MERKEL – A 200-mile roundtrip on a chilly, rainy Friday was no chore for the Comanche football team.
What a trek it has been from last year.
A year ago, Merkel trounced Comanche 34-20 at Badger Stadium, and the visitors made the long trip home with a 1-9 record.
This year, Comanche secured a least a share of the District 5-3A Division II title with a 49-14 win over the Badgers.
Now 8-1 and 4-0, Comanche can win the title outright with a victory at home against Eastland in the regular-season finale. The Mavs are having a year like Comanche had in 2021 at 1-8.
“It feels good but I’m just happy for our kids,” Comanche coach Jake Escobar said. “Coaches are going to coach years and years but kids are going to experience this only for four years in a high school career. They deserve it. They have worked so hard. They’ve come together as a unit.
“I’m happy for them because they might be going out district champions. We can win it out right, and that’s what we want to do”
Merkel (3-6, 2-2) has made the playoffs by virtue of wins over the bottom two teams, Eastland and Dublin. But a win next week at Millsap would help the Badgers gain the No. 3 while also sending the team into the playoffs with a win.
Badgers coach Will Kates said he knew Comanche would return to Merkel ready to avenge last year’s loss.
“They have a heckuva squad. Coach Escobar, I’ve known him a while, and he had them ready to play,” Kates said. “We threw everything at them. We felt like we were battling other things. We had some calls that didn’t go our way. But that’s OK. That’s how it goes sometimes.”
Merkel got a good dose of Sawyer Wilkerson, the highly touted Comanche running back who entered the game with 1,636 rushing yards. He added 271 to that total and scored two touchdowns on runs of 16 and 39 yards, the latter for the last score of the game.
But it was Comanche quarterback Layden Welch, a junior, who was a difference maker. He rushed for 62 yards, scored three touchdowns on runs of 7, 16 and 4 yards and threw TD passes of 17 and 45 yards to Miguel Martinez.
“Our quarterback was really stepped up. He’s come on here of late,” Escobar said. “That’s important because everyone’s focusing on 21 (Wilkerson). But now our quarterback steps in. He ran the ball tonight really hard and threw the ball well. That adds another dimension to our game.
“It’s going to help us out down the road.”
Comanche led from start to finish, though its early 7-0 was cut to a point on a scrambling 17-yard pass from Joey Zink to Conner Willyerd in the first quarter.
The visiting teams scored twice in each of the next three quarters to pull away from the Badgers.
The allusive Zink ran for 62 yards and threw for 63 yards for Merkel.
“Joey’s a senior and this was senior night. He’s the epitome of what we want in a Merkel Badger,” Kates said. “He’s been a three-year varsity player and two-year starter at quarterback. You talk about a guy who’s all in. And that’s indicative of his play.
“He’s never out of the fight.”
Comanche punted just once but that was scratched from the stat sheet by a Merkel roughing-the-kicker call.
The game featured two of the craziest plays of the season for both teams.
For Comanche, it was a…