By CONOR NICHOLL Cnicholl1@gmail.com for Sports in Kansas
This is the second annual Sports In Kansas midseason all-underrated group. Last year’s list, one of the more popular SIK Football pieces, featured Moscow, Hays High’s Gaven Haselhorst and Gavin Meyers, along with Eureka’s Braden Rucker and Cimarron’s Braxton Harrison. Moscow won six-man, the first state football crown, while Haselhorst (K-State commit) and Meyers (FBS offers) are now among the state’s best. Rucker and Harrison are top players in 2A again. This year’s group has a cross-section throughout the state’s geographical regions. None of these players were returning all-state; most are overshadowed by teammate(s) or their team’s performance.
Montezuma-South Gray with undefeated start behind retooled line
In Week 5, South Gray played host to Meade in a pair of unbeaten teams in Eight-Man, Division I, District 7. Meade, in its first season of eight-man football, features size with 6-foot-6 senior Dalton Paul, 6-foot-2, 227-pound junior Cullen Lumry, and 6-2, 250-pound sophomore Brady Papay. The game was scoreless after the first quarter. South Gray led 6-0 at halftime and 14-6 after three quarters.
However, SG outscored Meade 16-6 in the fourth and pulled away for a 30-12 victory. South Gray features head coach Grant Salmans, offensive coordinator Jeff Blattner and defensive/special teams coach Ty Clark. Salmans called Clark the best special teams coach he’s ever been around.
“They were kind of getting after us a little bit,” Salmans said. “They came after us pretty aggressive. Our guys kind of had to settle down and figure out what they were doing, and then late in the game, we were physical. Meade’s a really physical team.
“They are big and they are physical and they are aggressive,” Salmans added. “And they have got tradition, but late in the game, we were just running a lot of stuff right up the middle on them, and I think we just kind of wore them down, and I credit that to our offensive line and coach Blattner.”
South Gray is currently 6-0, 3-0 in District 7 and is arguably the state’s most surprising undefeated team. This week, the Rebels are at Hodgeman County (4-2, 1-2). A win gives SG no worse than district runner-up.
SG is well-known for senior running back Aaron Skidmore, and junior cornerback Brady Deges. Skidmore rushed for 817 yards and 10 scores last season. He is currently fifth in Kansas with 1,060 yards. Deges blocked a pair of punts versus Meade and led South Gray in tackles and interceptions last year.
South Gray finished 5-4 the previous fall and is a combined 28-44 from ’12-19. This year, Deges has eight offensive scores on 53 touches. Last week, senior Kimble Martin had a scoop and score TD, and a 30-yard touchdown catch. Martin, a senior end known for his strength and aggressiveness, has scores in four ways this season: fumble recovery, kickoff, punt and receiving.
“It’s really a whole team effort, and I give a lot of our credit to our line,” Salmans said. “Our line is blocking really well.”
The line is very different from 2019.
Up front, 6-5, 250-pound senior Carter Riley has started at center. One of the state’s more underrated players, Riley went out for football for the first time last fall. A skilled basketball player, Riley has strong footwork and size and has significantly improved his squat. He played guard last year. Senior David Dyck plays left guard. He started at first, but then didn’t play as much in ’19.
“Both those kids, when I watched them last year, I thought, with coach Blattner working with those kids, they could be good football players, and then they both really did,” Salmans said.
Senior guard Ethan Reed has always been a solid player, though tore his ACL in Week 3 and missed the rest of ‘19.
“He’s extremely smart,” Salmans said. “He understands the schemes really well. He has asked really good questions in practice.”
Senior Ethan Salmans was a quarterback before he moved to end. All four of his catches have went for touchdowns. He has delivered 33 tackles. Senior Alejandro Lupercio has served as a key reserve.
