By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Norton: “It’s important for communities”
Norton’s Lucas Melvin has spent more than 23 years with the Bluejays, including the last 14 as head football coach. Melvin is very well-known for his faith and public speaking ability, especially in the northwest Kansas area.
Melvin always believed the 2020 football season would occur. The game he didn’t believe would happen was the Shrine Bowl, held in late July in Topeka. Melvin served an assistant coach and was able to coach his own son, Kade. After that, Melvin further crystallized his opinion for the fall.
Last Friday, Melvin coached Norton to a 16-14 home victory against Mid-Continent League foe Smith Center, one of the state’s most storied rivalries. Instead of the postgame handshake, the teams took a knee around 10 yards apart from each other at midfield for social distancing measures in the coronavirus pandemic. Melvin offered words and a prayer.
“It’s just a matter of people maintaining some calm and just getting through this together,” Melvin said. “I feel terrible for anybody who is not (playing). It takes away so much from these kids, life experiences.
“This is way more important than what people let on,” he added. “But it’s not as important as maybe what we make it out to be, but it’s important. It’s important for communities to be able to do this.”
Last Friday, Kansas again saw the importance of high school football with 250-plus teams playing across the state, from six-man to Class 6A. The majority of Class 6A and several select teams didn’t play because of COVID-19.
This week, Sports in Kansas wanted to highlight more than 10 athletes, who since teams cleared them to play for Week 1, delivered breakout performances for themselves, their team and town. The group includes players/units from Kinsley, Republic County, Goodland, Plainville, Smith Center, Lansing, Hays High and Victoria. All but one of the players listed below were not returning all-state picks for 2020.
This week, notably Bishop Miege, St. James Academy, Aquinas, Olathe and Wichita Public Schools return.
The stories, though, start in Kinsley – and possibly already the award for comeback player of the year.
Kinsley’s Cole Gleason returns from Alex Smith-esque injury
Kinsley was just a few minutes away from finishing the 2018 season. The varsity players and seniors were off the field, and Kinsley’s Cole Gleason, then a sophomore, ran a crossing route. He suffered a broken leg in a 58-14 loss versus Pratt-Skyline.
“Had the same injury Alex Smith had that he just got back from,” Kinsley coach Corey Dunlap said.
Smith, the former Kansas City Chiefs and current Washington Redskins quarterback, had the devastating injury two years ago. Smith was recently profiled in a well-publicized ESPN documentary about his harrowing injuries and return.
Gleason missed all of last year and returned for 2020. Dunlap, a former eight-man all-state quarterback at Natoma, is in his fourth year at Kinsley, second as head coach. Dunlap said Gleason is Kinsley’s fastest player. Gleason’s older sister, Rylee, was the third high school girl to win the 300-meter hurdles state title all four years. She signed for Fort Hays track.
“Looking like, so far, he’s been the best receiver I have seen since I have been here at Kinsley,” Dunlap said. “Is running incredible routes, and he is catching everything that he is thrown his way, so Cole is looking pretty good.”
Last Friday, Kinsley pulled off a milestone 42-6 win versus Salina-Sacred Heart in a game that could only happen in 2020. Gleason caught a pair of passes for 44 yards. He led Kinsley with 10.5 tackles and picked off the team’s lone interception. The Coyotes won their season opener for the first time since 2011.
Kinsley is eight-man, and Sacred Heart is 1A 11-man. However, SH lost its Week 1 game versus Ellsworth because of coronavirus and elected to face Kinsley in an eight-man road contest.
As well, Dunlap thought in preseason that senior quarterback Isaac Bowman would break out. Bowman completed five of 12 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He rushed three times for 44 yards and a score.
Kinsley was expected to start four freshmen, the smallest one at 6-foot, 170 pounds. Notably, freshman Dylan Haselhorst stood out. He delivered 11 carries for 66 yards and a touchdown, numbers that either led or tied for first among the team Friday. He caught two passes for 33 yards and a touchdown, had six assisted tackles and a tackle for loss.
