At the bottom of the dog pile, Grady Kuehn was still trying to process how he had just saved the season for the Cheney football team.
Kicking hasn’t exactly been a team strength for the Cardinals in their undefeated run, but it was required to win Friday’s Class 3A sectional game against Clay Center.
Kuehn said his mind was clear when he drilled the game-winning, 32-yard field goal as the clock expired in Cheney’s 23-21 win over Clay Center to keep the Cardinals’ dream season alive and set up a highly-anticipated rematch with Andale in next week’s semifinals.
“I knew it was going in off the foot,” Kuehn said. “I just kept my head down and focused on driving through the ball.
“Next thing I know, we’re celebrating. I couldn’t believe it. It was like, ‘Wow, we just won the game and now we’re going to kick Andale’s butt next week.’”
Cheney coach Shelby Wehrmann was still trying to unwind how his team even found itself in a predicament needing a last-second field goal to win the game.
The Cardinals held a 20-7 lead with less than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, but mistakes began to pile up.
A pass-interference call on fourth down kept a drive alive for Clay Center, which quickly capitalized with a touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 20-14.
The game-changing mistake came in the final minute when Cheney faced a 4th-and-2 from its own 16-yard line. Cheney sent its offense on the field, but called for quarterback Josh Burdick to attempt a quick kick to prevent Clay Center from returning the punt.
Disaster struck when Burdick’s kick went straight into the back of a Cheney blocker and Clay Center recovered on Cheney’s 9-yard line. On 4th-and-5, Clay Center scored the go-ahead touchdown for a 21-20 lead with 25.1 seconds left.
“We were up 20-7 in the fourth quarter with the ball. We just had to keep playing,” Wehrmann said. “But it just seemed like it was one mistake after another.”
After Cheney’s Drew Tolar had returned a kick-off for a score earlier in the game, Clay Center was hesitant to kick it deep. That led to Clay Center booting it out of bounds, then being forced to squib kick and a face-mask penalty that put Cheney on the Clay Center 40-yard line before its offense even took the field.
A pair of quick throws from Burdick moved the ball to the 15-yard line and Wehrmann had a critical decision to make during a timeout with 3.1 seconds left.
“I honestly didn’t know what we should do, so I asked the kids if we should go for it or if we should kick it,” Wehrmann said. “The kids wanted to kick it.”
The next question was who was going to kick it?
Weston Hill had been handling extra-point attempts, while Kuehn had been focusing on kick-off duties.
“Some days Grady is on and he’s amazing and other days he can’t hit a thing,” Wehrmann said. “What kind of day are we going to have today? But the one thing we knew was he was very capable of making it from that far.”
The players unanimously agreed it should be Kuehn.
“I was just thinking, ‘Oh crap, the game is on me now,’” Kuehn said. “It was pretty nerve-racking. I was shaking the whole time, but my mind was clear.”
The 32-yard field goal split the uprights and would have been good from 40.
It was the biggest kick in the career of Kuehn, a junior who also plays fullback and defensive end.
“I’m still at a loss for words,” Kuehn said. “I can’t believe it.”