Hayden A surprisingly optimistic Hayden football team huddled at midfield after Saturday's 45-12 loss at the hands of Dolores County.
Derek Stephenson, one of the bright spots against the Bulldogs in an otherwise dismal performance by the Tigers on Saturday, left the post-game huddle feeling proud about what his team had accomplished this season.
Although the scoreboard didn't read in their favor, the Tigers refused to focus on the loss, but rather on the fact that it was the second time in as many years they had made the state playoffs.
"That's just the way Hayden is," said Stephenson, who returned a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown during the first quarter. "We make sure we're always focused on every (play) no matter what the scoreboard says."
Stephenson, who also had a long interception return he plays cornerback on defense didn't get the game ball following the loss, but he played like an MVP against a tough Dolores County squad. The Bulldogs' win moves the team on to the second round of the playoffs next week.
Dolores County head coach Ken Soper said the possibility of his team playing Akron was likely.
For Hayden, the 2001 season ends with a record of 4-6, though that statistic can be deceiving when considering the early-season adversity the Tigers faced.
Senior Kevin Miller and junior Kelly Bruchez missed several games at the start of the season, which immediately got the Tigers off on the wrong foot.
Miller, who started at quarterback on Saturday, completed his final game in a Tigers uniform throwing for 99 yards and rushing for another 45.
Bruchez was the second-leading receiver behind Stephenson, grabbing two receptions for 30 yards. Stephenson caught one pass for 44 yards.
The opposition was much more effective on the offensive end, however.
Soper said he made his ball club revert more to the run on Saturday, believing Tigers coach Kevin Kleckler would expect the Bulldogs to put up big numbers in the pass-attempts category.
To go along with the 101 yards Dolores County gained through the air, the Bulldogs amassed 358 yards on the ground, which was devastating to the Tigers' defense.
The Tigers actually kept things close through the opening quarter and grabbed the lead at one point to make it 12-7.
After the Bulldogs struck first on a 40-yard run at the 10:07-mark of the first quarter, Stephenson answered with a 91-yard touchdown return on the ensuing kick.
"My team made some good blocks for me," Stephenson said. "That got the whole team going after that first score."
Hayden missed the extra point that would have tied the game, but it wasn't long after Stephenson's touchdown that the Tigers threatened again.
At the 7:39-mark, Jacques Denker scampered 50 yards to put Hayden on top, 12-7.
But Denker's score would be the team's last, and Dolores County came back to ground out 38 unanswered points.
The final score of the game came midway through the fourth quarter when the Tigers lost a fumble at their own 5-yard line, only to see it returned into the end zone.
Kleckler, whose team finished 3-3 in the league, said he was proud of how his players fought to the end in Saturday's game, which was played during the first week of the postseason. He described the Tigers' season as a "roller coaster."
"Sometimes, we were dynamic. Other times, we struggled," Kleckler said. "But, overall, I'm exceptionally proud of the 26 kids I had."
Hayden will lose nine seniors to graduation this year: Miller, Denker, Stephenson, Riley Whiteman, Glenn Frentress, Clayton Neumiller, Tanner Copeland, Kyle Wilder and Danny Hayden.
Kleckler said four juniors and two sophomores are expected to be back out for the team next season. This year's freshmen will make up the majority of next year's team.
"We'll be young the next couple of years," Kleckler said. "As far as the off-season, we'll just be taking it one step at a time."