Overall, Kinsley has 18 players out, the most in the Dunlap era. Kinsley was 0-9 in ’16 and ’17 and 2-7 each of the last two falls. The Coyotes are at home versus Wheatland-Grinnell on Friday. W-G, 8-2 last year, lost 58-18 to Axtell, ranked third in Eight-Man, Division II.
Kinsley plays in manageable Eight-Man, Division I, District 6 and a winning season is certainly possible with Bowman, Gleason and the depth. The Coyotes were 5-4 in ’10, the last winning record since the early ‘90s.
“Physically they are ready, so just getting them into the right spot mentally is the only thing that they’ve got to get right,” Dunlap said of the freshmen.
Huge game for Republic County’s Baxa
Last year, Republic County junior Jared Baxa earned KPreps first team all-state Class 1A running back, one of five RBs named. He delivered 1,332 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns, along with 140 receiving yards and a pair of scores.
However, Baxa was overshadowed some by the other four backs, all whom played for teams that won at least seven games. Two of the squads went to at least the state semifinals. RC finished 2-8, though scored 25 points per game against the No. 4 hardest schedule in 1A, according to Prep Power Index. RC ended a 26-game losing streak last year and was competitive against several top teams.
In Week 1, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Baxa authored arguably the best showing of any Kansas player in a 30-14 win versus Beloit. It marked the first time since ’99 that Belleville/Republic County defeated Beloit.
RC, up to 2A, received 14 carries for 264 yards and two touchdowns from Baxa, including a 96-yarder. He caught two passes for 81 yards and a TD, with a long of 77 yards.
Baxa flew under the radar some from not attending the Sharp Performance combines in late summer or other top combines. Baxa was playing baseball for the first Sharp combine and wasn’t able to make the second one. Baxa was not able to make any football camps.
He ran three hand-timed 40-yard time trials at football camp. Baxa posted 4.39 seconds, 4.41 and 4.45. Baxa can squat 375, bench 275 and clean 285.
The first Sharp Combine, held July 10, had more than 400 athletes. Just four Kansans – Coffeyville senior Darell Jones, Hays High junior Jaren Kanak, Derby sophomore Dylan Edwards and De Soto quarterback Jackson Miller – ran faster than 4.45.
Jones has committed to K-State, Kanak has KU and K-State offers, and Miller has multiple offers. At least one Kansas college has shown further interest in Baxa after his performance. Last year, 250 Kansas players committed to play college football, according to KPreps data.
More than 65 players were listed at 5-10 or shorter, including several of the state’s top running backs, such as Manhattan’s B.J. Young, St. Paul’s Adam Albertini, and K.C. Schlagle’s Joshua Becton.
Young signed to Washburn, Albertini to Pittsburg State and Becton to FCS Valparaiso. Baxa has seen some college interest for baseball and qualified for four events as a sophomore at the Class 1A state track meet.
RC won its first season opener since ’15. The Buffs went 5-6 with a playoff win in ’16, though have not captured a winning record since Belleville and Hillcrest consolidated before the ’06 football year.
Wild week for Goodland, Mason Murray
Goodland has well-known senior quarterback Leyton Cure, a signal-caller with multiple offers, including Division II Southwest Oklahoma State. In the summer, coach Chase Topliff believed several players would break out, including senior all-purpose threat Mason Murray.
“He’s basically like a Leyton clone,” Topliff said. “He just doesn’t get all the accolades and notability that Leyton does, but they are best friends. They work out together.”
Goodland was expected to play a pair of Colorado teams to open 2020, but Colorado moved football to the spring because of COVID-19. Goodland, a 3A school, scrambled and eventually picked up 5A Liberal. It marked the first time the schools played since 1985.
In a remarkable win, Goodland beat Liberal, 43-32 and captured its season opener for the first time in five years. Goodland’s coaches had contracted COVID-19 and couldn’t participate in the game. Athletic director Marty Lehman, a former college coach, stepped in and led the squad.
