By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Taking a look at some teams that have been knocking at the door of getting to their first ever state title game. McPherson and Hoisington have really been knocking at the door the last several years and have been picked by many experts to get there but have just came up short in the past few seasons. Lyndon has also had some deep playoff success in recent memory but has been unable to get to the title game. Others not highlighted but have not made a title: Oakley and Inman haven't been knocking on the door of a title in recent memory and are in new territory but one will have the opportunity to advance to their first ever state title game. St. James Academy (4A) is also looking for a shot to play for their first ever title game in football. Wichita County is also looking for their first ever title apperance and made a semifinal last season, prior to that it had been 1990.
Class 4A: McPherson’s player-driven culture looks to reach first state title
On their own, the McPherson football team elected to meet up and work out last spring during the coronavirus quarantine. Senior left tackle Blade Anderson is part of a highly experienced offensive line group.
He, senior center Jonah Scott and right guard Dakota Istas are returning starters. McPherson has sophomore Hayden Wallace at left guard, and junior Braxton Bailey at right tackle. Scott is a back-to-back first team all-conference lineman and has multiple offers from high academic colleges, including Grinnell in Iowa.
Anderson took the leadership role and had the offensive linemen on his front porch. The group went over schemes and walked through plays in his front yard.
“They were going through their zone steps,” McPherson sixth-year head coach coach Jace Pavlovich said. “What people see in terms of our success is really the tip of the iceberg. Our guys are out working while others are resting, and that means a lot – it means a lot to our program, and as long as we have kids that are going to work hard like that and take a leadership role, I feel like we are going to achieve our potential.”
As well, Pavlovich received pictures from the McPherson parks department. Skill players tried to find any available green grass to throw and play catch.
“A lot of kids are just hanging out on the couch, our kids are out running routes and throwing and catching, and we have tremendous leadership amongst our players,” Pavlovich said.
The perpetual player-driven buy-in and McPherson’s unique leadership committee has yielded another impressive season for the Bullpups. McPherson is ranked third in Class 4A at 10-1.
The Bullpups are the No. 1 seed in Class 4A West and play host to Arkansas City (5-6) in the state semifinals Friday. McPherson is 55-12 since Pavlovich took over for legendary Tom Young as head coach. Overall, Pavlovich has spent 15 years with the program.
“We don’t tell them you need to go out and throw, catch,” Pavlovich said. “We don’t tell them those things, but we also kind of educate them on what it takes to be a leader and what it’s going to take to get over the hump.”
He has guided McPherson to four straight double-digit winning seasons and served on staff for four of the Bullpups’ five semifinal berths: ’08, ’17-19. However, McPherson has never made a state championship game.
This week, 32 teams remain in Kansas high school football. Seven have never reached a finale. McPherson, Class 2A Hoisington and Class 1A Lyndon have notably continually delivered impressive seasons, though are a combined 0-10 all-time in the state playoffs. Hoisington is 0-3 in the semifinals in the last four years. Lyndon lost in the ’12 and ’13 semifinals.
Additionally, 4A St. James, 1A’s Inman and Oakley and Eight-Man, Division I’s Leoti-Wichita County are looking for its first title berth. Inman plays Oakley.
Perhaps no team has suffered tougher semifinal losses than McPherson and Hoisington in the last couple seasons. While Hoisington has lost its three semifinal games all on the road, McPherson has dropped all three at home.
“I’d be lying to you if I said it hadn’t affected me,” Pavlovich said. “As leader of the program, I mean, I’d go to bed every night wondering what we did wrong last season, the season before, and the season before that.
“I wake up every morning thinking the same thing,” he added. “It’s taken its toll on me personally. I will be honest with you, it really doesn’t matter if you lose in the state semifinals or you lose first round of the playoffs, whenever you lose a game, you are going to learn a lot.”
In ’17, McPherson lost a hard-fought game, 20-13, to Andale. In ’18, the Bullpups lost, 15-14, in an upset to Goddard. Last year, McPherson fell 7-0 to Andover Central.
This season, the Bullpups have again dominated the west, including two wins against rival Buhler. McPherson beat Buhler, 18-6, in the regular season and 28-21 last week. The lone loss came in Week 5, 41-35, to Class 5A quarterfinalist De Soto in a game played at neutral site and was scheduled late because of the coronavirus.
