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The Power of EKL Football: Past, Present & Last Week

Tank Young is looking to help STA repeat in 5A. (photo: Susan Goodwyn)
By: Conor Nicholl for Sports in Kansas w/ Chet Kuplen
Oct 3, 2019

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Lenexa-St. James Academy had never defeated Bishop Miege in program history. The Thunder held a 0-3 record versus the Stags with all losses by at least 29 points. That included a 45-0 defeat in ’18. Coach Tom Radke said Miege “made us look silly” in the ‘18 loss. SJA had trouble bouncing back from the defeat and eventually finished 2-8.

St. James, with a large senior class, kept the Miege matchup as a focal point during the summer. The Stags were the only Eastern Kansas League school the current St. James seniors hadn’t beaten.

Last week, the Thunder faced the Stags for Miege’s homecoming game. Normally, SJA plays on Friday, but the game was flipped to a rare Thursday.

Radke knew St. James would have a smaller than usual crowd. SJA adopted a motto “just play for the 65,” – the 65 players that form the Thunder. Radke had a sense before the game started.

“We could do something special here tonight - and they did,” he said.

St. James pulled off arguably the year’s biggest upset in Kansas with a 28-27 victory versus the Stags, the five-time defending state champions and ranked No. 1 in Class 4A. Senior Cade Lautt, a first-team all-state linebacker, played both ways for the first time and rushed for a pair of scores.

His second one, from a yard out, came with seven and a half minutes left. SJA later started a drive at its own two-yard line, but managed to work to midfield. With just under a minute remaining, the Thunder held Miege on 4th-and-6 and earned the victory. St. James improved to 2-2 and stands at 48-26 in Radke’s ninth year.

“We have had some big wins, but this one was really special,” Radke said. “Nobody thought we could win this game, except for the 65 guys and the coaches, so that’s what made this one so special. Miege has been so dominant.”

St. James’ victory continued the top-to-bottom success and parity of the EKL, Kansas’ best football conference.

“I always say it’s like playing in the SEC or playing in the NFL,” Radke said.

The league earned its reputation through its top-flite players and coaches, along additional members joining the conference and the improvement of several teams, notably Miege. Additionally, the league has posted excellent non-conference/playoff results and had big offensive numbers.

Recruiting-wise, the league has the No. 2-rated prospect in Blue Valley’s Mason Richman, an Iowa commit, according to industry leader 247.

As well, the EKL offers Miege wide receiver Daniel Jackson and Mill Valley lineman Kyle Kelly, ranked fifth and No. 18, respectively. Aquinas junior running back Tank Young is the top prospect for his class, and Blue Valley North sophomore Dasan McCullough leads for the class of 2020.

“The biggest thing that I have noticed with the EKL is just the sheer amount of talent from every single team that’s top-notch – and the coaches that are utilizing that talent as well,” Blue Valley North coach Andy Sims said.

For St. James, former standout Clay Lautt is wrestling at North Carolina, and Cade has already committed to the Tar Heels. St. James quarterback Jack Moellers has received an offer from FCS Butler. SJA’s Beau Grable, a multi-year defensive starter, has committed to Emporia State for baseball. St. James lineman Max Kalny has picked up several offers, including Cornell and Indiana State.

“If you don’t have a dude that can take over a game for you or get you that extra yard, you are in big trouble,” Radke said.

In addition to Miege, Aquinas is the defending 5A state champion and ranked first. Blue Valley (3-1) stands fifth in 6A. Mill Valley (1-3) and St. James (2-2) are in the top-12 in 5A. Blue Valley West (3-1) is just outside the top-five in 6A. Both SJA and BVW have already matched its win total from last year.

“There’s no holes,” Radke said of scouting EKL teams. “Like on offense and defense, as a head coach, you are trying to find somebody you can exploit, like this corner, this outside linebacker, or this defensive end. You are going to go after that. You don’t get that in this league.”

“So you just have to play straight up football, and you have to come up with the extra play that goes off to complement your base play, and those are the ones you try to hit and make big plays on,” he added. “So if you don’t hit on your four shots that you are trying to take in a game, you don’t score on those, you are going to have a hard time winning in this league.”

Blue Valley North opened the year second in 6A after a state championship and state runner-up the last two years. The Mustangs are 1-3.

BVN lost 27-20 to Miege, and fell 25-18 in double overtime versus Blue Valley West last week. Miege beat Mill Valley, 42-35, in Week 3 in a game that wasn’t decided until inside the final minute.

“Mill Valley is sitting at 1-3 right now, and I think they’ve done their best coaching job so far this season,” Radke said.

By any measure, the EKL paces the state’s conferences, notably when compared to other big class leagues. In 2016, Mill Valley finished 9-4 and won the Class 5A state crown. In 2017, Blue Valley North also went 9-4 and captured the 6A title.

