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The Pivot Players for the five smallest classes

Avrey Brokenicky has been big this season for Riley Co. (Jesse Bruner, Manhattan Mercury)
By: Conor Nicholl for Sports in Kansas
Nov 13, 2019

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By CONOR NICHOLL

For the quarterfinals, we are looking at one to two “pivot” players/position groups per team. These players are generally not the stars of their respective squads, and in many cases, are not the QB/RB/WR, nor have a significant amount of collegiate offers. However these can also be breakout and surprise players this year that are keys to the teams success.

The below story does not include Plainville’s Jordan Finnesy/Jared Casey, St. Paul’s Adam Albertini, Axtell’s Quinn Buessing, Conway Springs’ Collin Koester, Norton’s Kade Melvin, Hoisington’s Wyatt Pedigo or Cheylin’s Colton McCarty.

However, these players listed below are key to their teams advancing to the quarterfinals – and if their teams are to advance Friday, they will likely need to play well.

The Pivot Players for the five smallest classes:

Class 2A

Nemaha Central (8-2) – For 2019, Nemaha Central delivered a significant scheme change on both offense and defense, adjustments that ninth-year coach Warren Seitz had never previously used.  

It’s helped the Thunder enjoy a jump from 5-4 to 8-2 and, advance to the Class 2A state quarterfinals. NC has captured six in a row.

“We didn’t know exactly what we had until later on the season,” Seitz said.

NC’s defense switched to a three-front entering the fall. Seitz believed the team lacked some down linemen.

“But we thought we had a lot of linebacker types,” Seitz said. “That’s one reason why we went to it. A lot of people were playing the 3-4 with two safeties high. We don’t play two safeties high a lot, but have against teams that throw it a little bit more.”

The Thunder started with a season-opening 13-6 loss to Big 7 rival Sabetha. NC completed just 9 of 22 passes for 113 yards with no touchdowns against two interceptions. Afterward, Seitz and his staff elected to change the offense to primarily three-receiver sets and basically removed the tight end.

NC wanted more touches for senior Bryce Uphaus and junior Tyler Gerety, the team’s fastest player.

Gerety has recently committed to KU baseball. Gerety is normally used as the inside slot, and Uphaus is more of an “H-back” who goes in motion and plays in the backfield.

“I have never really run it before in our system,” Seitz said.  “But when we just looked at the players that we had, our philosophy is always get the best 11 on the field, and so that’s where it came from. And we knew that Tyler was one of the best 11, and Bryce also. So we are just trying to put them in position that we can get them the ball both by carrying the ball and throwing the ball.”

The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Uphaus, the starting middle linebacker, paced the Thunder with 81 tackles on a 5-4 team last year. He and the 5-foot-9 Gerety did not record a catch in ’18, though NC graduated 82 percent of its receptions.

The Thunder start seniors Austin Ahlquist and Andrew Leonard, the Thunder’s top-two returning pass catchers, alongside Gerety in the slot. Gerety, previously a backup quarterback, posted a strong offensive year and been a key returner with special teams scores via punt and kickoff. Nemaha Central averaged 190 passing yards with 16.2 yards a reception and 23 receiving scores in ’18.

This fall, the Thunder has delivered 148 passing yards with 15.9 yards per catch and 21 receiving scores. Leonard leads the team with 28 catches for 449 yards and nine scores. All four players, though, have at least 16 receptions, 224 receiving yards and one score with new quarterback Dylan Schultejans.

Additionally, Uphaus and Gerety has seen time in the backfield, part of five players between 547 and 123 yards. They have combined for 32 carries for 185 yards and two scores.

“Having both of those guys in the game at the same time has really helped us,” Seitz said.

Defensively, Uphaus has enjoyed another big fall with a Thunder-best 113 tackles in the three-man front. Seitz said Uphaus “has just got a nose for the ball,” and enough speed to go sideline to sideline. His 85 solo tackles are more than twice any other teammate. Uphaus has forced four fumbles and picked off four passes. NC has allowed just 14.8 points per game, down from 21.9 last year. Uphaus is also the primary kicker.

“Just a complete player,” Seitz said.

Throughout the season, NC realized it had more depth on the defensive line. Senior Brad Schmitz starts at nose guard, with junior Nathan Deters and senior Easton Emmons are defensive end.

