Atagi, Cougars keep playoff hopes alive
According to Shawnee Mission Northwest football coach Aaron Barnett, it’s hard to find a football player in the Sunflower League who is better than his senior tailback/defensive back Bryce Atagi.
On Friday night it would have been hard to find a single Sunflower League football player who helped his team to victory more than Atagi.
Atagi rushed for 313 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries — an average of 10.4 yards per carry — recorded multiple tackles and punted the ball for the Cougars as Northwest outlasted a feisty Shawnee Mission East squad, 37-14.
The win was the Cougars’ first in district play and kept their hopes alive for a berth in the Class 6A state playoffs.
After the game, Barnett praised his senior star.
“He’s the best all-around football player in the Sunflower League in my opinion,” Barnett said. “There might be backs who have more yards and defensive players that have more tackles, but there’s nobody toting the ball as much as Bryce and then turning around and playing defense and is the leading punter in the league. He’s a very, very good high school football player. There’s no doubt about that. I think anyone who’s played against him would echo that statement.”
As it turned out, the Cougars needed every one of Atagi’s yards against an East squad that moved the ball well on offense and was a continual threat until well into the fourth quarter.
Neither team scored on their initial possessions and it took the Cougars until midway through the first frame to get on the board. After taking over on their own 30, they put together a lightning quick 1:24 drive of 70 yards on four plays. Early in that drive Atagi showed a brief glimpse of what was to come when he took a handoff off the right side and then cut it back left, sprinting for a 40-yard gain to the East 25.
Two plays later, senior fullback Ethan Elmer punctuated the drive with a 13-yard dive from the left side that ended in a Cougar touchdown. Junior quarterback/kicker Matt Nowak added the extra point, and Northwest was up 7-0 with 7:31 left in the first quarter.
East appeared ready to answer right away and drove 52 yards on nine plays to the SMNW 18-yard line. However, on fourth-and-7, the Lancers’ field goal attempt was blocked by junior linebacker John Hauk and the Cougars took over.
Hauk figured prominently almost three minutes later when his sack of Lancer senior quarterback Curran Darling on third down forced East to punt from its own 25. After a 15-yard punt return by senior wide receiver Mark Fancher, Northwest took over on the Lancers’ 43. One play later Fancher was in the endzone after having taken a perfectly-timed slip screen pass from Nowak and sprinting down the middle of the field for a touchdown that made it 14-7 Northwest.
Yet, as they had done earlier, the Lancers proved that they had some explosive skill players on their side of the ball as well. On the ensuing kickoff, senior wideout Marcus Webb took the kickoff return down the right sideline 62 yards to the Cougar 35. Two plays later, East junior tailback Kris Hertel blasted in from 24 yards out to make the score 14-7 at the end of one quarter.
Both teams had long second-quarter drives that failed to pay off in scoring and the Cougars went into the break with a seven-point advantage.
After seeing the Cougar ground game largely nullified in the second quarter, Barnett used the halftime to rejuvenate his offensive line and commit to a power running game to start the third quarter. On the Cougars’ first possession of the second half, Atagi was given the ball eight straight times. Nine of the drive’s 10 running plays went to the tailback, who capped off the campaign with a 2-yard counter run for a 21-7 lead.
Again East answered. Another huge Webb return of 46 yards set up a seven-play, three-minute drive that covered 53 yards. Darling ended the drive when he hit his slot receiver, sophomore Grant Ellis, for a 15-yard touchdown, making it 21-14 Northwest.
East then seized the momentum when it caught SMNW napping on an onside kick. The Lancers’ Ryan Tuschhoff recovered the kick and the Lancers set up shop on the Northwest 47.
However, the Northwest defense stiffened and senior defensive back Ryan Kolega picked off Darling’s long pass attempt at the Cougar 10, stopping the East drive.
Both teams traded possessions to end the third quarter, but as the decisive final quarter began, a poor Lancer punt gave Northwest excellent field position with a first down at the East 44. The Cougars then took just 1:07 to score when, on the third play of the quarter, Atagi took a pitch around the left end and darted his way 32 yards for his second score of the day and a 28-14 lead.
The Cougar defense held East to a three-and-out on its next possession and took over on their own 32 with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter. It took just two plays for Northwest to strike again as the Lancer defense bit hard on the play fake and Nowak hit a streaking Fancher with a 63-yard fly route completion for another Cougar touchdown and a 35-14 lead. Northwest added one more late score when junior linebacker Josh Urteaga and senior defensive tackle Nick Andrus brought down a Lancer ball carrier in the endzone for a safety, making the final tally 37-14.
After the game, Barnett spoke about the regrouping his team accomplished after East had threatened to tie the game.
“The big thing was that we had to calm down,” Barnett said. “We got a timeout (from East) to take a breath. In the second half we just lined up and played our base defense and just settled into that, and we started doing a better job.”
In addition to Atagi’s big numbers, Fancher collected three catches for 120 yards and two touchdowns, Elmer ran six times for 45 yards and a score, Nowak completed four of seven passes with one pick and two touchdowns, Hauk had two sacks, and Kolega racked up a pair of interceptions.
The Cougars now face a must-win scenario for the playoffs at 7 p.m. Friday as they return to Shawnee Mission North District Stadium — this time as the visitors — to take on the Shawnee Mission North Indians. North is 3-5 overall and 0-2 in the district after losing to Shawnee Mission West on Friday, 28-0.