By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
HENNESSEY, Okla. —
First it was Dylan Hatchel. Then Steven Lott. Then William Arndt.
Three seniors, all two-way starters expected to lead Hennessey football back to the 2A title game for the third time in four years, and each of them falling to season-ending injuries in near consecutive weeks.
“They were all three two-way players, starting both sides, so those were three big hits back-to-back-to-back,” Hennessey coach Rick Luetjen said. “If you’d have told me before the season that something like that were to happen, I would have told you that would be hard to come back from.”
But the Eagles, 9-1, 2A-1 champions for a third straight year and primed to host Crooked Oak in their playoff opener on Friday, have. Resoundingly so.
When Hatchel tore an ACL in a Week 3 loss against Kingfisher, junior Tony Mendoza took over. When Lott’s previously injured ankle became too aggravated a week later, it was Brady Fipps and Stephen Matousek filling in.
Mendoza has completed 59 percent of his passes for 850 yards and 12 touchdowns against just four interceptions. Matousek’s 38 tackles are sixth on the team and the most of any Eagle defensive back, and Fipps has a pair of receiving scores and snagged a game-changing interception in a 21-20 win against Chisholm that eventually would be the most important in securing another 2A-1 title.
But Tabor Johns, stepping in for Arndt, has been the most pleasant surprise.
The sophomore running back started the season as a wide receiver before being shifted to backup running back when Mendoza vacated that role to take the starting quarterback reins from Hatchel.
“Whenever I got moved, I thought, ‘Well, this is an opportunity. An opportunity that you have to take advantage of,’” Johns said. “Whenever William went down, I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity.’”
It wasn’t easy -- Johns said he’s close with Arndt, making the replacement a bittersweet promotion -- but he’s made it look very, very easy.
When his number was called, Johns answered with a 21-carry, 171-yard, two-score breakout debut after Arndt broke his leg on his first carry against Perry on Oct. 11, a game the Eagles won, 40-7. In four games since, Johns hasn’t been held below 116 yards and has scored in each. In a 2A-1 title clinching, 20-12 win against Alva, Johns exploded for 283 yards and a touchdown on 43 carries.
“We knew how talented he was, and how he could be a big part of our team this year even as a sophomore, but to be able to jump in there and fill that running back spot like he has, we didn’t see that coming.”
“You kind of get chills going down your back,“ Johns said of getting his chance and the weeks that ensued. ”It’s just a rush. It’s just the greatest feeling in the world.”
In the coming weeks, however, the Eagles’ fill-ins will get their stiffest tests, each one with win-or-go-home stakes that they haven’t played with yet.
“I can’t say it’s another game, because it’s not,” Johns said. “This is lose you go home, win you move on. You just have to come prepared to play.”
If Johns’ and the rest of the replacements’ pre-injury preparation is any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.