By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas - email: Cnicholl1@gmail.com
Mid-Continent League rivals Smith Center and Plainville met up in the Class 1A state semifinals last November at SC’s Hubbard Stadium. It marked the fourth straight season SC and Plainville faced in the regular season and then again in the semifinals. Plainville won the first two in ’16, and Smith Center had taken the next five.
In Week 4, Smith Center defeated Plainville, 40-14, though the Cardinals missed standout fullback/linebacker Jared Casey, a University of Kansas signing, because of injury. Casey returned for the semifinal contest. Plainville took a 19-14 lead on a touchdown run from quarterback Jordan Finnesy with three and a half minutes remaining.
Smith Center wide receiver Griffin Kugler understood the Redmen probably had one more chance to score. SC missed running back Jaden Atwood, the team’s leading rusher with 1,563 yards and 15 scores, because of injury.
“I knew we didn’t have much time, so we were probably going to throw the ball,” Kugler said.
On the game-winning drive, Kugler noticed Plainville’s defender was “outside of me a little bit.” Kugler believed a post pattern would be effective. Smith Center head coach Darren Sasse, the offensive coordinator, agreed.
SC was at the Plainville 33-yard line when Kugler set up on the right, the home crowd side, of the line of scrimmage.
Redmen quarterback Trenton Colby saw two receivers covered on the left and Kugler open on the right. Colby threw a perfect pass – “right on the money,” Kugler said – for a touchdown. Smith Center led, 20-19, with 1:26 left. Kugler still remembers the huge ovation from the Redmen crowd, along with the train horn and the cannon. It marked the game’s final points.
“I don’t think my adrenaline has ever been higher,” Kugler said.
Sergio Lambert sealed the Smith Center win with an interception. Overall, Colby finished 10 of 17 passing for 114 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Kugler had all of the catches. It marked the most passing attempts by Smith Center in a game in at least the last four years and continued a subtle offensive shift for the tradition-laden Redmen.
Overall, Kugler, who has fought a knee problem since birth, finished with 44 catches for 684 yards and 12 scores and set the school record for most receiving TDs in a season. Known as an excellent route runner, he recorded all but six of his team’s receptions. A 1A first team all-state pick at receiver and non-senior pick at SIK, Kugler recorded 71 tackles, three interceptions, two tackles for loss and a pair of fumble recoveries at defensive back.
Two years ago as a sophomore, Kugler delivered eight catches for 203 yards and four touchdowns. His 16 career receiving TDs are tied for school record.
Smith Center, one of the state’s storied programs with Hall of Fame coach Roger Barta and Sasse, is long known for its physicality and running game with the “Barta bone,” similar to the wishbone. Barta captured 323 wins in his career, and Smith Center won a state record 79 consecutive games between ’04-09.
In 2007, Smith Center outscored opponents, 844-20, still Kansas 11-man Hall of Fame records for scoring offense and scoring margin. The season featured fullback Braden Wilson, who became a multi-year starter at Kansas State, and just 31 pass attempts by the Redmen. Jared Mocaby, Kugler’s older brother and mentor, started at end and led Smith Center with seven catches.
Sasse, a Smith Center graduate and formerly the longtime junior high coach, is 68-15 since Barta retired after ‘12. Assistant coaches Brock Hutchinson (defensive coordinator) and Mike Rogers have been on staff for many years and are highly regarded through Kansas. SC assistant Shawn Stansbury is a former Redmen quarterback and has served the last couple falls.
Smith Center won eight titles with Barta, and two with Sasse in ’17-18. Smith Center, with significant injuries in ’19, finished 12-1 and earned runner-up to Centralia last fall. Smith Center lost, 18-14, in the 1A state game.
While Smith Center still perpetually remains among the state’s rushing leaders, Sasse shifted the offense to more passing once he took over the program.
From 2007-11, Smith Center collectively threw 146 passes. SC passed the ball a collective 5.2 percent of snaps in that span. In the last five seasons, the Redmen have 407 passes, 12.9 percent of snaps in that span.
“It’s different,” Kugler said. “It’s kind of cool to see, changing up our play style so we can always keep defenses on their toes, lull them to sleep a little bit with the run, and then it’s always nice to throw the ball a little bit, so they can’t just load the box. So it’s really good to have in our back pocket for when we need it.”