On Sunday afternoon, Pavlovich called the semifinal defeats “the elephant in the room.” He had planned to address it Monday afternoon, and turn the focus to the weekly process. McPherson defeated Arkansas City, 62-28, in the playoffs two years ago and 26-6 last fall. The Bullpups have not lost to Ark City since ’02.
“The fact that we have been in the state semifinals year in and year out speaks volumes for our kids and our program,” he said. “The first loss to Andale, that was a tough one. They were a really good football team, and so were we.
“Then, we go on and play Goddard, and had a chance to win at the end and just didn’t get it done, and same thing is true for Andover Central,” he added. “So you look at those losses, but at the end of the day, we are still here. And at the end of the day, we are back in the state semifinal game and not too many teams can make that claim.”
Pavlovich, a former Fort Hays player, has kept the same spread I formation passing game that Young installed. Veteran assistants Pat Corcoran (O-line) and John Montgomery (Off. Coordinator) played with Pavlovich at Fort Hays.
Longtime coordinator Chet Harlin has led another impressive defense that graduated Cody Stufflebean, the 4A Defensive Player of the Year. McPherson has allowed 15.2 points per contest. Harlin has been with McPherson since ’06.
McPherson returned little in the backfield and did not have a player back who cleared 150 passing or rushing yards in ’19. However, senior Dylan Rinker is fourth in Kansas in passing yards. He has completed 65 percent for 2,425 yards with 27 scores against six interceptions.
Sophomore Jaytin Gumm has emerged with 180 carries for 1,329 yards and 13 TDs. Gumm was the fifth-string running back at the start of the year. Through injuries and other situations, he emerged as the Week 1 starter.
“The kid is athletic, strong, physical, smart, everything that you want in a great tailback,” Pavlovich said. “But the thing that he brings to the table is he has that fighters’ mentality that…no matter what, he’s going to give you everything you possibly can on every play.”
Junior Sky Schriner has returned after he missed time early in the season. He has 71 carries for 474 yards and nine scores. Schriner was slated to start at the start of fall. He’s fought an ankle injury and had a ligament re-attached this spring.
“He’s battled back to be a tremendous tailback as well, so we feel like we have a really good 1-2 punch right now,” Pavlovich said.
McPherson had experience back at wide receiver with senior Aaron Powell (62 catches for 921 yards and 10 scores), along with juniors Trey Buckbee and Gus Ruddle. Both have seven receiving TDs.
“We don’t do all these 7 on 7 tournaments and those kinds of things that just cost a ton of money and everything else,” Pavlovich said. “Our guys just go and work on their individual fundamentals, and it pays off.”
McPherson has learned its leadership committee from Blair Oaks High School, located in Jefferson City, Mo. Blair Oaks went a combined 52-3 with a state title from ’15-18 and is playing in the Missouri state quarterfinals this week.
Pavlovich said the leadership development “has really paid off dividends” and McPherson “really sold it out” this past offseason. McPherson had some socially distanced meetings, though most came via Zoom. The Bullpups focused heavily on the culture.
McPherson does not have captains. The Bullpups have a leadership committee of six seniors, five juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen. Others have stepped up. Senior defensive lineman Drew Hanken was not on the leadership committee last spring and is now one of the team’s top leaders.
“What we noticed over time is our leadership doesn’t just come from those committee members,” Pavlovich said. “We have had seniors that were not voted in on our leadership committee that have stepped up in a big way and led us in a positive manner whether verbally or just by their actions.”
Class 2A: Hoisington, built on effort and physicality, looks to break through for Cardinals past and present
Coach Zach Baird has been enveloped in Cardinal football virtually his entire life. His father, Dean, and father-in-law, Dr. Blake Herres, are both Hoisington graduates. Zach’s wife, Addie, is a Hoisington graduate. Dr. Herres is the radio color analyst with Hoisington play-by-play man Cole Reif.
Dean served as an assistant coach at Russell, at Hoisington from ’92-97, and at Great Bend for a season. Coach David Webb was Cardinal head coach when Dean was on staff. Webb, currently a principal in the Gardner-Edgerton school district, allowed Zach to sit in on coach’s meetings when he was a kid.
