A 2016 football season that could have been a disaster ended with Hayden playing in the Class 4A Division II state championship game.
Although the Wildcats came up short in their bid for the school’s fourth state title, Hayden coach Bill Arnold is hopeful that the example set by last year’s seniors can help pave the way for another championship run this fall.
“I don’t think we played very well in the state championship game (a 48-14 loss to Pratt), but leading up to that I thought our kids were very well focused,” said Arnold, who is starting his 11th season at Hayden. “We start the season off at 1-4 and I guarantee you 90 percent of the teams across the state, across the country, are probably going to fold their tent and feel sorry for themselves, but we didn’t. We had some good senior leadership a year ago and hopefully they taught this group some things.
“Every senior group that comes through this school needs to leave a mark because of the tradition that we have here at Hayden and they owe it to the younger guys to leave a mark and give them something to grow from. That’s my hope and I really felt like the group last year did that, with the way season started and the way we finished up … almost finished up.”
Senior linebacker Brent Peavler, who earned All-City Top 11 and All-Centennial League honors last season, said 2016 was a learning experience for the Wildcats.
“I think it just shows that playing for Hayden we never quit,” Peavler said. “We knew we were going to have some troubles and we just kept working. The Pratt game was disappointing but we still got there.”
Hayden faces its usual brutal schedule this fall, starting with 6A Topeka High and later matching up against Seaman and Washburn Rural teams that combined for 15 wins a year ago.
The Wildcats return a solid nucleus to build around, starting with senior wide receiver DeShawn Hanika, quarterback Sampson Huston, lineman Kyle Meier and linebackers Peavler and Brandon VanBecelaere.
Peavler (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) led the Wildcats with 172 tackles and 11 sacks last season, while VanBecelaere (5-9, 165) was in on 106 stops. Offensively, Hanika (6-5, 220) caught 34 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns and Huston (6-0, 170) passed for 842 yards and 10 TDs. Hanika received All-City and All-Centennial League honorable mention last season.
Hayden also returns junior returning starters Daniel Hernandez (5-11, 195 offensive lineman) and Evan Prohaska (6-1, 185 junior). Prohaska was credited with 19 tackles and three sacks as a junior. Meier (5-9, 235) will provide leadership for the Wildcats up front.
“Our expectations are never going to change at Hayden. We expect to win and we’re going out to win a state championship year-in and year-out,” Arnold said. “We’ve got some good players that got a lot of experience a year ago, but at the same time you can’t win a state championship by yourself. You’ve got to bring everybody else into it. We’re about as team-oriented as any program can be I think.”
WILDCATS AT A GLANCE
Coach — Bill Arnold, 11th year
Last year’s record — 8-5, 2-4 in Centennial League
Top offensive returners — WR DeShawn Hanika, sr.; OL Daniel Hernandez, jr.; QB Sampson Huston, sr.; OL Kyle Meier, sr.
Top defensive returners — LB Brent Peavler, sr.; DL Evan Prohaska, jr.; LB Brandon VanBecelaere, sr.
Schedule — Sept 1 at Topeka High (Hummer), Sept. 8 Emporia, Sept. 15 at Seaman, Sept. 22 Topeka West, Sept. 29 at Washburn Rural, Oct. 6 Shawnee Heights, Oct. 13 Santa Fe Trail, Oct. 20 Holton, Oct. 27 at Jefferson West