on the Scots at 7 p.m. Thursday at Hummer Sports Park to conclude the regular season.