By CONOR NICHOLL Cnicholl1@gmail.com for Sports in Kansas
St. James Academy is located in Lenexa. SJA and the Blue Valley school district, which encompass a large chunk of the Eastern Kansas League, are in Johnson County.
When the coronavirus pandemic started in March, St. James quickly formulated a plan to ensure Thunder students could be on campus in the fall. Tom Radke, St. James’ football coach and assistant athletic director, significantly credited SJA’s administration.
St. James, with all students located in one building, elected to open in a hybrid format and have had students on campus. SJA had a couple of COVID cases this summer.
“We had a plan already by June 1 what fall was going to look like if we couldn’t come back in person,” he said. “So they have done an amazing job. So we have been ready honestly since June 1 for sure in starting in the hybrid mode or starting ready to go. It’s been really smooth the first couple days here.”
In early summer, the Blue Valley school district announced it would not start fall sports on time because of high COVID-19 numbers in Johnson County. SJA was scheduled to play multiple Blue Valley teams.
“We know that districts are making decisions for 25,000 students and like 20 buildings like Blue Valley, Olathe and Shawnee,” Radke said. “So they have a lot more buses, lunchroom, and all that stuff. They have to consider that. For us, we just have one building to worry about, and that’s a big difference, so that was kind of part of the decision making.”
Additionally, the Thunder was expected to have an Oct. 2 Homecoming game (Week 5) against Lutheran (Parker, Colo,). St. James was planning to go there next year. However, Lutheran is now playing football in the spring. The constant scheduling flux has kept Radke “up at night.”
“So if anybody is out there and wants to play Oct. 2, give me a call,” Radke said Tuesday afternoon.
As of Tuesday afternoon, St. James had four games scheduled: versus St. Thomas Aquinas in Week 2, against Eudora in Week 3, against Shawnee Heights in Week 7 and versus Bishop Miege in Week 8, the last week of the regular season. Originally, SJA was expected to play Blue Valley North in Week 7.
On Wednesday, St. James picked up at nearby Basehor-Linwood for Week 4. B-L was scheduled to play Kansas City Turner, but Turner has cancelled the season.
“I am just so worried about the mental health of these kids that aren’t getting to play fall sports,” Radke said. “And we took spring away from them, and they missed all that, and that was hard enough, but there’s something about fall sports with that flow, just starting school and everything. It’s special. I want as many schools and teams to be able to have that.”
Since the start, Radke has wanted to get as many games “as we can get” but has set a goal to play at least four, because of the unsettling “week to week” nature of COVID numbers.
“I always said from the beginning of this whole thing, I just really want to play four games,” he said. “If we can get four games in, the guys have worked so hard. It would be awesome to get four games in. You never know if your team is going to get a (COVID) breakout or things like that, your worst nightmare situation.”
St. James is open Week 1, one of more than 30 teams not expected to play this week. Several teams have contacted SJA about playing Friday, though Thunder administration has elected to wait until Week 2. SJA held its preseason camp and has practiced all but one day.
“Had a good base underneath us and nothing was going to jeopardize kids being in the building,” Radke said. “Because that’s really important to us, and so we are just holding off another week just to make sure we get our feet underneath us and everything goes smoothly first couple of weeks.”
While many teams, specifically in Classes 5A/6A, have dealt with coronavirus-related complications, perhaps no team has dealt with more changes than St. James. In addition to the schedule, SJA surprisingly dropped down to Class 4A for the first time since ’13. St. James, 5-5 last year, is ranked No. 3 in the KPreps Class 4A preseason rankings.
“It just stinks for some of the school districts that aren’t getting to play right now, and I feel so bad for those kids,” Radke said. “And the roller coaster that the players and the coaches and the fans and parents all are going through – that’s the worst part. It’s just starting to wear on everybody.”
Additionally, the Thunder picked up former K.C. Piper all-purpose threat/running back La’James White in the last few days. White, who wants to go into the Air Force, transferred to SJA for academics. Radke had coached at Piper prior to St. James. K.C. Piper is located in Wyandotte County, which had earlier halted fall sports because of coronavirus. Piper’s season remains in flux.
White’s mother reached out to Radke. The White family wanted La’James to be able to go to class in person. They asked if St. James was going to go in person, and SJA said yes. Radke talked to White when Piper was not expected to play. Radke said he “feels bad” for those who are not getting a chance to play.
