EIGHT-MAN DIVISION I STATE NOTES
Runner-up in Eight-Man Division II in 2014 and 2015, ARGONIA-ATTICA (Independent) made the move up to Division I last year and proved it could hang in that division as well, going 7-3. That was with a largely new cast of starters and with six starters back each way this season, the Titans hold higher expectations to contend even more this year. Replacing leading rusher Seth Hemberger in the backfield will be a big key, but senior quarterback Trevor Pierce had a solid season in his first year replacing All-Eight-Man pick Alec McDaniel and has a top-notch blocker in junior Masen McDaniel. Both were all-district picks both ways last year and the key could be finding a playmaker to go with Pierce and shoring up a defense which gave up 90, 48 and 60 points in the three losses.
ATWOOD (Northwest Kansas) served early notice it would be a tough out in 2016, beating Sharon Springs in week two. Sure enough, the Buffaloes put together a solid 8-2 season with the lone losses coming to St. Francis and Spearville, which finished a combined 22-2. Despite a tough schedule, another playoff berth could be in the cards behind an offense led by senior quarterback Maverick Green, who had 1,028 yards rushing and another 701 passing last year, accounting for 22 touchdowns. Three starters are back on the line and so are both running backs.
Offensive production wasn’t an issue for BENNINGTON (Heart of America) last year as the Bulldogs averaged 36 points per game. It shouldn’t be this year either with the entire backfield returning. Quarterback Devin Feil threw for 1,104 yards and 19 touchdowns and JJ Allen ran for 885 yards and 15 scores. Holes will have to be filled on the line where Ethan Schlachter is the lone returner and shoring up a defense which allowed 52.6 points per game will be key, though six starters return on that side of the ball led by JT Ohlson (72 tackles) and Allen (69 tackles).
Only weeks before the start of the season, CANTON-GALVA (Wheat State) had a coaching change as Shelby Hoppes takes over for Dustin Patee, who was 3-15 in two years as head coach. The Eagles had improved depth and returned five starters each way. Senior back Dylan Wood scored 21 touchdowns a year ago and also had 95 tackles on defense. Senior defensive back Jonah Sargent led the team with 123 tackles and filling holes on the line where only one starter returns is the biggest challenge.
After going 8-3 in 2015, CENTRAL-BURDEN (South Central Border) fell back to 2-7 with a young squad last year. Those growing pains should pay dividends this year, though fourth-year coach Anthony Blair shifts personnel around this season. Five starters return on offense and four are back on defense, three of them juniors on a senior-heavy roster. Dustin Handlin settled in at quarterback last year and lineman Austin Branscum was an anchor both ways.
A 58-26 loss to fellow unbeaten Spearville end the quest for an undefeated season for CENTRAL PLAINS (Central Prairie). The Oilers had rolled to 10 straight wins with only one game decided by less than 25 points. The key to another deep run will be replacing two of three starters on the offensive line as graduation claimed All-Eight-Man I pick Trey Schulte. If the Oilers capably plug those holes, they’ve got a set of skill players unmatched. Not only does All-Eight-Man I receiver Alex Barton (815 yards, 17 TDs) and quarterback Devin Ryan (1,650 yards, 32 TDs) return but Central Plains gained transfer Myles Menges from Ellinwood where he threw for 1,814 yards and 20 touchdowns. Both could see time at quarterback this year, giving the Oilers an embarrassment of riches offensively.
Head coach at CENTRE (Wheat State) from 2006-12, Kelly Steiner returns as head coach after spending the past four years as an assistant coach for the Cougars. Centre was 4-4 last year, but finished the season with wins in three of its last four games including a 38-34 win over rival Rural Vista in the finale. Six starters return each way led by senior back Max Svoboda and end Cody Svoboda.