“Having a really good year,” Seitz said of Schmitz.  “And then we have got a couple tackles that can make plays, and they are pretty athletic, so that helps.”

The Thunder defeated Rossville, 29-21, in overtime last Friday, one of several strong pass defense performances versus a talented quarterback. NC limited sophomore Torrey Horak to 10 of 21 passing for 68 yards with one score against three interceptions.

In Week 9, the Thunder held St. Marys senior Caden Hurla to 17 of 33 passing for 176 yards with a 2/3 TD/INT ratio.

In Week 8, NC clinched a district title with a 26-20 victory versus Maur Hill - a team the Thunder lost to in ’18. MH four-year starting quarterback Jack Caudle tossed two INTs. NC has primarily played zone defense.

“Guys keeping their assignments,” Seitz said. “We get some pressure up front. Sometimes we have to blitz a little bit. … Just trying to get guys in spots where they can kind of make plays.”

Humboldt (10-0) – Senior quarterback Conor Haviland has again commanded significant attention with 2,238 rushing yards, 38 rushing scores and five passing TDs. Up front, Josh Hull holds several offers. But 5-foot-7, 135-pound senior Cooper Jaro has enjoyed a breakout year. As a junior, he recorded 27 carries for 140 yards and two scores, caught one pass and recorded 62 special teams yards. This year, Jaro has 845 all-purpose yards, including 30 carries for 322 yards and six scores. He has delivered four catches for 103 yards and a TD.

Jaro ranks as one of the state’s leading punt returners with 223 yards, along with 134 on kickoffs and 63 from interceptions. He has six rushing touchdowns, a receiving score and a pick-six. That included 150 all-purpose yards in a 38-32 Week 3 victory versus Eureka, and 115 in the Week 10 playoff win versus Southeast-Cherokee. Last year, Humboldt finished 11-1 for the best season in school history. This fall, the No. 5 Cubs averaged 9.6 yards per play. This year, Humboldt is up to 11.8 yards per play.

Silver Lake (10-0) – Silver Lake is one of just four undefeated teams left in Class 2A and easily leads the classification with just 62 points allowed for C.J. Hamilton, the all-time winningest coach in Kansas history. That includes a 25-0 road win at Riley County in Week 3. Last year, SL was 10-1 and permitted 132 total points.

Somewhat surprisingly, Silver Lake has not made a state title game since winning it all in ’13, though was in the semifinals in ’14 and ’17. The Eagles have received multiple big seasons on defense, including from 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior middle linebacker Gideon Remer. He entered the year with 86 career tackles, nine for loss. He has delivered 80 stops with 11 TFLs, picked off two passes and returned a fumble for a score. He had six tackles in the first meeting versus Riley County. RC defeated SL in the quarterfinals last season with a big late fourth-quarter comeback and overtime victory.

Riley County (8-2) – Riley County, the defending 2A runner-up to Phillipsburg, has had several players step up for senior quarterback Garrett Harmison, the school record holder in multiple passing categories. Senior Deon Barnes has rushed for 1,009 yards and 17 scores, and sophomore Trey Harmison has 40 catches for 684 yards and six TDs. Senior wide receiver/cornerback Avery Brokenicky, though, has enjoyed a standout season in multiple phases. He has 37 carries for 224 yards and four TDs, and caught 27 passes for 532 yards and nine scores. His 1,256 all-purpose yards lead the team. Brokenicky has picked off six passes. Before this season, he had delivered just 444 all-purpose yards with a pair of INTs.

Conway Springs (8-2) – Conway Springs Cardinals’ defense has been called the “Red Rage” since the early 2000s. In ’18, CS fell to Mid-Continent League’s Phillipsburg, 25-24, at home in the quarterfinals and eventually finished No. 2 in the final 2A rankings. This year, Conway Springs makes the 271-mile northern drive to Norton, another MCL squad. CS has again produced a top-10 defense in 2A with just 14.7 points allowed.