“Like I told La’James, ‘This stinks, because you don’t … get to finish your senior year with your buddies,” Radke said. “That’s always hard.”
White rushed 202 times for 1,241 yards and nine scores and finished with 1,969 all-purpose yards. As well, St. James is counting on seniors Jack Gossman, Sam Schmidt, Harry Spencer and Brendon Lee to step up on defense. Gossman is at free safety, Schmidt at defensive end, Spencer on the line, and Lee at outside linebacker.
Offensively, junior wide receiver Tyler Claiborne easily led the team with 32 catches for 537 yards.
“We are just super thankful everyday that we get to play and practice,” Radke said. “We say it everyday.”
Senior Dakota Burritt (260 passing yards) is expected to take over at quarterback. Burritt grew five inches and put on 50 pounds in the last year. His dad played at Kansas, and his mother was an All-American 800-meter runner at KU.
“Man, does he look good right now,” Radke said. “He has got a great arm. Great instincts, super smart, and so we are looking for Dakota to have a special year this year with some of the receivers we’ve got.”
Radke is one of the coaches who has talked to KSHSAA administration and proposed changes to the 2020 season. Radke told KSHSAA to seed the playoffs based on normal criteria (win-loss, head-to-head, points margin, etc.) no matter how many regular season games teams played.
Then, if a team loses in the first round of the playoffs, it keeps playing on a consolation bracket.
“It doesn’t mean anything, except that you just get some more games in,” Radke said. “These guys have earned it. For us, we just want to play some people. These kids don’t care. They have just been dying to play some football. You have any kind of contact on the practice field, everybody goes crazy.
“Just give these guys something,” he added. “More opportunity to play would be great. (KSHSAA) was intrigued by that idea.”
St. James is challenged by other teams’ schedules. Radke said he would like to play the Blue Valleys if the teams are allowed to play.
As well, Radke, speaking several hours before the Wichita School Board vote Tuesday, said SJA would be willing to play Wichita Public Schools, too. On Tuesday, the board voted to allow the public schools to play fall sports after previously saying no in past weeks.
He had talked to Lawrence school district about possibly Week 7, though Shawnee Heights was in the mix. Radke said the game between SJA and Shawnee Heights was “locked” up Tuesday morning.
SJA has looked to play Wichita-Kapaun Mt. Carmel, who the Thunder had played the last two years, but the only available time was Week 3. St. James was going to play Eudora, which is a short drive and a team the Thunder had played from ’10-13 when it had a Frontier League agreement. Radke said St. James has talked to Missouri power Rockhurst.
“Haven’t finalized that one,” he said. “That would be a really fun game to play.”
St. James will be the third largest 4A school with 649 students, according to KSHSAA’s records. Radke was sitting in his office when St. James principal Dr. Shane Rapp came in, visibly shaken. Then, John Muehlberger, dean of students, stopped by. They told Radke the Thunder would be 4A in football. They looked over the numbers again.
“They were right,” Radke said. “We really didn’t have any idea. We had two really big classes that just graduated, and we had 250 that were leaving, and we were only bringing in 200. So there’s two big classes that left that bumped us up to 5(A) for awhile there. It just happened in football that we dropped down to 4(A).”
The Western Athletic Conference brings on Kapaun as an honorary member; Dodge City/Kapaun set to play for the first time ever
Until Tuesday night, the seven public Wichita High School teams (North, East, West, Northwest, South, Southeast, Heights) were not cleared to play fall sports. The two private schools, Kapaun and Bishop Carroll, were. Several WAC squads, specifically Dodge City, had multiple Wichita public schools on its original schedule.
The WAC, which consists of Hays High, Liberal, Great Bend, Garden City and Dodge City, brought on Kapaun as an honorary member for this season. Hays High was originally scheduled to play at Wichita East in Week 1. Now, the Indians are headed to Goddard-Eisenhower for the season opener Thursday night. HHS defeated Eisenhower, 31-6, in the playoffs last season.
Hays High will play host to Kapaun in Week 8. Great Bend plays host to Kapaun in Week 4. Dodge City has been able to fill seven dates and gets Kapaun at home to open the year Friday. This is the first all-time matchup between Dodge City and Kapaun in school history, according to the Kansas Football History database.
In Week 4, DC is at Bishop Carroll. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Red Demons still had Week 7 open.
Dodge City will be at nearby Ulysses in Week 8. Liberal, currently open in Week 4 and Week 8, is at Goodland to start the season and is at Kapaun in Week 7. Liberal picked up Goodland after the Cowboys lost a Colorado opponent in Week 1.
