By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
COVID-19 and Rankings: How '20 yielded many of the top preseason teams in Finals
Wichita Northwest coach Steve Martin graduated from Andale in 1999. He is the youngest of eight children. All of his siblings are at least 10 years older. From his family, Martin learned to follow the correct way and “stick up for what’s right.” Those family values have helped Martin in his successful coaching career and especially this summer.
Martin paced the Grizzlies to the state semifinals in ’17 and back-to-back 5A runner-up showings the previous two falls. He has built a record-breaking offense and added his longtime friend, Marc Marinelli, as defensive coordinator before ‘19. Marinelli has quickly rebuilt the unit and developed multiple Division I players. It’s marked the best era of Grizzly football.
This summer, Martin became the consistent voice when coronavirus threatened the 2020 season. Well-documented, Northwest and the Wichita Public Schools were in significant danger of not having a season after the school board voting. Martin, 39, continually spoke up on social media and interviews. The Grizzlies were preseason ranked second in 5A.
“It used to be all about winning and where you are at,” Martin said Sunday. “As you start getting older, you start realizing that these kids need more direction. So for me, I just couldn’t sit. I thought it was an injustice. I thought that the science that everybody was saying was not justifying us not playing. And so for me it was just doing what’s right – and I feel like when you do the right things, you are going to get rewarded.”
Wichita Public Schools eventually voted to start the season in Week 2. Northwest played a league-only schedule and has navigated the fall with a 10-0 mark. In the last two weeks, NW came back to beat rivals Kapaun Mt. Carmel and Bishop Carroll.
“Might have made us a lot mentally tougher than we have been in the past,” Martin said. “I mean, our guys had to ride a roller coaster wave of emotions and to be able to respond and flip it back on after being shut down for 10 days, and then only getting X amount of time to really get back in it and get after it, I thought our kids just showed a tremendous amount of resolve and being able to face adversity.”
Currently No. 1 in 5A, the Grizzlies face defending champion Mill Valley (8-2) on Saturday in a rematch of last fall’s title. Martin credited teachers, such as Ann Burgett, an English instructor since 1986 at Northwest. Burgett organized a tutoring session for athletes on Wednesday nights.
“I am not going to beat around the bush,” Martin said. “…Being able to play kept our kids’ heads in the books and was that carrot to make sure they are doing the right things.”
Nearly 250 miles west on KS-96W, third-year Leoti-Wichita County coach Brant Douglas understood the Indians could have a special 2020 season. WC had never made a state finale entering this fall and reached the semifinals in ’19. The Indians returned all its key players and added senior end Manny Chavez from nearby Tribune-Greeley County. WC was ranked No. 2 in the preseason in Eight-Man, Division I.
Chavez, a two-way starter, is the team’s vocal presence and top defensive player. Douglas was “really concerned” about players getting quarantined from sitting in close proximity to students who tested positive.
“We talked to our health department and they said if your players wear a facemask and a face shield and get the proper PPE training, then they can be considered not in close contact of somebody that tested positive in their classroom,” Douglas said. “So our players committed to it, and the entire team did it. And they decided that it was worth it to be able to play and not be quarantined to wear the face shield and face mask and do it properly, so I am extremely proud of them for that.”
Wichita County has posted a 12-0 season, and like Northwest, has risen a spot in the rankings. WC will play for its first state title Saturday at Newton’s Fischer Field versus Little River (10-2). A number of Indian opponents, including Hoxie, Hill City, Rawlins County and Ness City, all had games cancelled because of COVID-19 issues.
“Being ranked up that high and knowing what our potential was helped motivate them to do all those small things right, and I am sure other schools are having that same thought with their season,” Douglas said.
In the most unpredictable season in Kansas high school football history, predictably ensued for this weekend’s eight state championship games. Of the 16 teams left, nine were KPreps preseason ranked first or second in its respective classes.
“The teams that adapted the best to COVID situation would be here at the end,” St. Francis coach Nick Fawcett said.
Those are No. 1 6A Derby, Mill Valley and Northwest in 5A, No. 1 Andale and No. 2 Perry-Lecompton in 3A, No. 1 2A Rossville, Wichita County, and No. 1 St. Francis and No. 2 Hanover in Eight-Man, Division II.
Class 4A’s St. James Academy and Eight-Man, Division I’s Little River were each ranked third.
“2020, and the era of COVID,” Little River coach Kevin Ayers said. “That has changed so many things this season, and made it so much more challenging, because there are so many things outside of football that you can’t control. You feel like the ball is about to drop.”
Class 2A Hoisington and Class 1A Olpe were both ranked fifth in the preseason.
More preseason favorites advanced to a final this season than in ’19. In ’18, 11 top-3 preseason squads reached a final.