Graduation didn’t claim a whole lot in terms of numbers for GOESSEL (Wheat State). But it did take a big hit in talent, most notable the departure of quarterback Josh Schmidt, who had 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns passing and another 1,053 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing. That’s a lot of production to replace, though the Bluebirds to return four starters on offense led by senior end Jordan Griffin and lineman Carson Sterk.
Small and young. That best sums up HILL CITY (Mid-Continent) in 2017 as just four seniors are expected to start and no starter is bigger than 185 pounds. Graduation claimed do-everything back Gabe Hamel, but two more Hamels are still around to try and improve on last year’s 4-5 mark — senior Ethan, who will split time at quarterback with junior Conner Born, and freshman Jayce, who also will figure into the backfield mix. Ethan had a combined 547 yards rushing and passing last year.
Looking for a non-playoff team to jump into title contender status? Well, then HOXIE (Northwest Kansas) might be the answer. The Indians were a respectable 6-3 a year ago, but couldn’t get past Atwood and St. Francis to return to the playoffs. Everyone is back this year, giving Hoxie arguably the most experienced team in the state. Backs Troyal Burris and Latham Schwarz combined for nearly 1,500 yards rushing a year ago and have good size up front in senior lineman Taye Washington (310 pounds), who is a standout wrestler as well.
LINCOLN (Northern Plains) went 1-8 in Don Long’s first year as head coach, winning the opener with Tescott before dropping its final eight games. The Leopards gave up at least 46 points in all eight losses so improvement on that side of the ball is a must if they want to take steps this year. Six starters do return on that side of the ball, three of them linemen with Cody Behrens the lone senior in the group.
Chad Lafferty takes over as head coach at LITTLE RIVER (Wheat State), replacing Paul Dold. The Redskins were 4-6 last year, reaching the playoffs before falling to South Central. Five starters return each way and Lafferty should have a solid backfield in senior Peyton Harvey and junior Hunter Thomas.
Despite posting seven wins last year, LOGAN-PALCO (Western Kansas Liberty) fell short in its bid to make the playoffs, a 56-34 loss to Solomon ultimately keeping them home during the postseason. The only other loss came to eventual state champion Osborne, a game in which they scored 44 points. Seven starters are back each way and senior back David Thompson had a huge year as a junior, rushing for 1,696 yards and 31 touchdowns. The only starter lost to graduation was a key one, All-Eight-Man I first-team defensive end Josh Van Laeys, who also quarterbacked and was the team’s unquestioned leader.
Winning just one game in Chet Skinner’s first two years as coach, MACKSVILLE (Central Prairie) jumped up to four wins last year. A bulk of last year’s production returns with many of the seven starters now in their third year of being major contributors. Junior receiver Karson Waters finished with 920 yards on 56 catches with 14 touchdowns and senior quarterback Jacob Rein was off to a good start before getting hurt in week three and still threw for 412 yards and ran for 191. Senior Clayton Cross is the lone returning starting lineman and the only true size the Mustangs have.
MARMATON VALLEY (Three Rivers) enjoyed its best and first winning season since 2012, going 5-4 in Gavin Cole’s first year as head coach. A ground and pound attack was the offensive philosophy a year ago and produced 702 yards and 10 touchdowns for back Trevor Wilson and another 544 yards and eight scores from quarterback Justice Pugh. Cole will look to be a bit more diverse this season with five skill starters back. Junior Isaac Heskett is the lone returning starter on the line.
A tough schedule featuring Division II runner-up Dighton and Division I runner-up St. Francis played a big role in OBERLIN (Northwest Kansas) posting a 2-6 record. Five starters are back both ways with senior Kel Grafel the lone returner in the backfield. Zeke Jimenez and Reegon Witt return up front.
For the second time in four years OSBORNE (Northern Plains) put together an undefeated state championship season, running the table in Division I with a perfect 13-0 mark. Behind the powerful backfield duo of Cullen Grabast and Denton Schurr, the Bulldogs averaged 58.8 points per game and capped the title season with 38-24 win over St. Francis in the title game. Grabast is gone along with All-Eight-Man I lineman Derek Naegele, but Schurr is back after rushing for 1,788 rushing yards and a whopping 39 touchdowns on his way to first-team All-Division I honors. Senior linebacker Roxton Brown had a big year defensively and will anchor a new-look offensive line.