They were the first teams in any class to capture a title with fewer than 10 wins since Class 6A Garden City posted a 9-3 mark in ’99, according to “Under the Lights,” the definitive history of the KSHSAA playoffs. The only other team with more than three losses and a state title was 9-4 Victoria, the 2-1A champion in ’85.

***

In 2008, the Eastern Kansas League featured just six schools: Blue Valley, Aquinas, Blue Valley West, Blue Valley North, Blue Valley Northwest and Miege. That season, Aquinas finished as state runner-up. Miege went 5-5. The Stags had not won more than six games in any season from ’95-08, according to Kansas Football History.

That year, the EKL teams combined for 10.5 games apiece. The conference averaged 23.8 points per game and 20.2 allowed. All six teams ranked in the top-14 in its respective strength of schedule, according to Prep Power Index.

The following year, Miege finished 12-2 and captured the state title. Since then, the Stags have won five titles and earned a runner-up. Coach Tim Grunhard won the first title, and Jon Holmes has since taken over the program at his alma mater.

“I really go back to when coach Grunhard came in and he did a complete 180 with the players and there was a buy-in from everybody in the program,” Holmes said in “Under the Lights.” “When you change that, then good things can begin to be part of your everyday expectations.”

In 2010, the league added Blue Valley Northwest, Blue Valley Southwest and Gardner-Edgerton. (G-E went to the Sunflower before last year).

In ’15, Miege and Blue Valley each won state titles. Overall, BV has six titles and seven runner-ups. Each team averaged 10.8 games and the league collectively scored 30.8 points per game in ‘15.

The following year, the conference expanded to 11 when Mill Valley and St. James joined.

Miege and MV both won titles. Miege has enjoyed many standouts, including running back Jafar Armstrong (Notre Dame), defensive end Shane Ray (Missouri, NFL), but is most known for its quarterbacks. Former QB coach Justin Hoover, now the head coach at Shawnee Mission East, has trained many of the top Midwest quarterbacks.

The Stags have progressed from Montell Cozart to Ryan Willis to Carter Putz to Sam Pedrotti. The first three played a FBS sport, Putz broke multiple state records and Pedrotti earned first team all-state. As well, Graham Mertz (Wisconsin) transferred from Miege to Blue Valley North the last two years and set several state marks.

“Last couple of years, Aquinas and Miege and then Blue Valley North with Mertz, they just had some like, ‘Well how do you try to stay in a game with some of those guys?,” Radke said.

***

Last season, Miege, Aquinas and BVN all played for titles. The conference had another impressive year with a 19-12 record in non-league games – including 17-4 from the top-four programs.

The teams averaged 10.56 games played, better than large school conferences, like the Sunflower League (10.23), City League (9.9), Centennial League (9.89), and Western Athletic Conference (9.6). Even Ark Valley Chisolm Trail Division I, with 6A champion Derby and 5A sub-state runner-up Maize, was short of the EKL at 10.29. Even St. James, with one regular season victory, captured a postseason win.

The EKL averaged 31.3 points per game and allowed 26.5. That was better than the Sunflower (29.1-27.7), Centennial (29.3-27.5), WAC (23.3-26.9) and City League (29.1-29.5). AVCTL I averaged 30.5 points a game and was better than the EKL with a league average of 24.5 points allowed a contest.

This year, Miege has the No. 1 SOS in 4A, and Mill Valley the hardest in 5A. Blue Valley, BVSW, and BVN all rank in the top-eight.

Through the first month, leagues have mainly had intra-conference matchups. However, the EKL is 3-1 in non-conference games, a higher winning percentage than Centennial (7-5), Sunflower (2-2), WAC (6-6), City League (4-6) and AVCTL I (4-6).

Blue Valley has possibly the state’s best non-conference win with a 21-14 win versus Rockhurst, a longtime Missouri state power. Rockhurst was 8-0 versus Kansas schools since a 55-27 loss to Hutchinson on Sept. 4, 2009.

Blue Valley’s victory came one day after St. James defeated Miege. SJA opened with a 41-14 victory versus Blue Valley Northwest, and then lost 27-7 to Mill Valley. Moellers didn’t play in the first contest because of a knee injury in the summer. SJA had a mistake-filled game versus MV.

“If you turn the ball over, and if you are not staying ahead of the chains, you are going to be in trouble in this league, and that’s what happened to us the first couple games this year,” Radke said.

In Week 3, SJA fell 10-7 to Blue Valley West. Last week, SJA put Lautt on offense and he finished with 11 carries for 53 yards and two scores, along with 10 tackles. Lautt, whom Radke said “loves to hit people,” ran and blocked well.

“In the EKL, to play people both ways, that’s really, really hard to do,” Radke said. “I don’t care how great you are, it’s hard to play both ways in this league, because there’s some studs on both sides of the ball. We worked Cade in a little bit last week, and we have been working him at practice.

“We knew about this time in the season that we were going to start unleashing him a little bit on offense and let some other guys play both ways a little bit more,” Radke added. “We needed a more physical presence.”

