There was only one topic of conversation among fans, players and coaches alike for the first 48 minutes of the Class 4A state flag football final at Cimarron-Memorial High on Wednesday.
The arctic weather.
With pylons and yard markers falling over and palm trees tilting back and forth in unison near the South end zone, players huddled around one another in lettermen’s jackets and blankets in an attempt to fight the low-40s temperature and 30 mph winds.
But in the blink of an eye, Cimarron-Memorial senior Haylei Hughes changed the topic of conversation for everyone and essentially sealed a state title.
With Coronado threatening to score a go-ahead touchdown late in the second half, Hughes jumped a route at defensive back and returned an interception 76 yards for a touchdown for the momentum-shifting play to send her sidelines into a frenzy and help the Spartans pull away for a 24-7 win over Coronado.
“I was just waiting for them to throw to me because they kept running it,” Hughes said. “I was waiting to get that interception and make a game-changing play. … With the wind, I was trying really hard to run but it was pushing me back and I thought I was going really slow. I was just excited and was hoping to get the touchdown so we could get more composure and not have to be so panicky.”
Hughes, who also had 57 yards of total offense, blew past the Coronado offense after the interception but eventually had to zig-zag past Cougars quarterback Caitlin Shannon at the other end of the field to give Cimarron an 18-7 lead with 11:45 remaining.
The Spartans took a 12-7 lead with 20:23 left after Logan DeLong scored on a 3-yard TD run. But the defense quickly fell on its heels as the Cougars drove the length of the field and made it into the red zone.
That is, until Hughes stepped in.
“The pick-six changes everything,” Cimarron coach Mark Bailey said. “We were up at that point, but if they punch it in there, we’re behind again. … Ultimately, without Haylei Hughes, we’re not here. There’s just no way.”
Alyssa Karpinski, who scored on a 30-yard TD pass from Tiarra Del Rosario in the first half, added a 2-yard TD run with 3:25 left to seal the win.
“It’s really exciting because when we first won state (in 2014), I was on (junior varsity),” said Karpinski, who finished with seven catches for 68 yards. “So it was exciting to actually be able to win a ring tonight. I’m really happy to be a part of this team.”
Del Rosario was 18-for-25 passing for 194 yards, and Delong had nine catches for 98 yards for Cimarron (21-1), which trailed 7-6 at halftime.
Morgan Hemphill had 11 tackles, and Elizabeth Asoau added eight tackles to lead the Spartans defense.
Shawna Slater scored on a 20-yard interception return six minutes into the game to give Coronado its only lead at 7-0. The junior also tied for the team-high in tackles with five.
Caitlin Shannon completed 5 of 14 passes for 49 yards and ran for 118 yards on 12 carries to lead the offense, and Trinity Rhoades had 22 carries for 99 yards for the Cougars (13-9).
“It was a trying year, but I’m proud of the resiliency and everything,” Coronado coach Rusty Andersen said. “We didn’t get the ending we wanted, but we certainly had our opportunities. We’re returning all of the girls but one, so we’ve got a lot going for us. This loss doesn’t take anything away from the season we had and the strides we made.”