Just about everyone returns for OXFORD (South Central Border), which went 7-3 last year — two of the three losses coming to league rival West Elk. Senior back Dalton Silhan finished with 1,219 yards and 21 touchdowns and is one of three returning all-district picks along with quarterback Cal Shimkus and lineman Neil Terry. The Wildcats will be senior-heavy with the biggest holes to fill being the loss of leading receiver Tyler Vaughn and top lineman Chevis Cowdin.
A large freshman class will help the numbers at QUINTER (Northwest Kansas). Instead of providing depth, however, the class could be called on contribute immediately as the Bulldogs try get things going after posting an 0-8 record last year in Micah Roehl’s first year as head coach. Five starters return with senior linebacker Luke Kaiser averaging 11.3 tackles per game last year.
Working on three straight winning seasons, SATANTA (SPIAA) might be poised to take the next step and advance a round or two in the playoffs. The Indians missed out on the postseason a year ago after going two straight years in Division II. Still, they fashioned a 5-4 mark and return seven starters each way from that squad. Junior quarterback Gabe Salas had a breakout year as a sophomore in Justin Helton’s first year as head coach, rushing for 1,247 yards and throwing for 892 yards with a total of 18 touchdowns. Senior Ty Blair adds a versatile threat out of the backfield and had 13 total touchdowns and two other receivers and all three starting linemen return for an offense which amassed more than 3,500 yards. New defensive coordinator Luke Keller will look to improve a unit which allowed nearly 40 points per game.
As improbable as it might seem, eight wins weren’t enough to get SEDAN (South Central Border) into the Division I playoffs a year ago. A 46-24 loss to West Elk denied the Blue Devils, who tied for the district title with the Patriots and St. Paul with Sedan losing out on the points tiebreaker. The Blue Devils will be strong up front with two of three starters back led by seniors Dakota Halderman and Isaac Campbell, but the entire backfield graduated. The new backfield will be young with two sophomores expected to start.
Even though SOLOMON (Wheat State) couldn’t return to the state semifinals for the second straight year, the 6-4 playoff season the Gorillas turned in was pretty solid given their graduation losses from the 2015 squad. Experience won’t be an issue this year as 10 different players who started last year return. Junior Braden Neilson stepped in at quarterback for the departed Jake Tiernan and had a strong sophomore campaign, throwing for 8887 yards and 17 touchdowns. Leading rusher Jake Harmon (648 yards, 10 TDs) also is back, as is leading receiver Jake Burdine (311 yards, 4 TDs).
Billy Nichols couldn’t have asked for a much better first season as head coach at SOUTH CENTRAL (SPIAA). The Timberwolves went 9-2 and reached the state quarterfinals before losing to eventual runner-up St. Francis. Six starters are back for an offense which averaged nearly 40 points per game despite starting a freshman quarterback half the year — Chayde Snyder, who threw for 1,141 yards in six games. South Central has an experienced offensive line back led by Cabe Lindsay, who also led the team with 122 tackles.
SOUTH GRAY (SPIAA) went 2-7 in Jesse Hodgson’s first year as head coach, but looks to get back toward a winning season with seven starters back. The Rebels didn’t generate much of a rushing attack a year ago, but Austin Jantz threw for 1,196 yards and 16 touchdowns as a sophomore starter and has his top receiver back in Ismael Rosas (36 catches, 402 yards).
