Looking at the defensive improvement and solid defenses of teams in the title game.
Norton senior Judson Wiltfong delivered 16 tackles, along with a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry in last Friday's 10-8 upset home victory in the Class 2A semifinals against Hoisington. Norton had lost 38-7 to the Cardinals in district play.
However, Wiltfong and the Bluejay defensive front tweaked their look, clogged the middle and heavily focused on stopping Cardinal standout running back Wyatt Pedigo, a back-to-back 2,000-yard rusher.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Wiltfong wreaked havoc on the front line, tied his season high for tackles, and helped limit the Cardinals to 47 plays for 257 yards, or 5.5 yards per play. Norton won the game with six seconds left on a 32-yard field goal from senior Luke Wahlmeier.
Hoisington then ran two offensive plays before the Bluejays unleashed an on-field celebration 30 years in the making. Backed by a huge improvement from Wiltfong and the defense, Norton (9-3) is into a state final for the first time since 1989. Wiltfong immediately found veteran Bluejay assistant coach Tony Fiscus.
“I went straight to coach Fiscus,” Wiltfong said. “He is like a father figure. I love him so much. He has been there since the very beginning, and he has coached me up. I love him so much. There is so many times where I just play for him, just because of how much he has dedicated to us.”
Wiltfong's play and Fiscus' coaching encapsulated the 16 teams that will face off for a KSHSAA state football championship across eight classes Saturday. While the offensive skill players generally earn the most attention, the defensive players like Wiltfong and key assistants/coordinators such as Fiscus have helped shape significant improvements this year.
“We believed this whole season,” Wiltfong said. “That's the kind of team that we were, the fight all the way to the end. That's what our coaches installed in us. We've believed. We've bought into this program.”
Twelve of the 16 teams, including all four eight-man squads, have a better scoring defense than 2018. Over 192 cumulative games played, the state qualifying teams have lowered its scoring defense by an average of 5.49 points per game from last fall.
Offensively, eight teams improved its scoring offense. Overall, the state squads improved by 2.23 points per contest from 2018.
Three teams, Norton, 5A Wichita Northwest and Eight-Man, Division I Canton-Galva, all dropped its scoring average by at least 11.9 points per game. Offensively, the only team that bumped double-digits from 2018 was Andover Central at plus-14.13.
Last year, Norton went 4-5 and allowed 29.8 points per game. Wiltfong recorded 64 tackles, along with three sacks, one TFL and one quarterback hurry.
This year, Norton has a five-win improvement and tumbled its scoring defense to 17.8 points allowed a contest. In addition to Wiltfong, Norton has senior defensive tackle Dante Smith (6-2, 295), along with junior Christien Hawks (6-5, 255). Junior defensive end Gavin Sproul stands 6-1, 200. Senior Brandon Vacura is 6-foot, 185 pounds and stands second with 117 tackles.
“It was a big, physical football team, and we just didn't get as much movement as we probably wanted to,” Hoisington coach Zach Baird said.
Junior Jonah Ruder was hurt most of last season, though has come back to make 37 tackles this year, including 17 in the last two contests. Ruder delivered a key play when he tracked down Hoisington quarterback Mason Haxton after a 67-yard run. Hoisington eventually failed to score on the drive.
“We bust one earlier in the game, and they have got good enough athletes that they are able to run us down, so they just made us work, and just made us snap it again,” Baird said. “Just hats off to those guys.”
Norton will face Nemaha Central (10-2) in the Class 2A state championship game in Salina. The Thunder have doubled its win total from a 4-5 season in '18. That year, NC allowed 21.9 points per game. This season, it's down to 15.8. Coach Warren Seitz, in his ninth year with the Thunder, switched to a three-front for the first time.
In a 39-14 semifinal win versus Riley County, NC picked off Falcon standout quarterback Garrett Harmison four times. Senior linebacker Bryce Uphaus has more than 120 tackles and has picked off five passes this year.
“He has just got a nose for the ball,” Seitz said. “And he's got good enough speed where he can go sideline to sideline.”
Wiltfong's older brother, Hayden, was a former Bluejay standout and currently a freshman on the Fort Hays football team. Judson, like Hayden, is also an outstanding wrestler. In the spring, Hayden received the Tiger football workouts. The brothers worked out together, and Judson continued to follow the FHSU program in the summer. Judson gained 35 pounds from '18 and collected a FHSU football offer after a summer camp.
The work has yielded an incredible statistical line for Judson: 139 tackles, 23 for loss, 10 sacks and 29 quarterback hurries. All four numbers lead the Bluejays.
“Offseason, since the last game, we have had this goal, we have had this dream, and we have worked all season, all offseason for this,” Wiltfong said. “Weight room, camps, just practices. This has all paid out off.”
Eight-Man, Division I
Canton-Galva (12-0) vs. St. Francis (12-0) – Canton-Galva finished 10-2 in 2018, though lost to Solomon in the Eight-Man, Division I sub-state championship game. The Eagles allowed 22.2 points per game last year. This season, C-G has permitted just 5.1 points per contest.