“Every once in awhile, he would let me get up there and draw something on the board,” Zach said. “He was just a tough, hard-nosed guy, and he commanded everybody’s respect, and he just was really good to young kids that he didn’t have to be, and that’s just kind of where I started to fall in love with Cardinal football.”
Baird graduated from Hoisington in ’03 and finished collegiately at Fort Hays. He’s always loved being in Hoisington. Baird coached little kids’ football for a year in Hays, and then became a Cardinal assistant in ’08. He now stands at 70-12 in his seventh year as head coach.
Hoisington is the lone high school program he’s ever coached. The Cardinals have the most wins of any current 2A program since Baird took over as coach, according to Reif’s research. Dean hasn’t missed a game in years. For home contests, he normally arrives 1.5 hours before kickoff. Dean played linebacker at KU and briefly professionally in ’75 with the Chicago Winds of the World Football League.
His son has built Hoisington on the run-heavy flexbone offense, sound defense and especially effort and physicality. Baird said he’s been blessed with great assistant coaches and really great, hard-working kids.
“Every senior group that you have is very special,” Baird said. “And you want to end in one way and that’s to win a state championship.”
Last week, Hoisington controlled another opponent in a quality 28-14 home victory versus Garden Plain, a 9-2 squad. Hoisington led 14-0 after the first quarter and allowed just 24 rushing yards on 25 carries.
“A total team effort with guys playing extremely hard, and playing physical,” Baird said. “I thought that was probably the difference in the game.”
For the second straight year, Hoisington has a rematch against a district opponent. No. 2 Hoisington (11-0) travels to Beloit (5-6). Baird said reaching a state title game “would be a long time coming.”
“I was able to grow up around the program, seen a lot of great players come through here, a lot of great teams,” Baird said. “And that’s kind of what we tell our guys is ‘Hey, once you are a part of this thing, you are always a part of it, and so when the time comes and when we do win a state championship, that’s for all those guys past and present.
“Because once you are a Cardinal, you are always a Cardinal,” he added. “So we feel like there’s been a lot of work put into this thing, not just by this group but a bunch of groups before that.”
Last season, the Cardinals opened 11-0, including a 38-7 victory versus Norton in Week 8. In the state semifinals, Norton pulled the upset in a 10-8 home victory on a last-second field goal.
“Ran into a really hot Norton team that was really big and athletic up front which gave us problems,” Baird said. “But I feel like we are getting there. I like where we are at.”
In ’16, Hoisington fell 35-19 on the road to Hesston’s passing attack in the state semifinals. In ’18, the Cardinals weren’t favored, though played with Phillipsburg most of the game in a 31-14 road loss. Phillipsburg won state.
This season, the Cardinals beat Beloit, 26-20, in Week 8. Beloit, a young team with no seniors at quarterback, tailback and the offensive line, has significantly improved. Baird wasn’t pleased with his team’s play after the game – and had the same thoughts Monday.
“That’s kind of what we hang our hat on,” Baird said. “That’s kind of what we built this program on is effort and physicality, so trying to send a message to these guys like ‘Hey, this program is in your hands now. It’s for all those guys that have worked to get it to where it is, that’s a disservice to them if we don’t play the game hard, and we don’t play it with physicality.”
Hoisington has played well since, including the Garden Plain victory that Baird labeled “really good” defense. Hoisington has seven wins by 21 points or fewer. However, the Cardinals have only trailed in Week 4 to Phillipsburg.
The Panthers led 14-0 after the first quarter, the only team that has scored in the first quarter versus the Cardinal defense. Hoisington has outscored squads 104-14 in the first quarter. The Cardinals have scored on its first drive of the second half nine of 10 games. The defense has allowed 113 rushing yards a game and 3.9 yards per carry.
“We have really good team speed, so we have been able not to allow a ton of big plays on us,” Baird said. “…We have guys that play physical and play with great effort, and so we get off blocks, and we get a lot of hats to the football.”
Senior Holt Hanzlick has led with 120 carries for 959 yards and 14 scores. The top-five rushers are all seniors. Josh Ball (632 rushing yards) has moved to the offensive line after some injuries up front.