Goodland rushed for 181 yards, according to Cowboy broadcaster Ross Volkmer, including 40 yards and a TD from Murray. Last year, Goodland rushed for 393 yards all last season. Earlier this week, coach Topliff posted an impassioned Facebook post about the situation.
Among others, Topliff thanked Lehman and superintendent Bill Biermann for stepping ino coach, along with the junior high assistants and Katisha Wiegers. She spent time learning the defensive signals from her husband, Coach Grant Wiegers. Katisha is Goodland’s counselor.
“All in all, this program made the most out of a crazy situation and Friday was truly a night that we will never forget!,” Topliff wrote.
Facing adversity: Derby looks to bounce back
Brandon Clark took over Derby in ’06, the year after the Panthers had a winless season. Clark has now captured 130 victories and four state titles in the last five years. Last week, Clark affirmed he wants to retire as Derby’s coach.
“My family loves this town,” Clark said. “They have got friends, my wife, my kids, everybody. This town is unbelievable, but it’s kind of one of those things where I have been through the bad times here and seen the good times. So I know both, and I know how people react to both. It’s not much of a difference. People are special here.”
“It’s something that a lot of people outside the community think it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not,” he said. “Our kids struggle sometimes in life. They struggle with problems at home. We have got a unique blend of kids in this high school, and that’s what makes coaching and teaching so much fun is you get a bunch of different people in there at one time. And they all have one goal on the football team or whatever team they are playing on - it’s pretty special to be a part of.”
Last Friday, Derby had its 26-game winning streak end with a 45-14 loss to Mill Valley. Derby was ranked No. 1 in 6A, and Mill Valley is first in 5A. The Panthers had a running clock and suffered its worst margin of loss since a 70-31 district defeat to Wichita Heights in Week 9 of the 2010 season.
However, Derby has shown a great ability to bounce back from adversity. In the last couple of years, Panther starting quarterback Grant Adler suffered injury. In ’17, Derby lost, 50-20, to Goodard in Week 2 and still advanced to the state championship.
In ’15, Derby fell, 27-20, to Mill Valley in Week 3, beat rival Hutchinson by 35 the following week and still won state.
In ’14, Derby fell in its season opener to Maize, beat Salina Central in Week 2 and went to the state quarterfinals.
In ’13 – in a game very similar to Friday – Derby lost, 51-35, to Salina South. Derby was ranked No. 1 in 6A, and SS was in the top-5. Derby won the state title.
In ’12, Derby lost Hutchinson in Week 6 and still advanced to the state semifinals. In ’11, Derby opened 0-2 and again went to the semifinals.
Derby, which is currently ranked in 6A, is at Newton in Week 2. The Panthers have not lost to Newton in more than 28 years, according to the Kansas Football History database.
Hoisington’s Hanzlick returns from injury
In the summer, Hoisington quarterback Mason Haxton believed the Cardinals had a stable of impressive backs to replace Wyatt Pedigo, a Top 11 all classes player with back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons. The KPreps media poll agreed, as the Cardinals opened the year ranked fifth in 2A.
Hoisington returned seniors Hunter Morris, Cade Mason, Cole Steinert and Holt Hanzlick. Haxton labeled Steinert “a great blocking back.” Hanzlick, known for his talent in the younger ranks, missed all of last season with a knee injury. Hoisington finished as a state semifinalist the last two falls.
“He will be our dude hopefully,” Haxton said. “…I think he’s fully healthy, and he is ready to go big time. He could have helped us last fall, playing outside backer, but just injuries just got him.”
Hoisington defeated Pratt, 34-13, and moved up to third in Class 2A. Hanzlick finished with 12 carries for 81 yards and a touchdown. Morris delivered three carries for 35 yards and two TDs, along with a 47-yard reception for a touchdown, according to Cardinal broadcaster Cole Reif. Hanzlick also played some tight end.