“We knew last year, our defense gave up more points last year, but most of it was all just technique-wise, and doing the little things, and being a disciplined football player,” coach Shelby Hoppes said this week. “It was a bunch of things that were very correctable. Every film that we watched from last year, there were times here and there to where if we take a step here, if we jam here instead of there, that defense could have been just as good.”
C-G defensive coordinator Tyler O'Connor, a former standout at Sharon Springs under legendary coach Kevin Ayers, has led the Eagle unit that had no seniors in '18. During the summer, the Eagles worked hard to correct those techniques and discipline issues.
“This is the result of it,” Hoppes said.
C-G has battled through injuries to its top-two players, senior quarterback Landon Everett and sophomore wide receiver Tyson Struber. Both play at defensive back. Notably, Struber has missed several games.
However, linebacker Brandon Huff has enjoyed a big year with 77.5 tackles, 11.5 for loss and a pair of interceptions. Everett has picked off three passes, and Struber has six interceptions. As well, Kinser Colgin has 45 tackles, eight TFLs and a pair of INTs. Nick Pearson is at 36.5 tackles, 12.5 for loss.
“We have one of the top defenses in the state, and they are fun to coach, and they are fun to watch, and they fly around and are physical all game long, and that's fun football,” Hoppes said.
C-G will face 12-0 St. Francis, another squad that has a strong defensive improvement. In '18, the 11-1 Indians allowed 12.7 points per game. This year, it's at 5.2. SF, like C-G, returned the majority of its starters. St. Francis has significantly improved after '18's semifinal shutout loss to Central Plains and made big strides in the weight room. Senior safety Brady Dinkel, along with junior linebacker Shadyron Blanka, and junior defensive ends Jesse Baxter and Adam Krien have led the effort for the “Mean Green” defense. Krien and Baxter both have double-digit sacks.
“As much time as coach Fawcett has us putting in the weight room, we just keep getting bigger, getting stronger,” Blanka said.
Eight-Man, Division II
Axtell (11-1) vs. Osborne (12-0) – Both Axtell and Osborne have enjoyed defensive improvements. In '18, Axtell made the state semifinals, and Osborne earned state runner-up. Both fell to Hanover. Osborne permitted 20.6 points per game, Axtell 20.5. This year, Osborne is down to 12.3 points per game, Axtell 10.8.
Osborne has head coach Steve Tiernan, in his first year in his second stint at the school. Osborne won state titles in '13 and '16. This year marks the top Bulldog scoring defense in the last seven falls. Tiernan has sometimes used a defensive coordinator in the past, but runs the defense this year. However, Tiernan has credited his young assistant coaches Dr. Aaron Geist and Isaac Wilson. Geist has helped return senior running back/linebacker Darrien Holloway to health after he was expected to be out for the season with a foot injury suffered earlier in the playoffs. Wilson, the school's technology staffer, is in his first year of coaching football.
His computer knowledge has helped Osborne become more efficient with inputting data and breaking down plays and tendencies. Senior linebacker Evan Garman, who did not play football in 2018, has led with 130 tackles. Senior defensive back Steele Wolters has 123 tackles, along with four interceptions. Holloway is at 68 tackles with a pair of INTs.
Axtell coach Eric Detweiler has had defensive coordinator Dale Buessing all seven years of his tenure. Junior center/nose guard Kolby Talbot has anchored the defense with 85.5 tackles, 19 for loss. Detweiler called Talbot “by far” the team's best lineman. Talbot is a two-year starter.
Mitchell Buessing, coach Buessing's son, has 34 total tackles and four interceptions. Coach Eric Detweiler's son, freshman Isaac, has 44 stops with seven INTs. He has stepped in after some Eagle injuries. Axtell's base defense is 3-3.
“I thought he definitely had the potential,” coach Detweiler said this week. “I didn't know – coming in as a freshman, I believe is a huge leap from junior high to high school. So whether he was going to be able to make that leap or not. Probably injuries have made it fortunate for him to step on the field, and show what he is capable of. He's (had) that opportunity, and actually played extremely well for us. It's nice to have other options. When our healthy guys got back, we have options that we can move guys around.”
Wichita Northwest (12-0) vs. Mill Valley (9-3) - Class 5A Wichita Northwest, known for its defensive improvement under first-year coordinator Marc Marinelli, has allowed just 10.8 points per game. Marinelli had previously served as the Goddard-Eisenhower head coach.
NW, which permitted 29.3 points per game in '18, has improved its scoring defense by 18.5 points per contest from last year. The 12-0 Grizzlies will face 9-3 Mill Valley in the 5A title, also a squad that is more known for its defense than offense in 2019.
“The big thing that coach Marinelli has done has gotten our guys to play lights out with great effort,” coach Steve Martin said earlier this fall.
Northwest senior Jack Wiens has 93 tackles, and has 14.5 TFLs. He is one of four players with double-digit tackles for loss. Junior Jacob Younkman has recorded 23.5 TFLs to lead the Grizzlies. NW has forced 40 turnovers, and junior Wetu Kalomo has picked off a team-high eight passes.
