SALINA — Waiting until the final game of the regular season to get that first victory wasn't the plan for the Salina South football team. But after seven consecutive losses to start the year, the Cougars welcomed an opportunity to finally celebrate.
South used a dominating first half to build a 21-point lead and got a pair of touchdowns late after Newton made things interesting, enabling the Cougars to pull away for a 35-13 victory at Salina Stadium on Thursday night.
It was the first win in eight games for South, who will try to maintain that newfound momentum when the Class 5A playoffs begin next week.
"We got one finally," South senior Isaac Mitchell said. "It's been a rough season and you want to win, but our hard work finally paid off.
"Even if it hasn't been the season we wanted, the playoffs are ahead of us and we'll see what happens."
"We knew we had a chance and we really wanted to get a win in our last game on this field," South senior Luke Streit said. "We had to go all out on offense and defense, keep our foot on the pedal and take it to them."
The Cougars had opportunities to get a win earlier this season but were unable to finish. They finally put it all together after Newton (3-5) got within one touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
"This is one of my favorite groups that I've ever had," South coach Sam Sellers said. "You hate to say that kids deserve to win because every kid in high school football is working hard. Nobody signs up to play this sport to lose.
"But this group, as close as they are and with the injuries that have decimated this team, for them to keep coming to practice and working as hard as they did after all those losses, I couldn't be more proud of the way they played tonight."
South will go on the road next week for its playoff opener and will face either Maize or Wichita Northwest. Newton will also be on the road for its first-round game and will learn its opponent after all teams complete their regular season tonight.
The Railers got a pair of touchdowns from senior quarterback Colton Davis in the second half. The first came on the opening drive of the third quarter, and when Davis scored again on a 4-yard keeper with 9:37 remaining in the game, Newton was down 21-13.
South never let the Railers get the ball with a chance to tie. On the Cougars' next possession they went 71 yards on nine plays, all on the ground. Sophomore quarterback Terran Galloway had five carries on the drive for 54 yards, including the 5-yard scoring run with 5:56 to play to stretch the lead to 28-13.
"We've been in positions a few times this year where the momentum has shifted late in the game," Sellers said. "Our offense has struggled this year but to put that drive together when they did was big."
"We couldn't string a couple of offensive drives together," Newton coach Chris Jaax said. "Salina South's defense made it tough on us and their offense did a good job consistently moving the ball throughout the game."
Newton was still driving late in the game before South's Kamren Xaysongkham scooped up a fumble and returned it 70 yards for the final touchdown with 1:26 to play. Xaysongkham then added his fifth extra-point kick of the game to close the scoring.
"We came into this game with a chip on our shoulder and we were all frustrated," Mitchell said. "We came out, put the throttle on and didn't let up."
South put together its best half of the season while building a 21-0 lead in the first two quarters.
Galloway had two touchdown passes before halftime, both to junior receiver David Ollenberger. The first on a leaping Ollenberger reception for 22 yards put South up 7-0 with 7:38 to play in the first quarter.
Freshman running back Brandt Cox had 65 of his 93 yards rushing in the first half, including a 24-yard scoring run early in the second quarter to add to that South lead. The second Galloway-to-Ollenberger touchdown pass covered 34 yards and came late in the second quarter to make it 21-0.
South also had three interceptions before halftime — one each for Streit, Cai Calvert and A.J. Johnson — and got another three defensive stops while limiting the Railers to 67 yards offense in the first half.