By CONOR NICHOLL
Little River and Clifton-Clyde met in a high-profile Week 2 matchup of ranked Eight-Man, Division I squads. Little River gained 322 yards of total offense on an efficient 8.3 yards per play, though took a 42-36 overtime loss. The Redskins tossed an interception. Little River struggled with the center/quarterback exchange and recorded five fumbles, one lost, from junior center Kaden Schafer.
Three weeks later, Little River had another signature matchup versus then-No. 1 Canton-Galva. In a game that ultimately decided the district title, LR ran 68 plays. The Redskins held edges in total snaps and time of possession and collected 5.6 yards per play. Little River tossed a pair of interceptions and fell, 58-36. At that point, Little River stood at 3-2 and had committed four turnovers all season.
Several times in 2020, coach Kevin Ayers mentioned that the turnovers, especially in the Clifton-Clyde game, became “more of a focal point” for improvement.
“Can point to a lot of little things that if we had just done a little bit different, the game might have turned out better, so our kids are really focused on that,” Ayers said. “The turnover bug especially again in the postseason is something you just can’t have. The teams are too good, and you turn the ball over, you are behind the eight-ball, and it’s really hard to win ball games.”
After the Canton-Galva loss, Little River ran off eight straight victories. Schafer never had a fumble after Week 2. LR never threw another interception following Canton-Galva. Before the Division I state championship, Ayers noted Schafer “has improved so much.”
Then, the offensive line, anchored by Schafer, helped Little River defeat Wichita County, 70-58, in an historic title game on Thanksgiving weekend at Newton’s Fischer Field. The teams set a bevy of eight-man state records, including most combined points.
“I saw on film they were really good,” Wichita County coach Brant Douglas said. “Both sides of the ball, they are assignment sound, and they just do their job. If you do that, you are going to win a lot of games, and they proved that this season.”
Douglas said LR played “almost” a perfect offensive game. Little River finished with 65 plays for 444 yards. Senior Jayden Garrison, the unanimous media selection for SIK classification offensive player of the year, rushed for 218 yards.
He rushed for four touchdowns, caught a key receiving score and threw a TD pass. Garrison became the first player in state history to rush, catch and pass for a score, according to Kansas State High School Activities Association records/historian Brett Marshall. Senior Graham Stephens accounted for five offensive touchdowns.
Little River’s interior offensive line featured all juniors with Schafer, Carter Holloway and Kyle Bruce. Schafer is 5-foot-10, 227 pounds. Bruce is 5-10, 231, and Holloway is 171. They helped Little River to an 11-2 record and 54 points per contest. Overall, LR averaged 8.8 yards per play and committed just six turnovers all season.
“They are all tone setters,” Garrison said. “They do the dirty work. They don’t get talked about. They don’t put in articles. They don’t get put in newspapers, but ultimately they do all the work, and they deliver. They deliver for us week in and week out.”
The team was always impressed with its edge blocking and called the ends/receivers “mini-Hogs.” The group included sophomores Grant Stephens and Braxton Lafferty, along with junior Ty Herzog. Garrison, Schafer, Lafferty and Graham Stephens were Little River’s four first team all-league picks. Grant was LR’s lone honorable mention selection.
“Go-to read option stuff with me and Graham in the backfield, and then you can’t forget about our O-Line up front and our ‘mini-Hogs’ on the outside,” Garrison said. “Definitely the skill guys, great team effort. Not just two guys. This is a whole team effort and winning a state championship takes everybody.”
The offensive line improvement helped Little River accomplish rare history. LR became the fourth team to win an eight-man title with more than one loss. It marked the first since Victoria went 10-3 and captured the Division II title in ’04.
“Our relationship together as a team,” Stephens said. “We come together. We are so close. We love each other. We are there for each other. We have each other’s back.”
Ayers, in his second year with Little River, moved to 4-1 all-time in state games and stands at 178-43 in 21 seasons.
“Great guy,” Stephens said. “We all trust him. We are all behind him. We all just go. Just go 100 mile an hour.”
He and Tom Young are the lone coaches in state history to win championships at three different schools. Ayers went 2-0 in state games at Jetmore and 1-1 at Wallace County. LR tied ’89 Hanston for the most points ever in an eight-man state game.
“I told the players after the game, the thing I love the most about sports is relationships,” Ayers said. “The memories that you make. The memories they made tonight, they will remember for a lifetime, and they made them with each other, so those relationships, it’s the reason I coach.”
Little River defeated two undefeated squads in the playoffs: Madison in the semifinals and Wichita County in the championship. LR was considered the underdog in both. LR played just once at home in the last four contests.
The Redskins had its Round of 16 rematch against Clifton-Clyde and won 46-26. In the quarterfinals, Little River beat Chase County, 70-26. In the semifinals, LR faced Madison’s defense, known for turnover creation, and won 48-24.
In the championship, Little River never trailed. WC senior quarterback Kayde Rietzke finished with 398 total yards, the second-most by any player in eight-man state title history. Wichita County’s Tristen Porter had a 79-yard kickoff return, the longest in eight-man state title game annals. The game had 898 yards of total offense.
In the last four contests, the Redskins had a combined two turnovers. Notably, LR was plus-2 in turnover margin versus Chase County and plus-1 versus Madison. Little River had lost, 74-38, in the ’19 playoffs to Wichita County when Stephens was out with injury.
“We are a year older, we are a year more mature,” Ayers said. “They have done the work in the offseason. This team doesn’t miss strength and conditioning. They don’t miss the practices we have, and it’s a process. Having Stephens in there just was that extra little pop…, but watching all those other kids, how much better they are than when we played them last year was pretty rewarding.”
Garrison caught a 29-yard pass on 4th-and-22, a huge play that eventually yielded a touchdown and a 46-30 lead with 1:55 left in the first half.
“Our offensive line did a great job protecting, because they are really good at rushing the passer, so had to give him time and so glad it worked out,” Ayers said.
In the second half, Little River had just three passes. Overall, the Redskins had just seven pass attempts against 58 rushes. It marked LR’s most rushing attempts of 2020. Schafer and the offensive line continued to show improvement and helped the Redskins churn out TD drives in the second half.
“When you get a lead against a team like this, you kind of lean on them,” Ayers said. “I came in thinking we would throw the ball more. I just really did. But when you’ve got that lead and you want that clock to run and man, it seemed like it was going so slow tonight. You just lean on those offensive linemen, and they have gotten so much better. I couldn’t be more proud of those guys.”
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