Maize rally falls short to Mill Valley in Kansas 5A high school football title game

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  • Avery Johnson
    Avery Johnson
    American basketball coach

Watching helplessly from the sideline, Avery Johnson desperately wished for one more chance in the Class 5A state championship game.

The star Maize quarterback never got his wish.

Mill Valley withstood a late Maize rally for a 28-14 win, capturing the program’s third straight Class 5A title at Carnie Smith Stadium in Pittsburg on Saturday afternoon.

“Our defense stepped up a lot of times and gave us chances to win this game on multiple occasions,” said Johnson, who finished with 335 total yards and two touchdowns, but also two interceptions.

“Next year I’ve got to be better as a quarterback and better as a leader. No doubt I think we can get here again next year and hopefully when we do, we can see these guys again and we’ll be on the other end of it.”

Maize (10-3) believed an improbable comeback was possible in its first appearance in a championship game when Johnson took a fourth-and-one carry and turned it into a 68-yard sprint to the end zone, cutting Mill Valley’s 20-0 lead to six points with still more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

But Mill Valley showed its championship pedigree on the game’s biggest drive, as Hayden Jay calmly guided the Jaguars 80 yards in eight plays capped by a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jared Napoli to all but seal the game with a two-touchdown lead.

Jay threw for 172 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while Mill Valley running back Reice Kennedy finished with 230 rushing yards to help complete a 12-1 season with the program’s fifth title and its first three-peat.

“It means everything because of these kids,” Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee said. “The work they put in is just unbelievable. They bought into hard work and understanding the value of each day and showing up and working hard, then good things will happen.”

Maize proved it could move the ball against Mill Valley, but outside of Johnson’s electrifying 68-yard run, the Eagles were without their usual blend of big plays. Maize finished with 403 yards of total offense, just 24 fewer than Mill Valley, but saw four drives end in opponent territory without points.

“Normally we can count on our offense putting points on the board, but we knew coming into the game they were going to be very good defensively,” Maize coach Gary Guzman said. “And they were. They made it tough. We had trouble establishing the running game and it’s tough when you can’t run the ball. We never really got in rhythm and never got it going.”

That was because Johnson almost always had someone in his face when he was throwing the ball. Mill Valley was able to apply the most pressure of any defense Maize faced this season, which led to two rushed throws by Johnson in the first half that ended with interceptions.

“We saw on film where he’s not as good when he deals with pressure, so we wanted to put his linemen in his lap and make him throw in pressure and throw quickly,” said Mill Valley sophomore defensive lineman Truman Griffith, who finished with a sack.

Stopping Johnson completely isn’t possible, evident by the touchdown run, but Mill Valley did about as good as job as it felt possible in containing the four-star recruit in the class of 2023.

“You stress all week to your kids that they’ve got to be disciplined up front,” Applebee said. “He’s a special, special player. We wanted to put a little pressure on him and see how he dealt with that. I thought our kids did a great job of being disciplined with their assignments and he still broke that one long one, but that’s because of how special of a player he is.”

After Maize came up empty on a fourth-down play on the 7-yard line, Mill Valley looked like it was about to put the game away when Kennedy broke free for a long run that could have ended in a touchdown.

Instead, Maize junior defensive back McKinley Joynes sprinted down the field to not only catch Kennedy, but also to punch the ball out for a game-saving turnover.

“I really just wanted to give our offense one more opportunity,” said Joynes, who also had an interception. “I definitely went for the ball since it was a late-game situation like that. I just wanted to give us another chance. I didn’t want to give up early. I wish we could have done better at the end, though.”

Joynes’ heroics were amplified when four plays later, Johnson spurted free for the 68-yard touchdown to trim Mill Valley’s lead to 20-14.

“We thought for sure we were going to come back and get it,” Johnson said. “It was fourth down, so I was really just trying to get the first down and keep the drive going. A big hole opened up and I hit it and it was off to the races from there.”

After falling in a 20-0 hole, Maize never had a chance to potentially take the lead.

Guzman hopes the experience provides motivation for a large junior class to return to Pittsburg next season and come away with the title next time.

“We’ve got a lot of kids coming back next year and they all had this experience to play in a state championship game,” Guzman said. “I’m excited about next year, but I’ll tell you what, I’m so thankful for our seniors for leading this team. It all starts up top and they led us and put us in this position and I’ll forever be grateful to those guys.”

Mill Valley 28, Maize 14

Maize (10-3) 0 0 7 7 — 14

Mill Valley (12-1) 7 7 6 8 — 28

MV—Kennedy 12 run (Wood kick)

MV—Jay 6 run (Wood kick)

MV—Jones 20 pass from Jay (kick failed)

M—A. Doty 32 pass from Johnson (Segraves kick)

M—Johnson 68 run (Segraves kick)

MV—Napoli 20 pass from Jay (Kennedy pass from Jay)

Individual statistics

Rushing—Maize, Johnson 15-78, Carter 12-54, Stephens 1-16, Williams 4-8; Mill Valley, Kennedy 27-230, Jay 12-21, Napoli 1-4, Boatwright 1-0.

Passing—Maize, Johnson 19-34-2-247, Stephens 0-1-0-0; Mill Valley, Jay 11-15-2-172.

Receiving—Maize, Cohoon 7-82, Stephens 4-60, Helm 3-32, A. Doty 2-40, Carter 1-13, Williams 1-11, Martin-Alvarez 1-9; Mill Valley, Napoli 3-51, Jacobs 3-45, Allerheiligen 3-29, Kennedy 1-27, Jones 1-20.

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