This year reunited Salmans and Blattner, a pair of longtime coaches. Blattner coached 28 years, 22 at Haviland, before the school closed and he left for South Gray in 2009. Salmans was South Gray’s head coach from ’95-06. In ’05, SG went to the state semifinals. In ’06, the two first coached at the annual eight-man all-star game in Beloit.
Salmans was elected head coach, and Blattner the assistant. Immediately, Salmans told Blattner he would run the offense. Salmans said Blattner picks up on defenses “way better” than he does.
“His offense is very meticulous, it’s very well put together,” Salmans said. “It was something quick that kids could learn in a week for an all-star game.”
Blattner became South Gray’s head coach from ’09-12 and finished 6-3, 6-2, 11-1 and 4-5. The 11-1 season, with Salmans assisting, yielded a state runner-up showing to Madison in Division I. Blattner ran offense, and Salmans defense. Blattner then moved to the junior high, and Salmans stepped aside from coaching for a couple years.
After last year, Salmans took over as head coach. Blattner was interested in coming on as offensive coordinator. He runs the offense and offensive line.
Blattner runs different formations. Salmans said in each formation, Blattner has plays he will run, and plays he won’t run.
“The biggest thing is just the kids know what they are doing, and they physically can go out there and execute it,” Salmans said. “Last year, I think there was just a lot of hesitation on not knowing what they are doing.”
He has series of plays in between each of those formations. At the first of the year, SG tried to add a couple formations, and then ran certain plays out of those formations. Every week, the Rebels have looked to add a different formation that the opponent hasn’t seen.
“He does that really well,” Salmans said. “But he can also look at the defense and say, ‘We can run this formation, and we can run these series,’ and if it doesn’t match up good with their defense, he just throws those plays out.”
Clark, a former Fowler standout, was an assistant in ’19 and remained on staff. He runs the defense and special teams.
South Gray tallied 264 points (29.3 per game). This season, SG has already tallied 282 points (47 per game). Salmans knew the Rebels’ backfield would be solid with Skidmore, Deges, junior Ian Davis, sophomores Carter Jantz and Jorge Lupercio.
“Last year, our defense was pretty good, and we had some pretty good athletes, we just couldn’t move the ball,” Salmans said. “Couldn’t score. … The talent was there. They just needed a little bit more guidance to get over the hump. Really, our offensive line is probably the most impressive thing.”
Rossville: Bryson Balch’s great attitude
Rossville is 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class 2A all season behind a highly experienced squad that includes well-known players such as junior dual threat quarterback Torrey Horak and senior receiver Bo Reeves. However, Rossville coach Derick Hammes is very quick to mention senior lineman Bryson Balch aas a player that provides significant intangibles.
Balch, a returning starter, starts on both lines. Hammes said Balch delivers a “great attitude.” He has helped Rossville pass for 102 yards and rush for 317 yards a contest.
Rossville is the only team to beat 1A defending state titlist Centralia in the last two years. The Bulldawgs, which have its annual War on 24 matchup against district rival Silver Lake this week, have scored 355 points, 80 more than any other 2A team. The difference between Rossville and Osage City, the class’ second-best offense, is nearly as big as second to ninth (83 points). Silver Lake is 4-0 and ranks second in 2A. Balch has 13 tackles, two for loss, along with half a sack.
“Hands-down it’s Bryson Balch,” Hammes said. “Hands down. He’s got an everyday energy that is infectious to our kids. He has got about the best attitude in regards to life as you will ever see. He’s a super kid, and our players love him. … He’s somebody that just has confidence and attitude that just permeates throughout our team.”
Columbus: Pick-sixes with Lynn Shallenburger
Columbus is 6-0 after a big Class 3A district victory against Galena last week. The Titans was plus-3 and plus-9 in turnover margin and had one non-offensive score each of the past two seasons.
This year, Columbus, just outside the 3A rankings, is plus-12 in turnover margin with 12 interceptions. The Titans have 256 interception return yards, which rank first in Kansas and No. 23 nationally, according to MaxPreps. Senior Lynn Shallenburger has three interceptions (tied for first) with a team-best 70 interception return yards.