A bid for a second straight state title ended in the state semifinals for SPEARVILLE (SPIAA), which went 11-1 with the lone defeat a 36-30 loss to St. Francis. The Lancers were every bit as potent as their title team, averaging nearly 55 points per game and shouldn’t drop off much despite the graduation of two-time All-Eight-Man I back Luke Heskamp, who had 1,166 yards. Five other backs who gained at least 155 yards are back, led by junior quarterback Kolby Stein (879 rush, 15 TDs; 665 passing, 11 TDs), but the entire offensive and defensive lines must be replaced as does leading tackler and All-Eight-Man I linebacker Kyler Stein.
Coming off a 10-1 season in 2015, ST. FRANCIS (Northwest Kansas) took another step toward the program’s first state championship, taking an undefeated record into the Division I state title game before falling 38-24 to Osborne. The 11-1 season was the best in school history and despite losing some key skill players (Quinton Cravens, Brock Waters) and good linemen (Jerry Nietzel), appear more than capable of reloading for another run. Sophomore Brady Dinkel, a starter defensively as a freshman, takes over for Cravens, while Tate Busse returns at receiver after having 15 touchdown catches and 800-plus yards last year. The receiving corps gets a boost with the addition of Cheylin transfer Wyatt Hackler, while both lines return a top-notch talent in Trayton Doyle, a four-year starter. A total of 11 players who starter on a defense which posted seven shutouts and gave up just 112 points return.
Two years removed from going just 3-6, ST. PAUL (Three Rivers) followed up a 6-3 season in 2015 with a 9-2 mark last year. A late-season hiccup nearly kept the Indians out of the playoffs, but they got in on the points tiebreaker and then ran past Peabody before falling to Burlingame in the quarterfinals. The departure of Chandler Struthers leaves a huge hole in the backfield after the senior back rushed for 1,960 yards and 43 touchdowns last year. Five starters do return led by senior linemen Anthony Albertini and Koby Spielbush, who were first-team all-league and district picks. Senior Braven Born returns at quarterback and could direct a more potent passing attack as a new backfield develops around him.
A string of five straight winning seasons came to an end for UDALL (South Central Border) as the Eagles slumped to 2-7 last year with an extremely young team that featured two freshmen and four sophomores starting on offense. The good news is everyone is back this year and should be more prepared for the rugged schedule, which gained a week two game against defending Division II champion Hanover. Backs Josh Fielder and Dylan Loos each had 700-plus yards rushing a year ago and veteran coach Wyatt Williams is excited about the addition of freshman Dylan Bishop, who was dominating in eighth grade.
Back-to-back Division II state champions in 2014 and 2015, VICTORIA (Central Prairie) saw how tough life in Division I can be, going just 5-4 in its move up a class. The Knights played a tough schedule throughout, but are equipped to meet the challenges better this year with six returning starters after being young a year ago. Victoria has a strong 1-2 ground attack in quarterback Collin Kisner and tailback Cooper Pfanenstiel, who ran for 1,210 and 703 yards, respectively, and combined for 34 touchdowns.
Improved numbers will give WAKEENEY (Mid-Continent) depth to go with experience as six starters return from last year’s 3-6 squad. Senior tailback Hunter Folsom ran for 631 yards and was an all-league pick defensively, while offensive lineman Brady Mattke also was an all-league selection. Junior linebacker TJ Hafliger recorded 89 tackles.
Losing a high-profile player such as Isaiahh Loudermilk didn’t seem to faze WEST ELK (South Central Border) too much as the Patriots followed up 2015’s 10-1 season with a 9-2 record, the only losses coming to St. Paul and eventual state champion Osborne. Senior quarterback Cade Miller enjoyed a strong sophomore year, but nearly doubled his production last year as a junior, rushing for 1,240 yards and 29 touchdowns and throwing for 1,033 yards and 18 scores. He lost two key linemen in Kolvin Berry and William Young but has two of his top targets back and will have seniors stepping into the holes on the line.
NOTE — The following schools did not return questionnaires: Cedar Vale-Dexter, Ellinwood, Fairfield, Flinthills, Kinsley, Kiowa County, Leoti, Ness City, Peabody, Pratt-Skyline and St. John.