Last season, the Cardinals allowed just 13.3 points per game, though graduated Shrine Bowler Daniel Becker, an Emporia State commit and ’18 Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Junior middle linebacker Jonathan Wright has led the team in tackles. Coach Matt Biehler, who picked up his 100th career win at CS earlier this fall, said running back Heath Hilger has “came on huge.” Standout quarterback Collin Koester missed 1.5 games, and Hilger stepped up. As well, Peyton Winter is now healthy, cleared 200 rushing yards against rival Garden Plain in Week 8 and is key in the secondary.

Norton (7-3) – Norton is well-known for dual threat quarterback Kade Melvin and lineman Judson Wiltfong (Fort Hays offer). The Bluejays, have a three-win improvement behind senior receiver Carter Jones and junior receiver Jonah Ruder (60 combined catches). Norton’s defense, though, is the primary improvement. Last season, the Bluejays allowed 30 points a game versus the No. 7 strength of schedule in Class 2A, according to Prep Power Index.

This fall, the Bluejays has permitted 17.4 points per contest versus the No. 5 SOS. Wiltfong leads the team with 20 TFLs, but juniors Gavin Sproul (6-1, 200) and Christien Hawks (6-5, 255) have delivered 15 and 13 TFLs, respectively. They have combined for 11 sacks. Last season, they delivered 12 TFLs and six sacks together.

Garden Plain (10-0) – Garden Plain has a four-win improvement and its first double-digit winning season since 2016. Senior quarterback Matt Pauly and senior running back Brock Long are well-known players. Senior wide receiver Trey Smith, though, is one of the state’s best in touchdown per touch ratio. He has 24 catches for 735 yards and 16 scores. He leads Kansas in receiving scores, according to MaxPreps statistical lists.

Smith is also tops in yards per catch (30.6 average), among players with at least 250 receiving yards. He has two TDs in three big games – a Week 1 hallmark victory versus Cheney, and then a pair of scores in playoff wins versus Fredonia and Belle Plaine. The 6-foot-2, 192-pound Smith recorded 10 catches for 193 yards and two scores last year.

Hoisington (10-0) – Senior Wyatt Pedigo is one of the state’s most well-known players with back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons. He is 69 yards away from the Cardinal career rushing record, according to Hoisington broadcaster Cole Reif. The Cardinals have also enjoyed a more prolific passing game behind junior Mason Haxton. Last year, the 9-3 Cardinals had an early season injury to Haxton. Derek Boxberger stepped in and played solidly. Hoisington finished the season 37 of 63 passing for 516 yards with four scores against three interceptions.  This season, the Cardinals are 31 of 64 for 519 yards with four INTs – against 14 touchdown passes. It’s the most TD passes for Hoisington since at least 2010, according to MaxPreps archives. The offensive line has allowed Haxton plenty of time in pass protection. Hoisington has a strong chance for its first title game appearance in school history behind Pedigo – and its improved air attack.

Class 1A

Plainville (9-1) – From 2015-2017, Plainville’s Jaron Rathbun was a key player for the Cardinals. That included 84 tackles, 10.5 for loss in ’17.

His brother, junior Payton, has enjoyed a strong career, including 72 tackles and a team-high 12.5 for loss this fall at defensive end. As a sophomore, Payton finished with 45 stops, 7.5 for loss. In last week’s 53-21 running clock victory versus Ell-Saline, Rathbun delivered eight tackles, 1.5 for loss.

“He’s fast and physical,” Plainville coach Grant Stephenson said. “He got to play that spot last year, and he just continues to get better as games go on. His older brother, Jaron Rathbun, did a great job for me. Starting to turn into his older brother. Pretty awesome to see.”

Pittsburg St. Mary’s-Colgan (7-3) – Colgan returned just five offensive starters from a 9-3 squad. The Panthers have averaged 29.7 points per game behind a line that features 6-foot-3, 215-pound senior Johnny Goetting. He and 5-11, 235-pound junior fullback Dom Bevilacqua have helped the Panthers win six straight after a rare 1-3 start. Colgan has reached at least the quarterfinals every year since ’98. The Panthers are top-four in state annals in playoff appearances, victories and runner-ups, according to Prep Power Index. Colgan has won seven all-time championships.

Jackson Heights (8-2) – Coach Caleb Wick said senior Carson Williams, a returning first team all-state selection, has started since his freshman year and been “making the difference” on both sides of the ball. Senior Cooper Williams rushed for 1,586 yards last year and is at 1,331 this fall. Defensively, though, JH had to replace Conlan Bruggeman, a first team all-leaguer with a Cobra-best 132 tackles.