Garden City travels to Manhattan, a top-5 team in Class 6A, for the season opener, and is at Kapaun for Week 6.
“I have to thank my fellow ADs in the Western Athletic Conference, along with the ADs at Bishop Carroll and Kapaun, and everywhere else that still had games, still playing,” Hays High athletic director Lance Krannawitter said. “We all worked together co-operatively, got on the horn as soon as we found out what was taking place. If we had something worked out, we checked with our other league teams to make sure that it was going to work out with them.”
“So the co-operation amongst all the league ADs really helped, and it worked out great for all of us,” he added. “I think there may be a couple of teams still looking for maybe a week or two. … Just to have any games is awesome.”
The bulk of these matchups are extremely rare, according to the KFH database. Liberal has played Goodland three times: 1952, ’53 and ’85. The Redskins last played Kapaun in the ’13 playoffs, one of only five meetings. The last regular season game between Liberal and Kapaun came in ’03.
Kapaun last played Garden City in ’80 – the only time the two teams have ever played.
Dodge City radio broadcaster Sean Boston, host of the Kansas Kickoff Show, also passed along several great notes. Boston said KMC is 9-7 all-time versus WAC schools, notably 4-2 versus Hays High and 4-1 against Liberal. Dodge City is honoring its 1970 state title team this season. DC won 4A that year, and Kapaun collected the 3A title.
8-Man Kinsley and 11-man Sacred Heart set to meet for the first time
In one of the more unusual scheduling changes for 2020, 11-man Class 1A Sacred Heart will travel to eight-man Kinsley and play an eight-man game Friday. It marks the first time the two teams have ever played.
Sacred Heart was supposed to play at Ellsworth in Week 1, but Ellsworth is unable to play because of COVID-19.
Kinsley was supposed to face Central Plains, but Claflin is also out because of COVID. Sacred Heart had several possibilities, including Goodland and Bishop Ward, both larger schools. Several teams were looking for games, and SH’s athletic director sent out a mass email asking about contest.
At that time, Kinsley didn’t have a Week 1 contest. Sacred Heart said it was willing to travel the 123 miles one-way and play eight-man. Kinsley’s field is already eight-man sized.
This is rare for an 11-man team to play an eight-man game, especially in western Kansas. Sometimes, even last season, eight-man teams have played six-man opponents in six-man.
One of the very rare recent times when 11-man played eight-man in a game west of Salina came in ’06-07 when 11-man Osborne and eight-man Sylvan played. Sylvan won both games. Prior to those years, Osborne and Sylvan, located just 42 miles apart, had never played.
Sacred Heart is expected to have around 21 players, while Kinsley should have 18, the most in coach Corey Dunlap’s four years on staff. Kinsley agreed with Sacred Heart around 15 minutes before league school Otis-Bison called. Otherwise, Kinsley would likely have played O-B, which it plays in all other sports. Kinsley elected to stay with Sacred Heart.
Otis-Bison was expected to conference foe St. John, but then SJ also cancelled because of coronavirus. The Cougars eventually found Triplains-Brewster for a season opener. The game time is 3 p.m. There are no stands and fans are allowed to park around the field. Lawn chairs are recommended. Masks are required for admissions and concessions.
Rivalries that are continuing; re-starting; Frontenac/Columbus a season opener for first time ever
In addition to several key games that include Derby/Mill Valley, Holton/Nemaha Central, Rossville/Centralia, and Conway Springs/Garden Plain, Smith Center/Norton continues its Mid-Continent League rivalry.
Both teams finished as state runner-up: Norton in Class 2A, and Smith Center in 1A. The game returns to Week 1 for the first time since ’12-13. The rivalry has sometimes occurred in Week 1, including ’06-07 and ’94-95. The teams have played more than 44 times. Smith Center has won five straight in the series.
La Crosse and Victoria are longtime members of the Central Prairie League and are located 30 miles apart, but Friday marks the first meeting since 1997. The Leopards were the last 11-man CPL school for many years and elected to switch to eight-man for the first time. This marks just the sixth all-time meeting between the schools. Victoria is ranked fifth in Eight-Man, Division II.
In southeast Kansas, Frontenac at Columbus is a key game. Both squads are just outside the top-5 in the classification. This is normally a district contest, and Frontenac has won four straight in the series. The teams have played every year since ’14. The teams have never matched up in Week 1.
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