For years, Barta’s offense never deviated.
The 6-foot-5 Mocaby predominantly served as a blocker for Smith Center. The ’07 team rushed for 429 yards a game. In the championship, SC defeated Colgan, 40-14, and amassed 538 yards of total offense, all on the ground.
“The Redmen ran the fullback up the middle and the halfbacks off the tackles,” New York Times reporter Joe Drape wrote in “Our Boys,” his book about Smith Center football. “They rarely pitched out for a sweep or passed the ball. … The Redmen were a power football team, pure and simple. Coach Barta believed that if the Redmen ran the offense crisply, the opposing defense would have no idea who had the ball and would be forced to tackle four players on each play.”
Drape chronicled the ’08 season where Smith Center returned just four starters. Still, SC threw just 19 passes all year and rushed for 476 yards a game. In a pair of memorable playoff wins versus La Crosse and Olpe in the quarterfinals and title game, Smith Center attempted just three passes and collectively rushed for 880 yards. The lone completion was a 53-yard touchdown in the state game.
“Coach Barta had spent a whole season setting up that pass,” Drape wrote.
In ’13, Sasse took over, and Kody Molzahn became the quarterback. During the summer, Sasse installed the pistol, which he learned from Holton coach Brooks Barta, Roger’s son.
“Talking with Coach Brooks Barta, he thought that it gave your fullback the ball quicker, let him read maybe a little bit more, let the quarterback see a little bit more,” Sasse said in ’13. “It’s kind of sped things up.”
In the first game, Molzahn completed 2 of 5 passes for 64 yards in a 34-13 home win against Norton. In the first six contests of 2012, Smith Center was 7 of 24 for 110 yards.
A Smith Center assistant coach last season, Molzahn had more than 60 pass attempts and 540 yards in ’13. After a rare down 5-4 season in ’14, Smith Center has played at least in the state semifinals every fall since. Notably in ’16, Brett Meyer enjoyed a big year with 20 catches for 458 yards and six scores when Colton Hutchinson played quarterback.
The following year, Meyer delivered 24 catches for 412 yards and six scores. Meyer and Hutchinson have played collegiately at Baker University. Meyer and Hutchinson have worked with Kugler and Smith Center players in the past, which helped the program.
“Trying to replicate what he did with his time is really just big for me,” Kugler said of Meyer.
Kugler looks up to Mocaby, too. Kugler still remembers Mocaby and his teammates playing for Smith Center. Kugler said Mocaby’s teammates “treated me like a brother.” Kugler remembers traveling all over the state to watch Mocaby’s MAYB teams play basketball.
Mocaby and Wilson were first team all-league basketball players as seniors when SC finished 22-2 in ’07-08. Mocaby was on the Sterling College basketball roster, and eventually went to Kansas State.
Mocaby’s wife, Amanda, is from Rexford, near Colby. They lived in Courtland, 49 miles east of Smith Center, before they moved back to SC a couple years ago. Amanda works in the Smith County health system, and Jared is a park ranger at Lovewell State Park, located 50 miles from Smith Center and a few miles from the Nebraska border.
Kugler remembered the camaraderie and tradition of Mocaby’s Smith Center teams and has tried “a lot” to implement those characteristics. Mocaby and Kugler have watched Smith Center film together. Kugler wears No. 2 since it was Mocaby’s number.
“We have always been close, and over the years, we just knit tighter and tighter, and he’s just been such a big part of my life, my inspiration,” Kugler said.
Kugler has battled knee problems throughout his life.
“My kneecap, the two pieces never fused together, so in both my knees, I have a little piece of kneecap floating around,” he said. “…It’s really rare actually.”
Kugler missed ’19 track to get one of the pieces out. Normally, Kugler has his left leg as his lead (weight-bearing) leg when he positioned at the line of scrimmage.
Because of the knee problems, Kugler had to switch his legs and lead with his right, notably in a Week 8 win versus Ell-Saline in ‘19. A month later in the semifinals, Kugler estimated around eight plays when he led with his right leg.
He was going to have the other piece taken out this spring, though couldn’t because of the coronavirus concerns.