Mill Valley head coach Joel Applebee has been effusive in his praise of assistant Drew Hudgins, in his ninth year on staff and sixth as defensive coordinator. Mill Valley permitted 19.6 points per game in '18 and 15.8 this season. However, MV held St. Thomas Aquinas to 29.5 points per game in a pair of meetings. In its other games, Aquinas scored 47.8 points per contest. Applebee believes the defense “is what's carried us this year.”
“The attention to detail that he has is second to none,” Applebee said of Hudgins.
Junior middle linebacker Kolten Jegen leads with 88 tackles, while junior Ethan Kremer, one of the state's top defensive linemen, has a Jaguar-best 15 TFLs and nine sacks. Senior middle linebacker Carson Caldwell has 82 tackles with 13 TFLs. Junior defensive end Cole Knappen is at 37 stops, 12 TFLs. Senior defensive end Kendal Christopher has 32 tackles, 10.5 TFLs.
Andover Central (11-1) vs. Bishop Miege (10-2) – The Stags are the five-time defending state champions and have stayed relatively consistent. Miege permitted 15.9 points per game in '18, and 20.6 this fall. Ty'Quez Agnew-Whitten is one of several key players on the Miege defense.
AC has a six-win improvement. Among the state squads, the Jaguars have easily had the best offensive improvement at 15.7 points per game last year to 29.8 this season. The defense allowed 16.8 points per contest in '18 to 10.8 this year. Last week, AC defeated McPherson, 7-0, on a non-offensive touchdown, the program's first shutout victory since 2013.
Senior Shomari Parnell is at 137 of 251 passing for 2,117 yards with a 22/12 TD/INT ratio. Senior Xavier Bell has 64 catches for 862 yards and 11 scores. Senior Matt Macy has 35 catches for 832 yards and 10 TDs. Senior Trey Degarmo leads Andover Central with 147 tackles, 13 for loss and three INTs. Andover Central has forced 30 turnovers. Degarmo is around many tackle records at AC.
Andale (12-0) vs. Perry-Lecompton (9-3) – Andale is the No. 1 scoring defense in Class 3A with just 7.3 points permitted. Last season, the Indians allowed 7.5 points a game. Tim Fairchild is the Indians' longtime defensive coordinator. Third-year coach Dylan Schmidt has led Andale to state runner-up and semifinal runner-up in his first two falls. Scotti Easter leads the Indians with 86 total tackles, while Dawson Chavez is second at 72. Creighton Camp paces Andale with eight sacks and five fumble recoveries, and Chavez is second with seven sacks. Eli Rowland has intercepted seven passes, and Easton Hunter has four INTs. Overall, Andale has 22 interceptions and 18 fumbles recovered. P-L has forced 28 turnovers with a slight scoring defense bump. The Kaws allowed 13.8 points per game in '18 and 15.9 this season. Four players have 100 tackles. Junior Hayden Robb is at 141 tackles, while senior Grant Roush has 14 TFLs and junior Thad Metcalfe has picked off five passes to lead the team.
Smith Center (12-0) vs. Centralia (11-1) – Both teams have alums as head coaches and defensive coordinators. For SC, head coach Darren Sasse is 68-14 after many years as an assistant. Brock Hutchinson is the longtime defensive coordinator for the Redmen and perennially has one of the state's top defenses. Centralia head coach Larry Glatczak is 132-41 in 17 years as head coach at alma mater. Defensive coordinator Roger Holthaus and Glatczak are longtime friends and were classmates on Centralia's first state championship game appearance in 1985.
Smith Center was at 8.4 points per game allowed in '18, and nine this season. The Redmen permitted six points per contest in '17. Additionally, Smith Center is the two-time defending state champions. Centralia defeated Smith Center, 20-12, in overtime in the famous 2-1A state game in 2009. Smith Center is down three starters with Aaron Moss and Charlie Timmons out for a significant time, and leading rusher Jaden Atwood was hurt last week. Austin Holthaus leads Centralia with 144 tackles, according to MSC Sports. For Smith Center, senior Joel Montgomery has delivered another exceptional fall with 105 tackles, 15 for loss. Atwood ranks second with 10 TFLs.
Derby (12-0) vs. Olathe North (10-2) – Derby posted the best 6A scoring defense since at least 2006 last year with 7.9 points permitted. The Panthers are not too far behind this fall at 10.8 points allowed a game. Olathe North allowed 26.8 a game last season, and 21.8 this year. ON senior A.J. Patillo leads with 146 tackles, 11 for loss. Head coach Chris McCartney is also the defensive coordinator. McCartney had served as the DC for 11 years before he earned the head coaching position in '15.
For Derby, Austin Wuthrich is the new defensive coordinator after Mitch Pontious went to administration at Derby Middle School. Linebacker Jack Hileman leads Derby with 79 tackles, 12 TFLs. Defensive lineman Tyler Dorsey has 25 TFLs, though is questionable for Saturday with a groin injury.