ROSSVILLE — In many respects, Rossville is a lot like many football programs across the state of Kansas.
After graduation claimed a huge, talented senior class, fifth-year coach Derick Hammes has spent the offseason trying to figure out which pieces will fit where.
“We’re working with the group that we have and trying to get these kids as good as we can get them, maximize their talent,” Hammes said.
Where Rossville is unlike most programs, however, is the Bulldawgs have made good on making those pieces fit together and maximizing the results. Rossville enters the 2017 season working on a streak of three straight Class 3A state championships, capturing last year’s title with a thrilling 48-42 overtime win over Hesston.
Each of the last two title defenses have come after having to replace key personnel from the previous championship squad. Last year, the task was filling the monstrous void left by two-time Top 11 All-State quarterback Tucker Horak, as well as four starting offensive linemen and the entire defensive front.
The job of stepping into Horak’s shoes fell to Jacob Bradshaw, who merely responded with a pretty darn good impression of his former teammate. All Bradshaw did in his only year as starting quarterback was rush for 2,734 yards and 31 touchdowns and throw for 1,774 yards and 25 scores, earning Top 11 All-State honors as well.
His graduation leaves an equally large void for new signal caller Sheldon Hulbert. The senior has served as backup to both Horak and Bradshaw the past two seasons, and though he’s only attempted five passes and logged 16 carries, he said doesn’t feel a lot of pressure to continue Rossville’s recent run of stellar quarterback play.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a little bit of pressure,” Hulbert said. “But Jake came in and handled it well and I just plan on coming in and doing as well as Jake did. Asking them questions helped a lot and just being able to watch them and see how they did things helped out quite a bit.
“Just in being a leader. The quarterback calls all the plays and really gets the team going. He’s the one that makes the offense go.”
Hammes said he fully expects Hulbert to be up to the challenge, whether that means duplicating the eye-popping seasons turned in by Horak and Bradshaw or not.
“I think he’s got a good understanding of what we do,” Hammes said. “His talents are different and we said the same thing last year about Jacob. Every kid we have is going to bring something different to the table, and what I like about him is he understands what we want to do and has a grasp what leadership is supposed to be about, and to me that’s awfully important. He’s been around our program a while and it just feels like we’ve got a new guy ready to give it a shot and give teams something different to prepare for.”
Whereas Bradshaw had a handful of known offensive commodities to help his transition — namely the likes of All-3A receiver Cole Schumacher, 1,000-yard rusher Dawson Hammes and standout lineman Jackson Reeves — Hulbert takes over an offense that returns just one starter. Senior back Perry Foster stepped in when Hammes suffered an early season injury and finished with 724 yards and nine touchdowns.
Beyond that, there are mostly unknowns, as Rossville graduated its entire offensive line and everyone but Foster who had a reception a year ago. Defensively, Hulbert was the team’s second-leading tackler behind Hammes, making 129 tackles, but lineman Nathan Dohrman (33 tackles) and linebacker Reed Miller (three starts) are the only other returning starters.
“This group is more similar to last year’s group,” Hammes said. “There were some key components returning from (2015) that had a lot of talent, but there was a lot of turnover and we had a lot of question marks last year.”
Rossville answered them well, losing only to Silver Lake during the regular season, ending a string of three straight Mid-East League titles. But as the Bulldawgs got healthy late in the season, they hit their stride and pulled out tight wins against Sabetha (34-28) and Nemaha Central (27-22) to return to the state championship game.
Down 15 to Hesston in the second half and trailing by a touchdown with less than four minutes to go, Rossville rallied to force overtime and won the title on Bradshaw’s 10-yard run on its first offensive play after the defense forced a Swather fumble at the 1. Each of the Bulldawgs’ three state titles have come after facing fourth-quarter deficits, showing the program’s resolve.
“The difference is the faces,” Hammes said. “The similarity is the belief is still there. There’s a confidence there, and with the turnover we’ve had, there’s probably teams that wouldn’t have the confidence we’ve had and have. I’m not going to put a damper on that. I want us to be confident, that we’ve been here before. The names and faces are different, but the attitude we have in our program hasn’t changed, and that’s priceless.
“There’s high expectations, but there are always high expectations for our program. We’ll have a target on our back, but we’ll be used to that.”
BULLDAWGS AT A GLANCE
Coach — Derick Hammes, 5th year
Last year’s record — 13-1, 4-1 in Mid-East League
Top offensive returners — RB Perry Foster, sr.
Top defensive returners — LB Sheldon Hulbert, sr.; DL Nathan Dohrman, sr.; LB Reed Miller, sr.
Schedule — Sept. 1 Marysville, Sept. 8 at Rock Creek, Sept. 15 Riley County, Sept. 22 at Wabaunsee, Sept. 29 at Silver Lake, Oct. 6 at Burlington, Oct. 13 Mission Valley, Oct. 20 at St. Marys, Oct. 26 Council Grove