“Even though that’s not the correct way you are supposed to stand, it did start bugging me,” Kugler said. “I mean, after games, it was just sore, and ice, ice, ice, but about playoff time it really started to wear on me.”
After the Plainville game, Kugler suffered a non-contact injury in practice. He put his hand down and felt a pop in his left wrist. Kugler dislocated the tendons. He practiced all week, though played in a cast at state. He was in a cast for three to four weeks and eventually went to Kearney, Neb. for a shot.
At state, Smith Center played without Atwood. Lineman Charlie Timmons was hurt most of the season. The game was played in strong winds at Fort Hays. Kugler had one catch. Centralia standout quarterback/defensive back Kamble Haverkamp guarded Kugler during the contest and scored the game-winning touchdown with 55 seconds left. Smith Center ended its 22-game winning streak.
This spring, sports were cancelled because the coronavirus concerns. Kugler most missed the team bonding that came with lifting. The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Kugler can bench 220, squat 330 and clean 230.
This season, Smith Center returns six offensive and four defensive starters. Timmons, a senior, has started since he was a freshman. Kugler called Timmons a “workhorse” in the weight room. Nate Hendrich stepped up as a junior with 158 carries for 696 yards and 10 scores. Hendrich took over for Aaron Moss, who played in one game in ’19 and suffered a season-ending injury.
Sophomore Jake Sasse, coach Sasse’s son, enjoyed a big freshman year with 87 tackles. Also known for his weight room ethic, Sasse rushed 19 times for 84 yards in the state title game. Smith Center is likely to again be a top 1A contender.
“I always enjoy lifting in the weight room with them and having the coaches in there getting us on our program,” he said. “And I think that hurt a little bit as well, not being able to see everybody and build that bond that we like to get going.”
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How did you get involved in football?
I got involved with football at a very young age, thanks to my brother Jared. My brother played for the Redmen during the streak, so I was able to go to every game, and be a part of the tradition, even though most of the time I was playing my own game below the bleachers. All the players treated me like a brother and it really just sparked the light for me.
What are your goals this season?
My biggest goal for this season would be to make it back to the state championship game, and of course win it. Another goal of mine would be to mold into the leader that all the previous classes have had, to carry on the culture and tradition.
Do you guys have a shot to make a run this year?
I think we do have a shot to win it. Towards the end of the year, especially at the state game, we had a ton of guys out or playing dinged up, and it really forced a lot of guys to step up, and get that experience that will help them this year.
What makes you such a force as a player?
I think the biggest thing for me is being able to recognize what the opposing player is giving me. If I’m on offense and the guy lines up inside, I’m able to recognize that, and tell my coaches who then give me a play which uses it. Another big part is the practices. We have really tough practices, which I really think prepares me for game situations. The coaches also really help me improve when they see something I could improve on film, or see a weakness on the opposing team that I can exploit.
What’s the atmosphere like to play football on Friday night for your school and town?
The atmosphere in Smith Center is just amazing. Everyone talks about the game all week long, all around town. The stands are usually packed every game. It’s almost as if the town just lives for those Friday nights. It’s a big part of the towns identity, and it’s a big part of the programs culture.
For anyone that hasn’t seen one of your games, why come to one?
I would say the biggest reason is to see the atmosphere the community provides. The town almost stops functioning hours before the game to tailgate before kickoff. The community wants a win on Friday Night almost just as bad as the coaches and players. As for an individual player, I think people would want to see my ability to make a big play out of a simple play. I feel like it is just an amazing atmosphere when someone makes a big play, and the crowd roars. It is almost as if it is a college game, with the roar of the train horn, and the explosion of the cannon.
Who are other key players on your team?
A major key player is Charlie Timmons. Charlie has been a work horse from the day he stepped into the locker room freshman year. To start as a freshman, and make an impact of the magnitude that he has is really amazing, and really shows the dedication he’s put into the weight room. Charlie has really stepped up for us in becoming a leader, and showing the others what to do, especially coming off his injury last year. He really turned into a vocal leader. Another big key player is Nate Hendrich. Nate has waited his turn in the system and last year he got his shot. He took beatings all game every game, at the fullback position, and never complained about it. Nate has really started to become a leader, and knows what it takes to succeed.
Favorite thing about football?