JH permitted just 12.1 points per game in ‘18. This year, JH is at 12 points allowed a game. The Cobras have permitted just 191 total yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Senior Riley Watkins, a multi-year starter on the line, had enjoyed a big year with 86 tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.

Olpe (10-0) – Olpe, the defending state runner-up to Smith Center, has been metronomically consistent. Junior running back/cornerback/returner Kynden Robert has delivered a big season. In mid-October, Olpe beat Bluestem, 55-0. He scored three touchdowns, including a punt return for a score. Earlier in the year, Olpe delivered a marquee 28-14 victory versus Jackson Heights.

Robert broke a 14-14 tie with a six-yard touchdown run. He also tallied the last score of the game. To close out the regular season, Olpe beat a solid Hillsboro team, 55-21. Robert rushed for more than 150 yards and four scores. Robert has shown an ability to make defenders miss and has improved on his ability to break tackles.

Centralia (9-1) – The Panthers are well-known behind its single wing quarterback Kamble Haverkamp. Junior running back/defensive back Devon Feldkamp, though, has played well in several big games. In a 30-0 victory versus Colgan, Feldkamp rushed 18 times for 109 yards and three total scores, two rushing and one receiving.

In a 54-32 victory versus Riley County, Feldkamp helped Centralia comeback in the second half. He returned a kickoff 86 yards for a score and then tallied the two-point conversion for a 48-32 victory. Feldkamp finished with 16 carries for 103 yards.

Smith Center (10-0) – Smith Center has delivered another big season behind its line of Charlie Timmons, Joel Montgomery and Brell Spiess and stable of backs with Jaden Atwood, Colton Shoemaker and Trenton Colby. Junior Griffin Kugler has been one of the few players in SC history to put up big numbers as a receiver. He has 29 catches for 517 yards and 11 scores for 659 all-purpose yards. Kugler has returned both a fumble and a punt for a score, and had an 85-yard reception in last week’s win versus Republic County. Smith Center has won 20 straight games behind a passing attack that has 617 passing yards (10.6 yards per pass). In ’18, Smith Center was at 414 passing with nine yards per pass.

Sedgwick (9-0) – In ’18, Sedgwick, a team historically known for offense, permitted just 15.9 points per game, best for the program since at least ’04. In ’19, the Cardinals have allowed just 59 points, or 6.6 points per contest, second-best in 1A behind Olpe’s 6.2. Sedgwick received 140 tackles from Eric Kohncke, a first team all-state pick and foreign exchange student. Senior Gannon Resnik was second with 77 stops. He has taken over for Kohncke at middle linebacker and has delivered 128 tackles. Henry Burns at safety as a downhill run stopper has been an game changer for the Sedgwick defense behind the solid play of the front seven as well as big weapon on offense as a reciever. While the offensive guys (Hoffsommer, Schroeder, Shepherd) often get the credit and headlines for this Sedgwick team, the defense is going to have to be the one they will rely on to get by teams like Smith Center. 

Inman (6-4) – Inman is into the quarterfinals for the first time in 25 years. Inman was 0-9 in ’17 and went 6-4 last year and then 1,000-yard rusher Matt Ramey went to nearby McPherson. Second-year starting center Jacob Koop has anchored an offensive line that has featured Dairien Dawes, Cole Hase, Christian Winsky and Grant Thimmesch. Coach Lance Sawyer said the line has “gelled so well as a unit” and has led the offense to “have one of the best rushing years in awhile.” The linebackers have led the defense with Nate Shober and Sam Kleinherenbrink on the outside. Justin Schroeder and Carter Brown are the inside linebackers. Inman has delivered 222.7 rushing yards a game and allowed just 137 rushing yards a contest. The line has helped senior running back Kolby Blank with 104 carries for 1,153 yards and 13 scores.