Fathers and Sons: Smith Center’s Sasse family continue tradition
For more than three decades, Smith Center’s coaches have had their sons on the squad, generally all-state players. Hall of Fame coach Roger Barta coached his son, Brooks, who played at Kansas State and is the longtime successful coach at Holton.
Assistant coach Dennis Hutchinson coached his son Brock, a Fort Hays player. Brock, the longtime SC defensive coordinator, had his son, Colton, a multiple-time all-state quarterback/defensive back now at Baker. Running backs coach Mike Rogers had his three sons (Colt, Clint, Cale).
Head coach Darren Sasse, like Brock Hutchinson and Rogers, is a former Smith Center graduate. His son, Jake, is a sophomore linebacker and fullback. Last year, Smith Center went 12-1 and was the Class 1A runner-up to Centralia. Sasse was third with 87 tackles, the only one of the top-five tacklers back.
“I let these guys coach him a lot, just so we go home and we’re still family, but that’s (why) I have great coaches, because they do a lot of it,” coach Sasse said.
In Friday’s 16-14 loss to Norton, Sasse had eight tackles, one for loss. He was third in tackles. Sophomore Bentley Montgomery led with 13 tackles, while senior Griffin Kugler tallied 12 stops and caught a pair of touchdown receptions. Kugler is now the Smith Center record holder in single season and career receptions. SC, ranked No. 4 in 1A, will face rival Phillipsburg (0-1).
Victoria with new offensive line – with four seniors
Victoria opened with a 42-14 win versus La Crosse in the Leopards’ first-ever eight-man football game. The Knights have won four straight season openers – the last three came against squads that eventually finished with winning records.
The Knights had two seniors last season, both key linemen with Kirk Huser (Garden City CC commit) and Josh Schulte. The offensive line opened holes for 51 plays for 434 yards, including 327 on the ground. Victoria junior quarterback Grant Schoenrock completed 7 of 9 passes for 107 yards, and 12 rushes for 115 yards. Sophomore Carson Werth, after a strong freshman year, delivered seven carries for 113 yards. Senior Jayvon Pruitt had nine carries for 72 yards. All three rushed for two TDs.
The offensive line has four seniors: Lucas Klein, Malachi Wilhelm, Trenton Engel, Drayden Karlin, and junior Nate Windholz.
Breakout/Star Players Step Up: Plainville’s Kyle Werner with 200-yard game; Lansing’s Caden Crawford, Hays High’s Jaren Kanak show out
Last year, Plainville’s Kyle Werner played admirably as a freshman when Jared Casey (KU signing) missed some time with injury. Werner finished with 50 carries for 394 yards and three scores.
Werner was a likely breakout player for 2020 and received his chance last Friday. He rushed 20 times for 212 yards and two scores in a 14-13 win versus Phillipsburg. Lineman Jonah Smith had five tackles and picked up his offer, from Dodge City CC, this week.
Among the Class of 2022 players, Lansing’s Caden Crawford and Hays High’s Jaren Kanak have both picked up Power 5 offers. Crawford is ranked third by 247 Sports, a recruiting industry leader. He has offers from Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Kansas. Kanak has offers from KU and K-State.
Both of their teams were named as KPreps’ Potential Breakout Teams, and each player had statistically the best game of their careers in Week 1.
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Crawford held Lansing to a 26-7 versus Lincoln College Prep (Mo.). He completed 4 of 6 passes for 116 yards with a score and an interception. Crawford rushed six times for 15 yards and two TDs. Defensively, he delivered 12 tackles and a tackle for loss.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Kanak delivered five catches for 73 yards and two scores and had five carries for 64 yards, according to Hays High broadcaster Dustin Armbruster. Kanak finished with 180-plus all-purpose yards in a 19-10 road win versus Goddard-Eisenhower. Both teams face familiar foes in Week 2 with Lansing against K.C. Piper, and Hays High is at rival Great Bend.
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