My favorite thing about football would have to be the camaraderie you develop with your teammates. It’s just an amazing experience to line up across from each other all week, build that bond even tighter, and then go to battle Friday night. The Coaches always tell us, that on the practice field we really need to get after and push each other, and then come together even tighter in the locker room. It’s just really cool to experience that and watch the bonds within the team grow throughout the season. We always refer to everyone as family, and treat each other as if we were.
Do you play any other sports, tell us about that, what other positions do you play?
I grew up watching my brother play basketball all over in the summers, and then in the winters, so I have always enjoyed and loved playing basketball. I have also participated in track, which I was unable to do the past two years due to two knee surgeries and the COVID-19 pandemic. I also really enjoy playing legion baseball in the summer, as it gives me a chance to play with the outgoing seniors one last time, and gives me another opportunity to compete again. I participated in these at a very young age, which really benefited me athletically wise, and helped me get ahead in the sports.
What is it like to play for your coach?
Playing for my Coach is such an honor to me. Coach Sasse is a very smart coach who has endless experience with the game. He knows what he wants and knows how to implement it with the group of guys he has to work with. The best part about Coach Sasse is that he’s an even better person than he is a coach. He teaches us so many life lessons, on how to be better men, or how to just make good decisions, and really stresses teaching those values and implementing them. The other Coaches, Coach Hutchinson, Coach Rogers, and Coach Stansbury, are also extremely talented coaches, and as stated with Coach Sasse, even better men. I don’t think I could count the amount of life lessons they have shared and how they have impacted each kid. They really all mesh together so well, and are great life mentors for us all. The Coaches all really complement each other nicely. They all have a ton of experience, and have all went through the same system we go through today. The amount of hours these coaches put in during the season and in the off season is just unreal to me, and I couldn’t be more thankful and blessed to receive their knowledge. I really believe we have one of, if not the, best coaching staffs, in the state of Kansas.
What did you and the team do in the off-season to become better?
It was a very interesting time with the COVID-19 situation, but Coach Hutchinson did a great job of making sure we were active at home, and not sitting around. Smith Center has a separate weight room, Tribe Fitness,that offered memberships to the athletes, as soon as it could open up back in May, which was really big for all of us. Now that the school weight room is back open again, we are able to get back in person with the coaches, and get back onto our usual programs.
What interest are you seeing at the next level and what are your plans?
I am undecided about the future. The biggest thing for me is finding a place that I really feel like I belong, and that can provide me with the major I need.
Favorite thing to do when you aren’t playing sports?
My favorite thing to do is to go out and hunt. I love to hunt and hunt about anything I can, whenever I can. I have hunted with my family for as long as I can remember, and I have just been increasing my love for it. I especially love to archery hunt. I also really enjoy to hang out with my friends whenever I can, or sit back and relax with some XBOX.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I see myself having the job that I prefer, and possibly trying to maybe settle down somewhere. I would like to travel before settling down, and getting out of Kansas to meet people and see some sights.
Favorite subject in school, what type of student are you, GPA?
My favorite subject in school is Biology. I like learning about living things, and how they interact with the earth around them, which ties into why I like to hunt. I am a decent student with a 3.78 GPA. I really don’t have much of an issue when it comes to school or the classroom.
Who is your role model?
My role model is my brother Jared. I can’t thank Jared enough for all that he has done for me, and all that he will do for me in the future. I have looked up to him since the day I was born, and have always modeled and tried to follow his footsteps. He is an amazing person, and a great father to my nieces. Whether it was hunting or sports, I have learned almost all of it from him. I think the biggest thing was his bond that he created with me when I was young. His friends on the team really took me in and that’s some of the greatest memories I have. Thank you for everything Jared.
Best place to eat in your town or the surrounding area?
The best place in town is easily Jiffy Burger. I personally think it would beat out 75% of the fast food joints around, which any alumni you talk to, can attest to that as well. College kids and families who come back for a weekend, always have to get their jiffy fix in. I really enjoy their burgers and cheeseballs. They can also whip up some mean ice cream dishes and shakes.
One thing the average person wouldn’t know about you?
I would have to say that I’m an avid star gazer. I love going out and just looking up at the stars, it always really amazes me. Space is just such a deep subject and it’s just very interesting. I also really enjoy weather. I like watching storms and predicting their movements.
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