8-Man, Division I

Caldwell (7-3) – Caldwell has received strong quarterback play behind Caleb Noyes and Dru Volavka has stepped up in the backfield after Jude Stow has missed the last couple of games. Volavka, primarily a wide receiver, delivered 19 carries for 99 yards and a touchdown in the 30-28 victory versus Medicine Lodge last week. He also had three catches for 53 yards. Dawson Bristor delivered five catches for 105 yards and three TDs. In the 48-34 victory versus ML on Oct. 25, Bristor and Volavka did not catch a pass, and Volavka had nine rushes for 25 yards and a score. Stow had 25 carries for 173 yards and four TDs in that win.

Madison (10-0) – Madison has balance across the board, including senior running back Nasun Wasson, junior quarterback Ryan Wolgram and junior fullback Hunter Engle. However, sophomore Drew Stutesman picked off five passes in the first three weeks. In last week’s 52-6 win versus Maranatha Academy, Stutesman collected a five-yard touchdown reception. Madison finished with 418 yards of offense.

Coldwater-South Central (10-0) – South Central has plenty of star power with quarterback Chayde Snyder and kicker/defensive back Gage Girk. SC, though, has fashioned another top-10 defense and explosive offense with sophomore middle linebacker Owen Herd (82 tackles, 21 for loss) and all-purpose threat Jonny Robles.

A junior, Robles has delivered a remarkable touchdown per touch ratio. He has 18 catches for 415 yards and 10 scores. Robles has 42 tackles, 5.5 for loss and is tied with Girk with six interceptions. Robles/Girk against Canton-Galva standout wide receiver Tyson Struber will be a key matchup Friday.

C-G beat South Central, 54-52, in overtime this game last year. In his career, Robles has 73 rushes for 584 yards and 13 TDs. He has 36 catches for 919 yards and 20 TDs, along with 10 interceptions. South Central has permitted just 40 points a contest.

Canton-Galva (10-0) – Canton-Galva permitted 22.2 points a game in a 10-2 season in ’18. The Eagles returned every player and their improved defense is one of eight-man’s top storylines this fall. C-G defensive coordinator Tyler O’Connor has led the Eagles to just 39 points allowed. The Eagles return first team all-state players with Struber and quarterback Landon Everett. However, junior Brayden Collins (150 rushing yards) and senior Kinser Colgin (three receiving scores) had big performances in last week’s 58-8 win versus Lebo. Collins is a returning starter at linebackers, and Struber, Everett and Colgin are returning starters at defensive back.

Little River (9-1) – Little River has pulled off nine straight wins behind coach Kevin Ayers, in his first year with the Redskins after state championships at Jetmore and Wallace County. LR is without multi-year standout Graham Stephens. Junior Jayden Garrison is well-known for stepping in as a dual threat quarterback in his first year playing football. However, freshman Braxton Lafferty quickly emerged with his best game in the 44-42 win versus Ness City last week. He became the second option out of the backfield and was the top receiver. He delivered 13 carries for 40 yards and a score, along with five catches for 75 yards and a TD. Additionally, he recorded 10 tackles after just 14 entering the contest.

Leoti-Wichita County (9-1) – Wichita County is into the quarterfinals for the first time since a 1990 semifinalist showing, the best finish in school history. WC junior AC Hermosillo (5-foot-10, 263 pounds) has led an inexperienced line that returned quarterback Kayde Rietzke and end/safety Sheldon Whalen. WC has rushed for 234 yards and passed for 157 yards a game.

Hodgeman County (9-1) – Hodgeman County has received plenty of standout years with brothers Eli and Isaac Salmans. Junior middle linebacker/tight end Conner Ruff is second in tackles with 80 stops, including nine in a 62-54 rivalry win versus Spearville. He delivered 90 tackles last year.

St. Francis (10-0) – St. Francis has fashioned seven shutouts, including three in a row. SF has allowed just 42 total points. The Indians have plenty of well-known names with four-year starter Brady Dinkel and ends Adam Krien and Jesse Baxter. Senior outside linebacker Jayce Nider has enjoyed a strong year after the family moved from North Dakota to St. Francis.

8-Man, Division II

Hanover (9-1) – Hanover returned just one starter with lineman Jonah Weber from last season. Hanover beat Frankfort, 36-32, last week, the second time the Wildcats defeated Frankfort this year. The Wildcats have received big performances from multiple players, including junior Colin Jueneman in all three phases. Jueneman has especially been key on special teams. Overall, he has a team-high 1,501 all-purpose yards with 20 total touchdowns – six rushing, nine receiving, a pick-six and four kick return.

