SILVER LAKE — For the better part of the past 15 seasons, Silver Lake represented the gold standard for Class 3A football in the eastern half of Kansas.
From 2002 to 2013, the Eagles reached the state championship game 11 times, winning titles in 2006, 2010 and 2013. Only once during that stretch did another program rise up and deny Silver Lake from playing on the final weekend of the year — Marysville in 2009.
The bar the Eagles set was high and the message was clear for their eastern challengers. Either raise the level of your program or continue to languish behind.
“It makes high school football great when week in, week out you have to compete really well,” Silver Lake coach C.J. Hamilton said. “Our league’s always been really good, putting good numbers in the playoffs — three, four five, sometimes all of them. We’ve taken a lot of pride in that.
“Nobody likes to get beat and they’ve done a good job of meeting that challenge. We’ve got some eastern Kansas schools that are playing some pretty good football.”
Indeed, the past three years, the double-edge nature of the sword Silver Lake wielded for the bulk of the 2000s has cut a little close to home. Not only have the Eagles gone three straight years without reaching the championship game, each of the last two seasons have ended in the second round of the Class 3A playoffs.
Last year, it was a 21-14 loss to Nemaha Central that ended Silver Lake’s undefeated season. An early exit in 2015 didn’t sit well with the Eagles and last year’s premature end has only further fanned the flames of motivation heading into the 2017 season.
“The year before and last year have really pushed us to work harder to get to where we want to be,” Silver Lake senior linebacker Josh Boyd said. “It used to kind of just be us and Rossville, but now Nemaha, Sabetha and some other teams have stepped up and that just makes us have to work harder. As a team, you just have to come together to beat those guys.”
Silver Lake handed three-time reigning champion Rossville its only loss of the season a year ago, reclaiming the Mid-East League title. Defense was a strong suit for the Eagles in 2016 as Silver Lake allowed just 11.3 points per game and surrendered more than 20 points in a game three times.
Things shouldn’t change this year as Boyd is one of six returning starters on that side of the ball with three of the returning starters first-team all-league selections last year. Boyd has led the Eagles in tackles each of the last two years, making 127 total stops last year on his way to first-team all-league and All-Class 3A honors.
Senior safety Keenan Baird and cornerback Trent Byers were also first-team all-league selections as the defensive secondary returns virtually intact from last year. Senior linebacker Will Boyd was second to Josh Boyd in tackles with 85 and the biggest holes for the unit are up front where graduation claimed all four starters.
“I feel like our defense is a big factor,” Boyd said. “Offense is good, you score points, but defense is what it comes down to. It’s one of the most important parts of the game because if you can’t stop the other team, good luck winning.”
Silver Lake’s offense averaged 35 points per game last year and also returns six starters. The Eagles will have to replace three-year starting quarterback Dalton Dultmeier, who had more than 2,700 yards of total offense, and leading receiver Ryan Wagner (41 catches, 907 yards, 8 TDs), but plenty of firepower is back.
Senior Mason Jones ran for 516 yards and seven touchdowns and Baird and junior Wyatt Heiman combined for 73 catches and 1,159 yards and 15 touchdowns. Their presence will help junior Mason Griffin transition to the starting quarterback job after he threw for 364 yards and nine touchdowns in a backup role last year.
The biggest fire, however, might be the motivation for this year’s senior class not to be the first in nearly two decades to graduate without being part of a team which played in a state championship game.
“The toughest part is the older brothers are giving them crap about it,” Hamilton said. “It’s a motivator for sure and it comes from within from these guys and the previous groups who have gone through.”
And now that the road in the postseason has gotten even tougher, Hamilton said it’s up to the Eagles to get back ahead of the curve.
“We take it year by year that we have to do that,” Hamilton said. “You don’t just wait until everybody catches up and then run fast. It’s like a race where you just have to keep getting better and better and how it plays out, it plays out. … Sometimes not meeting your goal is a good thing because you learn that you have to step it up and the most important thing is how you handle it when you don’t.”
EAGLES AT A GLANCE
Coach — C.J. Hamilton, 42nd year
Last year’s record — 10-1, 5-0 in Mid-East League
Top offensive returners — WR Keenan Baird, sr.; RB Mason Jones, sr.; OT Josh Dallman, sr.; OG Tyler Griffin, sr.; WR Wyatt Heiman, jr.; WR Dillon Byrne, jr.
Top defensive returners — LB Josh Boyd, sr.; S Keenan Baird, sr.; S Mason Jones, sr.; LB Jordan Priddy, sr.; LB Will Boyd, sr.; CB Trent Byers, Sr.
Schedule — Sept 1 KC Washington, Sept. 8 at Wabaunsee, Sept. 15 at St. Marys, Sept. 22 Rock Creek, Sept. 29 Rossville, Oct. 6 at Riley County, Oct. 13 Oskaloosa, Oct. 20 at Perry-Lecompton, Oct. 26 Royal Valley