Columbus already has six non-offensive scores with five pick-sixes. Sophomore Cole Minor has a pair of pick-sixes, while Shallenburger, senior Landon Proffitt, and junior Jaxson Haraughty all have one. Columbus permitted 15.9 points per game in ’19 and is at 9.8 points allowed a contest this season.
“No. 1, they are very well-coached, and they do a great job of being in position,” Galena coach Beau Sarwinski said. “When you are in position, and you know what the other team is going to do, it makes it a little easier for you to step up and intercept a pass. They do a good job of tackling, and they fly to the football.”
Additionally, the 5-foot-11, 155-pound Shallenburger has 47 tackles. Entering this year, he had 18 tackles and one interception in his career.
“He kind of plays without any fear,” Columbus coach Blake Burns said. “…He does a pretty good job in coverage. So just to see his progress throughout his high school career has been pretty special.”
Southeast of Saline: Eli Harris’ leg helps SES’ No. 1 defense
No. 4 Southeast of Saline is 5-0 and is first in Class 3A with 24 points allowed. SES is well-known for senior quarterback/defensive back Jaxson Gebhardt and junior middle linebacker Matthew Rodriguez. SES has senior Eli Harris, possibly the state’s best punter.
The 6-foot-1, 197-pound Harris, who plays slot and outside backer, first started to punt as a sophomore. He averaged 35.1 yards per punt and 33.3 last season. This year, Harris has delivered 37.3 yards per punt with a long of 55 yards. He ranks No. 12 in Kansas in punt average and has pinned several kicks deep. In Week 5, he delivered a 47-yard punt to the Colby 20-yard line. He has seven catches for 98 yards and a TD, along with 22 tackles.
“When he was a sophomore, we were wondering who we could punt, and we started snapping balls, and Eli said, ‘Hey, maybe I could give it a shot,’” coach Mitch Gebhardt said. “He didn’t punt as a freshman, and he started punting them, and we are like, ‘Yeah, you can,’ so we have coached him a little bit, but honestly he is a natural punter. He just does a good job.”
Wheatland-Grinnell: T. Vincent staying healthy; Mendez with big year
Wheatland-Grinnell coach Jesse Vincent played quarterback at Sterling College. His two sons, junior Trey and sophomore Jett, have helped W-G to a 13-3 mark since the start of ’19. It marks the best two-year stretch in program history. Trey is 150 pounds, Jett at 165.
“Their competitiveness is the same,” coach Vincent said this summer in Grainfield. “They are both fiery, and there were some knockdown, drag out fights growing up just because of that, but it’s made them both better players and athletes, because of it. And Jett’s always pushed to keep up with big brother, and now he’s passed him in size. It’s been fun to watch them grow together.”
Jett is extremely well-known for his interceptions. He has 21 career INTs, including eight this year. Additionally, senior linebacker Trevor Zarybnicky among eight-man’s top players and recently picked up an Ottawa University offer.
Trey, though, has quietly produced at a high rate after he’s been hurt the last two falls. He has completed 57 of 105 passes for 929 yards with a 14/6 TD/INT ratio. Junior Isaac Mendez has enjoyed a breakout year with 123 carries for 950 yards and 16 scores.
Trey has already surpassed his totals from the last two falls when he played in just five games each season because of injury. He has a career 95.8 quarterback rating. Vincent has 169 of 318 passing for 2,470 yards with 35 scores against 15 interceptions. Since junior high, Vincent attended summer training camps, learning how to throw with form and accuracy.
As a freshman, Vincent broke his collarbone in the second half of the Logan-Palco game and returned just for the last game. Last season, he hurt his elbow and was out for the year after Quinter. He threw for 66 yards and a touchdown versus Quinter. In the victory, W-G faked a punt on fourth and long. Coach Vincent said Trey threw an out route “on a rope” to keep the drive going. W-G went on to Quinter for the first time in school history.
