There was a time not that long ago when Topeka High’s coaches, players and fans would have been thrilled with a 5-4 record, but these days the Trojans expect a lot more.
So even though Topeka High survived an injury-riddled 2016 campaign to record its fifth straight winning season and its seventh over the past eight years, the Trojans will be setting their sights on bigger accomplishments this fall.
“We had won the league four years in a row,” said Topeka High coach Walt Alexander, starting his 12th season at the school. “We were 8-2, 9-2, 7-3 and we had that nice long streak and then we went 5-4. But when you look back on that season, there was a 3-point loss to Junction (City), a 1-point loss to Wichita Northwest on a heartbreaker at the end of the game. Those kids were just as close as those 8-2 teams were.
“We feel like the kids did well last year. A winning record is a winning record, but we were disappointed obviously because every group now wants to be that group that goes just a little bit farther.”
A year ago the Trojans battled a string of injuries from start to finish, but because of that several younger Topeka High players picked up valuable playing experience that Alexander thinks could pay dividends this season.
“We had six starters out and they were key guys,” said Alexander, who is 62-44 at High. “That was actually the absolute worst year we’ve had for serious injuries, with Corey (Thomas) and (Billy) Wagemaker and (Hunter) Holloman and the list went on and on and it just really disrupted our season.
“But I thought it was the best coaching job our coaches had done since we’ve been here because those kids played so hard. We’ve been through that (key injuries) one other year and I think it pays off for us.”
A strength for the Trojans heading into ‘17 is their offensive line, where seniors Tanner Matthias (6-foot, 260 pounds), Matt Garza (6-6, 320) and Tucker Richey (6-0, 285) all return.
“Our offensive line, I couldn’t be more happy with those guys,” Alexander said. “They’re so big and strong and they’ve worked so hard. They’re a really, really good group.”
The line will be counted on to continue opening holes for 6-0, 185-pound star running back Ky Thomas, who burst on the scene with an outstanding freshman season last fall. Thomas, who already has a Division I offer from Kansas, rushed for 1,272 yards a year ago and scored 19 touchdowns with 1,956 all-purpose yards en route to earning All-City Top 11 and city offensive newcomer of the year honors.
“He’s bigger and stronger this year,” Alexander said of Thomas. “We just don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him. This is the year people are going to find out what Ky Thomas is all about because everybody knows him and are going to be keying on him. He’s not going to take anybody by surprise. We don’t expect him to be our team, but he is a very talented player.”
Also returning for the Trojans are junior wide receiver/tight end Jalen Blackwell (6-2, 200), senior wide receiver Kieran Essman (6-1, 200), senior defensive end Xavier Dunbar (6-0, 255) and senior linebacker Ethan Sams (6-0, 200).
Topeka High could also benefit from the addition of several transfers, some who are expected to crack the starting lineup for the Trojans. That list includes Da’Vonshai Harden, Jacquez Barksdale, Larry White, Seth Nelson, Grant Cooney, Seth Alston and Tre’Vaughn Rainer.
“We felt like we had a really good football team coming back without those guys,” Alexander said. “We don’t recruit. We never have recruited a person and never even talked to those kids or their families. Why they came we don’t know but we’re sure happy they did for whatever reason it is because they’re all quality kids. They’re excited to be here and we’re very blessed to have all of them.”
TROJANS AT A GLANCE
Coach — Walt Alexander, 12th year
Last year’s record — 5-4, 4-2 in Centennial League
Top offensive returners — WR/TE Jalen Blackwell, jr.; WR Kieran Essman, sr.; OL Matt Garza, sr.; OL Tanner Matthias, sr.; OL Tucker Richey, sr.; RB Ky Thomas, so.
Top defensive returners — DE Xavier Dunbar, sr.; LB Ethan Sams, sr.
Schedule — Sept 1 Hayden, Sept. 8 Junction City, Sept. 15 at Emporia, Sept. 22 Manhattan, Sept. 29 at Shawnee Heights, Oct. 6 at Washburn Rural, Oct. 13 Topeka West, Oct. 20 at Highland Park