In the grand scheme of Rossville’s run to its third straight Class 3A state champion, the season-opening win over Marysville was just the first step on the journey.
But when it comes down to it, that victory might have been the most important one the Bulldawgs had until pulling out the overtime win over Hesston in the title game. Starting life without two-time All-Stater Tucker Horak and several other key components from its two previous title teams, Rossville went into last year’s opener with something to prove.
In many ways, the Bulldawgs did. Down 20-14 in the second half, Rossville rallied for a 27-20 win that showed it had championship-caliber mettle.
“That game was big last year,” Rossville coach Derick Hammes said. “It provided a big challenge for us and it was a good win for us. As you saw the results as we both went throughout the year, it turned out to be a really big win for us.”
As big as the win was for Rossville, the performance in the loss might have been even bigger for Marysville. One year removed from a lengthy losing skid, the Bulldogs went into the game looking to prove they were headed in the right direction and back to being among the top programs in Class 3A.
Pushing the eventual 3A champions suggested as much and Marysville rode the confidence gained in the game to a 7-3 season — one in which all three losses were by a touchdown or less.
“We really took away from it that our kids had come a long way,” Marysville coach Dustin Heuer said. “I was really proud with how our kids handled it and after the games our kids walked away convinced they should have won that game. We had our chance at beating the team that ended up being the best in 3A and we really took it as a challenge to continue to grow and as a sign of what we were capable of.”
When both programs open the 2017 Friday night in Rossville, the feeling will be somewhat the same as it was a year ago. Once again, Rossville must prove it can fill key voids left by graduation capably enough to make a run at a fourth straight state crown. The graduation hits have been big in the past, but never as hard as this season with tailback Perry Foster the lone returning starter on offense and linebacker Sheldon Hulbert and lineman Nathan Dohrman the lone returning starters on defense.
Gone are All-State quarterback Jacob Bradshaw, two-time All-Class 3A linebacker Dawson Hammes, All-3A receiver Cole Schumacher and all five starting offensive lineman.
“It’s going to be a great gauge for both programs,” Hammes said. “You could say they are the most experienced team coming into this game, so maybe it’s a role reversal a little bit. Maybe we’re the challenger and we’re the team that has something to prove. That’s kind of where they were last year. They wanted to prove they were a good football team and in the long run I think we saw that they were.”
Marysville also lost some key pieces to graduation, namely All-3A lineman Greg Martin and two-way standout Hunter Warnick. But quarterback Jack Blumer flourished in his first year as starter, throwing for nearly 1,400 yards and 16 touchdowns, and has a few key playmakers back around him.
While Marysville has an edge in experience, Heuer knows Rossville will still carry plenty of confidence gained from its championship seasons. At the same time, he sees more confidence from his team, gained in no small part by last year’s showing.
“Our kids knew the year before we had taken some big steps forward,” Heuer said. “That was a good opportunity to show how close we’d come and take and build on that. It was a really fun year last year and the guys this year are excited about doing their own thing as well.
“They’re fired up about playing a great team and Rossville might have lost a lot of kids, but they’ve done this before and been just fine. I’m sure everybody on their team has been working hard to write their own chapter for the Rossville program as well. And for us, the last four or five years have been a step forward and these kids want to take another step forward — whether that’s winning eight games, an NCKL title or a playoff game. They want to continue the process.”