“If I would have had a fraction of his ability to read defenses when I played at Sterling, I would have been a far better quarterback,” coach Vincent said. “So his coolness in the pocket and ability to see the field is second to none in high school quarterbacks. Yeah, I am excited now he is finally a junior, I hope to get a full season out of him.”
Haven: 4-year starter Barlow looks to give program first winning season in 19 years
Haven senior Hunter Barlow stands 6-foot-3, 295 pounds and might be the state’s most experienced player with limited college interest. Haven coach Drew Thaalman believes Barlow can play at the next level. Barlow anchors both lines, and Thaalman said he’s been a good leader and hard worker all four years.
Haven is 4-2 and is home versus undefeated Hutchinson Trinity, ranked fourth in 2A, this week. Another victory gives Haven its first winning season since ’01. Haven will be at Sterling in Week 8. Haven, which bumped down from 3A to 2A this season, is 2-1 in District 5 and has averaged 34 points a game. The Wildcats have only lost 34-12 at Hesston in Week 1, and versus Hillsboro, 26-6, two weeks ago.
“He’s moves really well, for somebody who is that big,” Thaalman said. “He plays basketball for us. He’s really agile for someone who is that big. He’s knocked a pass down in the Hesston game, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, that looked like a college defensive linemen getting up there, and batting it away,’ kind of on the run. But yeah, he’s really worked hard, and he’s made himself into somebody that can play at the next level for sure.”
Canton-Galva: Conner Koehn part of state’s longest current winning streak
Canton-Galva is 6-0 and ranked No. 1 in Eight-Man, Division I with 19 straight victories, currently the state’s longest winning streak. C-G is very well-known for its skill players with running back Brayden Collins, wide receiver Tyson Struber and linebacker Brandon Huff. All three are returning first team all-state picks. Up front, Keaton Littrell and Tyler Rummel are returning linemen.
Senior Conner Koehn (6-4, 210) played a lot of end last season and moved to guard.
“He’s doing a lot more pulling and trapping and wrapping and things like that, but they all have game experience, and they all have big game experience,” coach Shelby Hoppes said.
His brother T.J. is a sophomore and has started, too. Conner received his first offer this week from Hutchinson Community College. They have helped C-G’s downhill running attack.
“Filled in at that right guard spot really well,” Hoppes said of T.J. “And they have kind of meshed quicker than we thought maybe they would.”
Leoti-Wichita County: Able to play, Manny Chavez a rare two-way starter for No. 2 Indians
Wichita County is ranked second in Eight-Man, Division I at 6-0. The Indians are full of well-known players and returning first team all-state picks, such as quarterback Kayde Rietzke, wide receiver Sheldon Whalen and lineman A.C. Hermosillo. Chavez couldn’t play last year because of transfer rules. He has started on both sides of the ball this year, a rare two-way player for the depth-laden Indians.
“He knows the offense, he knows his job, and he’s committed to doing it 100 percent,” Wichita County coach Brant Douglas said.
Known for his work ethic and exuberance, Chavez has 23 catches for 296 yards and four scores, all numbers that rank second to Whalen. Defensively, he has delivered 21 tackles and six tackles for loss and three sacks. The latter two numbers tie for the team-high.
Hoxie: Special teams units quietly perform at high rate
Hoxie has captured four in a row after a season-opening road loss to Wichita County. In Week 2, Hoxie won at La Crosse, 36-14. Afterward, La Crosse coach Jon Webster offered praise rarely heard at the eight-man level. Since the loss, the Leopards are 3-0 and have tallied at least 70 points in every game.
“Their kickers are good, both their kickoff guy and the punter,” Webster said.
In ’17, Hoxie captured the state championship behind a dominant defense, running back Latham Schwarz, and punter Troyal Burris. He averaged 39 yards a punt with 13 of 24 inside the opponents’ 20-yard line for first team all-state.
