Austin Fager’s stat line from Friday night doesn’t exactly pop out of the box score.
Make no mistake, though: When it mattered most, no Washburn Rural player shined brighter.
Fager snatched an interception near the goal line late in the fourth quarter to protect a one-score advantage, and on the Junior Blues’ subsequent offensive possession, the running back got the series’ first three carries and picked up a game-sealing first down en route to a 21-14 home victory over Pittsburg.
"He knows how I feel about him," Washburn Rural coach Steve Buhler said of Fager. "Great kid, works extremely hard, really competitive. I’d give him a hug but can’t really do that anymore for a while."
Fager finished the game with 20 carries for a pedestrian 44 yards, though his final 13 yards proved the contest’s most important.
After his pick set Rural up at its own 7-yard line with 1:57 remaining, Fager posted 4- and 5-yard totes to force Pittsburg to use its final two timeouts. Then, facing a third-and-1, Fager steamrolled ahead for a 4-yard gain — teammates flew in to push the 5-foot-10, 185-pounder past the first-down marker ... and then some.
"I’m super happy for him," Buhler said. "He came in really focused this year as a junior. Last year (he) had an up-and-down season a little bit. He came in really wanting to do well. We talked a little bit with him about it early in the season. For him to come through and play really well on offense but also do some really good things for us on defense, it’s a great testament just to his concentration and work ethic."
From there, quarterback Cooper Carlgren assumed the victory formation and sent Rural (1-2) to its first win — the Junior Blues had suffered 42-8 and 56-7 defeats to Seaman and Lawrence, respectively, in the season’s first two weeks.
"I’ll give our guys a lot of credit: This whole week of practice they’ve been really positive and they’ve been working," Buhler said. "After 0-2 and the way we lost the first two you could’ve fallen into the doldrums a little bit, and you’re playing another 2-0 team (Pittsburg). But with that kind of attitude, as long as we’re getting better every week, I think we’ll be in good shape at the end of the season."
Carlgren’s play across the first three-plus quarters set the table for the Junior Blues.
He finished 10-for-15 passing for 124 yards, with three of those completions going at least 20 yards, all in the second half. A 25-yarder to Lukas Hanks on a third-and-21 extended a drive that eventually ended with a Ma’kenttis Adams 1-yard touchdown run and a 21-6 advantage with 1:53 left in the third quarter.
Carlgren inflicted the most damage with his legs — the 6-2, 185-pound senior’s 20 carries and 71 rushing yards were both team-highs, with 40 of those yards coming on an opening drive he capped himself with a 1-yard scoring plow.
"He really competed tonight. That’s as hard as I’ve seen him run the football. He was really determined when he came out here to get a win," Buhler said. "We usually have goals for each week that we want to work on, and this week he and the seniors just put on the board, ‘Win.’ And I think he had that in the back of his mind. Just the way he played with some tenacity, I think he did a really good job setting the tempo for everybody."
Pittsburg (2-1) deployed three quarterbacks throughout the contest. Sophomore Jackson Turnbull got the Purple Dragons on the board with a 46-yard scoring connection to Haiden McCoy in the first quarter, and junior Cooper Hayden trimmed the deficit to a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter with a 1-yard scoring run and successful two-point conversion thrown to McCoy.
Pittsburg was aided by a litany of Rural penalties, including a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct infractions — the first extended what became the Purple Dragons’ first scoring drive, while a second on the visitors’ final offensive series nearly proved catastrophic for the Junior Blues.
Buhler indicated his team can’t afford such mistakes next week against Junction City.
"You’ve just got to clean those things up," Buhler said. "We need to work on just our approach and not get so into the game that we kind of lose our minds a little bit, and I think that will come with maturity. Like I’ve said, we’ve got a lot of young guys that haven’t played a lot of football at the varsity level, so everything is a growing experience. We’ll get better."
WASHBURN RURAL 21, PITTSBURG 14
Pittsburg (2-1) ... 6 ... 0 ... 8 ... 0 ... — ... 14
Washburn Rural (1-2) ... 7 ... 7 ... 7 ... 0 ... — ... 21
Washburn Rural — Carlgren 1 run (Frederickson kick)
Pittsburg — McCoy 46 pass from Turnbull (kick failed)
Washburn Rural — Adams 11 run (Frederickson kick)
Washburn Rural — Adams 1 run (Frederickson kick)
Pittsburg — Hayden 1 run (McCoy pass from Hayden)
Rushing — Pittsburg: Light 4-10, Barber 9-45, Turnbull 2-(minus) 2, Roelfs 2-6, Hayden 7-24, Madison 1-1. Washburn Rural: Adams 2-35, Calgren 20-71, Fager 20-44, Williams 1-5.
Passing — Pittsburg: Hayden 5-10-1, 77 yards, Turnbull 2-5-0, 56 yards. Washburn Rural: Carlgren 10-15-0, 124 yards.
Receiving — Pittsburg: McCoy 4-111, Stover 3-22. Washburn Rural: Sabbarini 1-4, William 3-13, Bolin 2-58, Tibbetts 1-10, Hanks 3-39.
Punting — Pittsburg: McKechnie 3-31.7, Smith 1-10. Washburn Rural: Madison 3-33.7.