Moellers completed 12 of 29 passes for 216 yards with a touchdown. He also rushed 12 times for 64 yards. Moellers ran well and showed good touch on his passes.

“Jack’s back,” Radke said. “So looking forward to some special things for him the rest of the year, too.”

St. James’ senior-laden defense limited the Stags to five rushing yards. All but two of the team’s 44 tackles came from seniors, including outside linebacker Jake Holton (team-high 13 stops).

The unit also includes Grable, cornerback Zach Wurtenberger, strong safety A.J. Ingolia, defensive end Paul Lee, and defensive lineman Graham Wilkinson and defensive back Brady Steffen. Lautt leads with 43 tackles, twice as many as his teammates.

“A great team effort on the defensive side,” Radke said. “It was amazing. …If you have seniors, if you are a senior-laden team, you are going to have a good year and you are going to win those close games.”

Chet Kuplen, CEO/Founder of Sports in Kansas, on the EKL

There are over a hand full of teams in here that will compete for state titles this year and they'll beat each other up all year. Yes, Aquinas may have been a step above anyone last year and it's still be determined if they are this year but overall there is a lot of parity in this league. The FBS, FCS, Division II programs are in and out of here all the time recruiting and if you're not you're missing out. There are several kids right now playing at the next level from just about every school in the conference. I won't go into full on detail but its crazy to look at all the kids playing at the next level, Mill Valley has multiple including Krull at Florida and Jegen at Northern Iowa, Schoen of Northwest at Kansas State, Wheeler of St. James at Kansas State, Aquinas has almost too many to name heck a couple even took the juco route in Perez (Northern Illinois) and Lowe (UTEP) that are now starting at FBS, Miege in the same boat with guys all over including Willis at Virginia Tech, Armstrong at Notre Dame, Seth Thomas of Southwest at Northern Iowa, Mark Collins of West at South Dakota, North with Josh Pedersen at UL-Monroe and of course Graham Mertz at Wisconsin to name a few there. Also, if you look at the last 25-30 years or so Blue Valley may have the most people out of any school in the state that went on to play college football at all levels. A lot of former EKL players are also coaching across the state. It's hard to explain how good of a league it is until you're in it or follow it real close. A rebuilding project wouldn't be easy in this league. Another thing I notice is the strength of the non-varsity players. We see one-year starters that played JV as a junior become all-state players as seniors. It's not easy to get on the field at these schools. Certainly you have Carroll and Derby in Wichita that are state powers in the 5A, 6A level that year in and year out can hang/beat most of these teams in the EKL but imagine a league with five, six  or seven of those caliber teams. You just don't get that anywhere else. In other leagues you can go into a game knowing you're going to get a win on Friday night. In this league, that isn't the case and a perfect example of that is last Thursday's game with SJA and Miege. 

CURRENT EKL SCHOOLS PLAYOFF SUCCESS (records according to Prep Power Index)

Aquinas has 29 playoff appearances all-time with a 45-28 record in the KSHSAA playoffs. They have one state title (2018) and runner-up finishes in 1985, 2008, 2014, 2017. Three of the five appearances have came under Dreiling who won seven titles at Hutchinson. 

Miege is 49-21 in the KSHSAA playoffs with nine state titles and three runner up finishes. They've won the last five state titles in 4A(4A-I) under head coach Jon Holmes.

Blue Valley Northwest opened in the early 1990s and hasn't seen as much success as other programs in football but does have 15 playoff appearances with a 5-15 record in the KSHSAA playoffs.

Blue Valley, the original and only BV school at one point, is one of the most successful programs of all-time with a 50-27 record in the KSHSAA playoffs. Steve Rampy built the program over three decades followed by the late Eric Driskell. Blue Valley has been in 13 state title games and has six titles (1991, 1998, 2003, 2006, 2010, 2013). Rampy won four titles while Dirskell had two. The program also has seven state runner-up finishes. 

Blue Valley West opened in the early 2000s and saw some early success with a state title in 2007. They are 11-9 all-time in the state playoffs. They also made semifinal appearances in 2004 and 2013. 

Blue Valley Southwest opened early this decade and has three playoff wins as a school in five playoff appearances in the loaded league they came into.

Blue Valley North has came on recently in this league with state title appearances in each of the last two seasons under Andy Sims (2017, 2018) with a state title in 2017. BV North was the second Blue Valley school to open and has 12 playoff apperances with 13 playoff wins all-time. North had four losses in the league the year when they won the title in 2017 and three league losses (four total losses overall) last year as runner-up)

St. James Academy has just five playoff apperances all-time with a 6-5 record. The Thunder have never made it past the round of eight but have reached that point three times. 

Mill Valley joined the league just a few seasons ago but has been an immediate impact to the league as mentioned above. Joel Applebee has picked up two state titles (2015, 2016) in 5A however 2016 was the first year in the league after playing an independent schedule. Mill Valley is 16-11 all-time in the Kansas playoffs over 13 appearances. Mill Valley won the title in 2016 with four losses to give you an idea just how good this league is.