In ’18, 10 of the 16 finalists were ranked first or second in the preseason and one was third. Two unranked squads reached championships. Last season, eight teams were preseason No. 1 or No. 2. Zero preseason No. 3 squads reached a final.
Four unranked teams, including both 2A squads (Nemaha Central and Norton), reached the championship.
“These kids kind of understand the expectations and how we practice, and also the schemes, and so just the consistency helps a lot,” Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee said. “Because they feel comfortable, and the more comfortable you feel, the faster you are going to execute on game nights, so I think that’s probably No. 1 is just the consistency of it and understanding what you want to do as a program.”
Of the remaining five teams, just three were not ranked in the preseason: 6A Blue Valley North (7-2), 4A Arkansas City (6-6) and 1A Oakley (10-2). Oakley, picked as a KPreps Potential Breakout team in the preseason, is the state’s biggest surprise. The Plainsmen had eight total wins in the last four years. Senior running back Ethan Abell has rushed for 1,979 yards behind an experienced offensive line. The defense has posted back-to-back shutouts.
As well, 5A and 3A are both rematches from ’19. Derby and BVN met up in the ’17-18 state games. Derby, Mill Valley and Andale are all defending titlists; Derby has won two in a row.
“It’s the expectations of the program,” Martin said. “I think all those programs that (are) mentioned were not fly-by-night programs. These are programs that have turned themselves into blue bloods of Kansas football, and we fought like crazy to get our position to be mentioned with a name like Derby or Mill Valley, the Andales of the world, it takes a long time to build that program.”
Nine of the remaining 16 had made a final in the last two seasons, including St. Francis, the reigning Division I runner-up. Two others (Hoisington and Wichita County) were semifinalists last fall and are into the first final in school history.
“This was our goal all year,” Fawcett said. “We knew we had to get back. It was more of a sense of relief for us to make this game than a celebration – as it maybe was in the years past. Just holding everybody to standards and not be willing to waiver.”
Martin believes the offseason preparation and extra practice time has helped sustain the top programs. Teams are only scheduled nine games, though a trip to the state finals normally produces a 13-game slate. The extra month of practice and games has significantly helped.
“These guys have really had two more years of extra games and practices and I think that’s really an untold story,” Martin said.
In ’19, Hanover lost to rival Axtell in the regular season and state semifinals. It marked Hanover’s first non-state title trip since ’13. Coach Matt Heuer said Hanover had the best summer weight room attendance in his 16 years this year. Wichita Northwest led MV in the state title game before the Jaguars scored twice late.
“After a losing a heartbreaker last year in Pittsburg to Mill Valley, our guys got right to work, and they wanted a chance to be able to play again,” Martin said. “And I think that’s the type of thing that when you have a taste of it, you just want to get back there.”
The 2020 finalists, though, have battled through various obstacles, some involving COVID-19. In 6A, Blue Valley North, led by quarterback Henry Martin and all-purpose threat Mekhi Miller, didn’t start until Week 3. BVN played only other Blue Valley schools and had just two contests before Oct. 9.
Derby lost 45-14 to Mill Valley in Week 1, its worst defeat in a decade. Derby coach Brandon Clark and MV coach Joel Applebee are cousins and best friends. The Panthers had their Weeks 4 and 5 games cancelled because of COVID. Derby’s first home game came on Oct. 23. In the last two weeks, Derby has won at Lawrence and at Junction City by a combined score of 102-47.
“You can just see how they’ve gotten better and better on both their offensive line and defensive line,” Applebee said of Derby. “We always knew that they had the kids to do it. They were a little inexperienced coming into the season in those groups. You can just see the improvement that they have made. They are just playing at a very high level. They are playing very fast right now, and so that’s been a big part of their success.”
In 5A, Northwest has played just one non-City League game all season. Because of the lopsided nature of the City League, NW didn’t play a full game until Week 7. Martin knew “a lot of times” Northwest’s best competition was going to happen in practice. They ratcheted up Tuesday and Wednesday practices with significant competition periods. This included putting the ball at the 10-yard line to practice high school overtime. Consequences went to the losing group. Northwest has the No. 1 scoring defense in 5A behind a unit that includes defensive end Zac Daher (Army West Point commit) and defensive back Wetu Kalomo (Northern Illinois). Jacob Younkman holds the school record for career TFLs. Mill Valley lineman Ethan Kremer holds multiple school marks for sacks/TFLs.
“Our kids have just done a great job of knowing the situation and attacking it,” Martin said. “I have been a part of some teams and played on some teams that if we’ve had an off week, it was a chance to rest and not do anything, but our guys did a great job of attacking the off weeks and the bye weeks, and I thought we got better week in and week out.”