This season, Hoxie has received plenty of attention for 6-foot-11 senior lineman Harlan Obioha. He has Division I offers in football and basketball. However, Hoxie has excellent depth and posted great special teams. Coach Lance Baar spends limited time on special teams. The depth, especially with the skill positions, has helped Hoxie.
“The effort and the energy on specials is a lot higher maybe this year than it has been, just because they are fresh,” he said.
Senior Caden White has delivered a pair of touchbacks, and junior Cade Gourley is highly impressive with 15 punts for a 35.6 yard average, including seven within the opponents’ 20-yard line. Among eight-man teams, Hoxie is seventh in Kansas in punt return average and second for kicks inside the 20-yard line, according to MaxPreps statewide lists.
“We were in tight spots from time to time because of their kicking game,” Webster said. “It’s definitely a phase they won.”
Collectively, Hoxie has 13 returns for a 16.8 yard average. Senior Gavin Tremblay had a 59-yard kickoff return for a score versus La Crosse, and Hoxie has had returns of 28, and 30 yards. Hoxie is tied for seventh in Division I with just 74 points allowed.
Natoma: The physicality of Kayden Martinez
First-year Natoma coach Brian Patterson came from Missouri. He coached more than 25 years of basketball, along some football. Last year, he came to Natoma. The Tigers posted a 5-3 record with alumnus Cody Dunlap, the team’s fourth straight wins improvement. It marked Natoma’s best winning percentage since a 6-3 mark in ’08.
Dunlap took an administrative position at Cunningham, and Patterson became head coach. Natoma permitted 34.5 points per game in ’19. In the regular season, the Tigers lost to Bird City-Cheylin by the mercy rule, though mounted several scoring drives. This year, Natoma became the last Kansas team to allow a point. The Tigers opened 3-0, and fell 52-12 versus No. 1 Cheylin on Friday. However, Natoma trailed 20-12 with just over a minute to play in the first half.
“I told them where I come from in football, it’s not shootouts,” Patterson said. “It’s holding people to zero, and they really bought into it, and they have taken it to heart, and even tonight, yeah, we gave up (52), but we physically played with them, and that’s a good start for us.”
Cheylin coach Chris Walden was aware of Natoma’s size and physicality, notably with 220-pound junior fullback Kayden Martinez.
“We have matured physically,” Patterson said. “We have hit the weight room harder.”
While Cheylin, Ashland and Moscow earn the bulk of six-man attention, Martinez has emerged as a standout. Last year, he delivered 75 carries for 480 yards and nine scores and earned KPreps honorable mention all-state. Against Cheylin, Martinez delivered 25 carries for 160 yards and two scores.
“I have really enjoyed the kids here,” Patterson said.
Colony-Crest: No. 1 offense features Holden Barker on defense
Colony-Crest is 6-0 and has the No. 1 offense in Eight-Man, Division II. While seniors Stratton McGhee and Jacquez Coleman are known players, sophomore inside linebacker Holden Barker has delivered a strong season. He leads with 53 stops and a pair of fumble recoveries and is tied for second with three sacks.
“He’s flying around, making tackles,” Crest coach Nick McAnulty said.
Baldwin: Adam Callahan big numbers for winless team
Adam Callahan, Baldwin’s 6-foot, 200-pound running back/middle linebacker, has put up big numbers for the Bulldogs. Baldwin has struggled and has lost several games because of COVID-19. He has limited college interest despite 54 tackles, 12 for loss and four sacks this fall. Baldwin, with new coach David Bowen, has tallied just 44 points this year and has had two games cancelled. The Bulldogs will have winnable contests with Santa Fe Trail and Osawatomie the next two weeks.
In a 32-6 loss at Louisburg in Week 3, Callahan delivered 15 tackles, three for loss, along with 110 rushing yards and a score.
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