Northwest at Fort Hays

Senior defensive back Jake Gassman and junior linebacker Brody Buck celebrate in Northwest's 36-33 double overtime win over Fort Hays State Nov. 9. 

HAYS, Kan. — Before he could walk in front of a crowd of 6,100 people towards the left hash at Lewis Field Stadium in Hays, Kansas, Nov. 9, preparing for the biggest kick of his career, Parker Sampson had to calm down.

Northwest sat tied with Fort Hays State at 33-33 in double overtime. A Fort Hays fumble recovered by senior defensive end Mike Elhke on the Tigers’ final possession insured Northwest’s junior placekicker an opportunity to win his team the game. He knew that. Coach Rich Wright knew that. Sophomore quarterback Braden Wright knew that. Every person in the stadium knew that.

“I was just hopeful,” Braden Wright said. “I was just waiting.”

So as the offense played conservatively and took care of the ball for three downs near the 25-yard line closest to the north endzone of Lewis Field, Sampson had a conversation with his coach and a conversation with himself.

“Just calm down, trust your instincts and don’t try and do too much,” Sampson said. “Before I kick, I think ‘smooth.’ I always think ‘smooth’ because when you try and over kick, that’s when you shank it or miss-hit it, so that’s just thinking: ‘Parker, be smooth. Be smooth.’”

“When he was standing on the sideline on third down, I walked up to him and I just said, ‘They’ve got a timeout. They’re gonna use it, OK? So just relax and dry-run your first one,” Rich Wright said. “You try and get people prepared for the moment.”

Sampson, of course, stepped into the spotlight at the climax of a game defined by climatic moments. The game and Northwest’s postseason aspirations rode on the hope the kicker’s right foot offered. With the stakes as high as they’ve been in his collegiate career, Sampson converted a 38-yard field goal to give Northwest (9-1) a 36-33 double-overtime victory over Fort Hays (7-3).

Before the kick had even crossed through the uprights, Sampson turned and began a 70-yard celebratory sprint toward the south endzone, a roster full of players and coaches trailing him closely, trying to catch and embrace the kicker who kept their season alive.

“Just a whirlwind of emotion,” Sampson said. “I didn’t know what else to think, I just started running. Just to stay alive in the playoffs, because this is the big game, to keep moving forward — it means a lot.”

The moment came at the tail-end of a dramatic, back-and-forth contest. The Bearcats, who lost to Fort Hays in 2017 and 2018, both times with shares of the MIAA on the line, found themselves in a familiar situation when they trailed the Tigers early.

Northwest allowed the Tigers to score three times before the Bearcats had reached the red zone. On the heels of Fort Hays’ third score, a 20-yard touchdown pass from senior running back Harley Hazlett to sophomore wideout Manny Ramsey, the Bearcats stared at a 17-0 deficit and sat in the passenger’s seat of the game that looked like it would derail their season.

In the face of the second-largest deficit Northwest has faced this season, the offense responded.

Braden Wright engineered a 4-play, 75-yard drive in the immediate aftermath of Ramsey’s touchdown. The quarterback found junior wideout Imoni Donadelle for a 42-yard touchdown on Northwest’s next drive. Sampson drilled a 41-yarder the drive after that. The Bearcats wiped away the 17-0 deficit with 17 unanswered points of their own. And, of course, they weren’t done.

“I just told the kids how proud I was of their resilience,” Rich Wright said. “It’s just been kind of a hallmark of what we’ve done all season long. And, obviously, things didn’t start out well for us and the fact that we’re down 17-0 and our offense punches a play in, and then everything shifted.”

Northwest etched another 2 points onto the scoreboard before the first half ended by way of a safety from senior defensive tackle Spencer Phillips. Against all odds, the Bearcats carried a 19-17 lead off the turf of Lewis Field and into the visitor’s locker room at halftime.

At the start of the third quarter, Fort Hays engineered a field goal drive to retake the lead over Northwest, taking a 20-19 advantage. Northwest, again, responded. Braden Wright and company put together a 9-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 9-yard score from the sophomore quarterback’s right arm to senior running back Justin Rankin.

On Rankin’s touchdown, the Bearcats took a 26-20 lead, their largest of the night, with 8:24 left in the third quarter. For the rest of regulation, they watched the lead tick away.

“You know, honestly, if we don’t win this game, we’re not going to the playoffs,” Rich Wright said. “It was as simple as that. We talked about it all week.”

In the wake of a gruesome injury to senior defensive back Chama Pierre that saw the cornerback carted off the field, and later to an area hospital, Northwest’s defense was left stunned. The crowd in Hays was left silent. The game, in the fourth quarter of a dramatic contest, was still. Tigers’ kicker Dante Brown booted a field goal to pull the team within three of Northwest.

After holding the Tigers scoreless for much of the third quarter, Northwest’s defense had buckled once again in the fourth. The unit bent to the will of Fort Hays’ touted offense but refused to break.

“It’s the ability of our kids to stay in the moment,” Rich Wright said. “They didn’t panic. … If you lose momentum — momentum’s a funny thing — and once you lose it, it’s pretty hard to get it back.”

After Northwest’s offense fell short on a third and 3 with a chance to extend a late-game drive and perhaps seal the game, Fort Hays took over with 1:05 left on the clock. The Tigers were 81 yards from the endzone with one timeout. They trailed by three. Northwest needed a stop to end the game in regulation. A stop wouldn’t come.

Fort Hays quarterback Chance Fuller engineered a 42-yard drive to set Brown up for a 56-yard field goal with five seconds left. Brown converted, sending the game into overtime, where Northwest’s offense scored a gritty touchdown, its defense forced a game-changing fumble and its kicker delivered a season-altering field goal.

“Those are the games you come to college to play,” Braden Wright said. “You don’t come to beat people by 60. You come to play in competitive games with a class-A opponent, a great opponent year-in and year-out. That’s what it’s all about.”

Northwest, of course, will square off with another conference power against No. 10 Central Missouri (10-0) in Week 11. Rich Wright said everything the Bearcats hope to accomplish remains on the table, there for the taking. They’ll have a chance to serve Central its first loss of the season, and because of their comeback win in Hays, they’ll have a chance to claim a share of the MIAA.

Because of Sampson’s overtime kick, it’s there for the taking.

“This is — this is the biggest (kick of my career),” Sampson said. “To win a game, keep moving forward, keep alive in the playoffs. It’s probably the best one, for sure.”

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