Senior quarterback Mason Haxton has 671 passing yards with an 8/1 TD/INT ratio. Lineman Nolan Wilborn is one of several seniors who have progressed this fall and is one of the team captains. Baird called senior Hunter Morris probably the best cornerback he’s had in seven years. Morris is questionable for Friday.
Overall, Hoisington has permitted just 4.5 yards per play. That includes a win against Halstead and running back Lakin Farmer, the state’s second-leading rusher. Opponents have completed 49 percent of passes for 958 yards with 10 scores against nine interceptions.
Last year, Hoisington allowed 13.1 points a game and forced 31 turnovers. This season, the Cardinals have permitted 12.8 points a contest and forced 15.
“We probably haven’t forced as many turnovers as we would like to, but also we don’t gamble a whole lot,” Baird said. “So sometimes that doesn’t happen, but we’ve also been pretty good about not allowing big plays.”
Class 1A: Lyndon tries to achieve goal that “would mean everything”
Lyndon took two losses in the regular season: 13-7 to Olpe and 48-17 to Centralia. Those have been Class 1A’s top-two squads throughout the fall. The Olpe loss is by far the Eagles’ closest game.
Last week, Lyndon continued to force turnovers and picked off four passes against Centralia’s single wing in a 26-14 victory. The Tigers improved to 9-2 and bumped to No. 2 in the 1A rankings.
“Be physical for 48 minutes, and I felt like the kids did that,” coach Scott Jones said. “You don’t go into places like Olpe and Centralia and win with a bunch of flash and a bunch of flair. You have to go into those two places, and you have got to be more physical than that team, and you have got to be more disciplined.”
This season, Lyndon has a high experienced nine-player senior class. In ’19, Lyndon averaged 6.4 yards per play and zero defensive/special teams scores. Lyndon forced 15 turnovers.
In ’20, Lyndon is up to 8.6 yards per play. The Tigers have a remarkable 11 non-offensive touchdowns, six interceptions, three kickoff returns, a punt return and a fumble recovery. Lyndon has forced 21 turnovers.
“They have been great,” Jones said of the seniors. “We have asked them to buy in. We have asked them to be selfless. They have matured as individuals. They have matured as leaders. They have shown our younger kids the type of accountability that we need for this program to succeed in the future.”
Jones said he started to see the current group mature two years ago. The Tigers went 3-6, its only losing season since ’09 and then produced a four-win bump last year.
“You go back and look at pictures, you go back and you look at videos of the weight room from the summer before, and it doesn’t even look like the same individuals,” Jones said. “That’s just a testament to how hard they’ve been wanting to work, how they’ve bought into the weight room.”
This week, Lyndon is at No. 1 Olpe (10-0). The Eagles have not allowed a touchdown since the Week 3 game versus Lyndon. The Tigers are 90-25 since ’10, though had lost to Centralia in state semifinals in ’12 and ’13.
“It would mean everything,” Jones said of making the final. “That’s been the ultimate goal for this senior class for three years. Every year you come in and you talk about your preseason goals, and there’s always some guy in the back that yells, ‘I want to win a state title.’ But there’s only a certain number of teams in the state that truly believe that.”
“And as you go through and you talk about your progression and your three-week goals and how you want to improve throughout the season, the further we got into the year, the more realistic that reality became,” he added.
Lyndon has lost five in a row to Olpe. Four are one-score contests. Jones is in his second season as head coach after a stint as a Lyndon assistant.
“We were young and immature, especially in Week 3,” Jones said. “We talked about this progression through the year. We are a lot different team now. We’re a lot more assignment sound, we are a lot more disciplined. O-line play has improved a lot. Backfield play has improved a lot.”
Senior Luke Detwiler leads the squad with 108 carries for 1,032 yards and 17 scores. He has 1,841 all-purpose yards. Senior Ethan Edington has 929 all-purpose yards. He played some as a freshman, didn’t play as a sophomore and has started the last two falls.
Senior Dustin Tobler leads with 120 tackles. Senior Beau Baker is a four-year starter and has 64 stops.
Junior left tackle/strong side defensive end Miles Kitselman leads with nine tackles for loss after he didn’t play last fall from a knee injury. He started as a freshman.
“He’s a really big, strong, athletic kid, and he runs well,” Jones said of Tobler. “So he plays anything from an ‘A’ gap all the way out to a sideline and does it pretty well.”
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