Hanover is the three-time defending state champion. The Wildcats have delivered 48.6 points per contest behind a new look offensive line that returned just one starter in senior Jonah Weber. Hanover’s starting line from left to right is sophomore Emmitt Jueneman, junior Jacob Klipp, sophomore Phillip Doebele, Weber and senior Tanner Link. They have opened holes for 113 passing and 186 rushing yards a contest. Hanover has averaged 7.8 yards per play.

St. Paul (10-0) – St. Paul’s Adam Albertini is one of Kansas’ best players. SP has received key seasons from the senior Bradshaw twins: Chandler at tight end/defensive end, and Chase at outside linebacker/tight end. Senior Easton Dent is key fullback/outside linebacker.

Centre-Lost Springs (8-2) – Lost Springs is into the quarterfinals for the first time since 2010. Senior running back/linebacker Jensen Riffel leads in rushing and tackles. In last week’s 46-0 win versus Colony-Crest, senior Aidan Svododa earned the team’s overall player of the game honor. Earlier this season, he had earned a team offensive honor on Oct. 18 and defense on Oct. 4. A returning starter at end/safety, he has 32 rushes for 281 yards and four scores. He has delivered 38 tackles, seven for loss.

Axtell (9-1) – Axtell’s four-year starting quarterback Quinn Buessing has enjoyed one of the finest careers by an eight-man signal caller in state history. Freshman Isaac Detweiler, though, has stepped up at quarterback when Buessing was hurt. That included ending Hanover’s eight-man state record 43-game winning streak. As well, Detweiler caught four passes for 150 yards and three scores versus Onaga.

Osborne (10-0) – Osborne standout running back Darrien Holloway announced via Twitter this week that his career is over after a foot injury last week. The Bulldogs are the defending state runner-up. Osborne has received huge seasons from quarterback/safety Steele Wolters and senior Evan Garman. Wolters has accounted for 26 total scores and is one of the state’s top defensive backs with 102 tackles and three INTs. Garman did not play football in ’18 and has led the squad with 110 tackles. Osborne has permitted 10.2 points per game after 20.6 a contest in ’18.

South Barber (9-1) – South Barber senior quarterback Trevor Rooks has accounted for 42 touchdowns as the Chieftains have won nine straight games. SB has captured nine victories in each of the last four years. The Chieftains were plus-11, plus-15 and plus-18 in turnover margin the last three years. This fall, SB is plus-23 with 31 turnovers forced. Sophomore Caden Rathgeber (5-2, 115) has picked off six passes.

Thunder Ridge (9-1) – Senior Reece Struckhoff (1,862 rushing, 42 rushing scores) is one of Kansas’ highlighted players. Senior running back Colton Davis has enjoyed a big year with blocking for Struckhoff, along with 106 carries for 563 yards and nine TDs. He has 101 tackles, and ranks second to Struckhoff’s 142. In Week 9, Davis delivered multiple big plays, including forcing a safety, as TR narrowly lost, 40-34, to Osborne. Struckhoff did not play in the second half.

Hutchinson Central Christian (9-1) – Dual threat quarterback Caleb Lambert is well-known with 33 TDs accounted for. Senior running back/linebacker Garrett Burns has delivered a big season with 68 carries for 555 yards (both team-highs) and 11 rushing TDs. He leads the Cougars with 110 tackles, along with three forced fumbles and one defensive score.

Six-man:

Bird City Cheylin (9-0) – Cheylin and Moscow match up in the Wild West Bowl this weekend in Dodge City. This is the fourth year of six-man state championships with Weskan, Pawnee Heights and Weskan winning the first three titles. In addition to Colton McCarty, junior Andrew Schields has enjoyed a big year with 29 rushes for 233 yards and four scores. He is the team’s leading rusher with 54 catches for 603 yards and 12 TDs. Schields has 17 tackles for loss.

Moscow (9-0) – Argentine foreign exchange student Simon Gogniat has been a standout kicker for the Wildcats with multiple touchbacks. Moscow is based around running and defense with Austin Snyder and Adan Granillo. Field position could be critical in the championship.