Mill Valley battled through several key injuries, including to quarterback Cooper Marsh and running back Quin Wittenauer and defensive end Cole Knappen. Marsh and Wittenauer both returned. Knappen has been out for the year. In Wittenauer’s place, Jacob Hartman moved from receiver to running back and rushed for 402 yards and five scores in two contests.
“Our guys understand our schemes,” Applebee said.
In 4A, St. James (7-4) started in Week 2. The winner of the 4A title game will have lowest winning percentage of any champion in state history. Arkansas City (6-6) has the most losses of any state qualifying team in Kansas annals.
SJA received a big benefit when senior La’James White transferred from K.C. Piper to SJA. Piper, which eventually had a season, had significant preseason uncertainty on if/when a season would happen. White has delivered a huge season for quarterback Dakota Burritt, the school’s single season passing leader with 2,613 yards.
White has 189 carries for 1,249 yards and 21 scores. He has caught 38 passes for 585 yards and six TDs. Special teams-wise, White has 300 return yards and blocked a huge extra point in overtime in the 36-35 win versus rival Bishop Miege.
Defensively, White has 42 tackles and is either first or tied for first in fumbles recovered (five), interceptions (three) and forced fumbles (three).
In 3A, Perry-Lecompton lost first team all-state quarterback Billy Welch to a season-ending injury. P-L has run on 70 percent of snaps after 59 percent last season. Senior Thad Metcalfe has taken over at quarterback and delivered a brilliant season for an experienced team. He is 79 of 123 passing for 1,251 yards with 11 scores against five interceptions. He has rushed 194 times for 1,213 yards and 24 scores.
The Kaws faced the state’s oddest scheduling quirk. In 3A, District 3, Topeka Hayden was 3-0, Baldwin 2-0, and Perry-Lecompton 3-1 with a loss to Hayden. Baldwin, a 3-5 team, finished as runner-up. P-L had to play Hayden earlier in the playoffs than expected, though still pulled out a 20-7 road victory.
Andale carries the state’s longest winning streak at 24 contests and lost a district game because of COVID-19. Hoisington and Olpe both won a playoff game because of COVID-19 forfeit. Olpe, which won 1A East, likely avoided Valley Heights, the state’s highest ranked team to prematurely end the season because of COVID.
Hoisington has battled through injuries, especially along the offensive line and with senior Hunter Morris, a lockdown corner. Josh Ball has moved from running back to offensive line. Like many other programs left, Hoisington’s high standards has yielded a state trip. Senior Holt Hanzlick, out all last year with injury, has 140 carries for 1,044 yards, 14 rushing scores, 72 tackles and 11 for loss, all team-highs.
“I think our guys have recognized and seen that the system works,” Hoisington coach Zach Baird said. “The formula is easy. It’s not always easy to carry out, but if it’s done right, we are going to be successful.”
COVID-19 affected the smallest counties, such as Cheyenne County (St. Francis) and Washington County (Hanover). In Week 6, Hanover was expected to play Twin Valley League rival Frankfort on Oct. 8.
Clifton-Clyde had its Oct. 8 game cancelled earlier in the week. On Oct. 7, Hanover and C-C played a junior high game. At that point, Hanover was still scheduled to play Frankfort. Heuer was talking with the C-C athletic director. Heuer walked away as the conversation ended. The AD turned to Heuer and jokingly said: “So if you cancel, we play tomorrow night?” Heuer said, “Sure.”
The next morning, Frankfort informed Hanover at 9:15 a.m. that it was not going to play. Within 45 minutes, Hanover scheduled Clifton-Clyde. Hanover beat C-C, 40-20, which easily yielded the Wildcats’ closest game. Heuer called the contest “a good game” and a “perfect storm” that people in both communities were excited to see.
“It’s definitely been a little bit different,” Heuer said. “I would say that our kids have handled it extremely well. My coaching staff has handled it extremely well, and honestly I feel like it’s probably helped us in adapting to certain situations.”
SF and six-man champion Bird City-Cheylin, also located in Cheyenne County, tried to schedule Colorado schools for stronger competition. Colorado switched football to the spring. Fawcett has had more missed practices from players than in his first two seasons. However, he’s not penalized the missing practices as much as in the past because of the pandemic.
St. Francis has weaved through the fall and notably missed some linemen for stretches – but enters this Saturday the same place it started 3.5 months ago: the No. 1 team in Eight-Man, Division II. SF is one of five preseason No. 1 squads still left, one more last year’s finals.
“Some of our players told us that they didn’t think we’d ever get to play a game, and here we are Week 13, getting to play,” Fawcett said. “Our administration here has been great. They haven’t been very fearful. I feel there’s been a lot of common sense and practice with our kids on our team and our parents. So when we had the sniffles, nobody has freaked out. Just stayed home for a few days and came back when they got healthy.”
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