|The annual Hutchinson vs. Rockhurst game is a slap
in the face to Sunflower League programs.
The publication PrepNation is widely recognized as the most thorough source for national high school football rankings.
In 2001 the Eagles claimed the 25th spot in the final national rankings. Again, in 2002, they were ranked nationally at season's end, coming in at 24th overall.
In those three seasons, Olathe North played the Missouri high schools Lee's Summit North ('00 and '01) and Jefferson City ('02) and dominated, showing that they could legitimately compete on both sides of the state line.
Two years later, in 2004, the Sunflower League relinquished out-of-league scheduling when Olathe Northwest joined the varsity ranks.
In the nine years since, there has only been one Sunflower League team ranked as one of the top 25 teams in the nation by PrepNation at any point during any season. That team was the freakishly talented 2004 Olathe North unit led by Dustin Moomau, Justin Gore and Travis Greer which finished as the 5A Runner-Up going 12-1--and they only made the national top 25 for three weeks in the playoffs.
This is despite the fact that there have been four SL teams in that time span who made it to at least 12-0, and two who have claimed 6A state championships.
Mild coincidence or direct correlation, you ask? I feel strongly about the latter.
Let's get some things straight. The Sunflower League is widely recognized as the SEC of Kansas high school football.
The large suburban high schools that make up the league have the populations and wealth to develop dominant teams, and they do year after year. Since 1990, the league has claimed 14 6A state titles, and had a team appear in all 22 of the state title games.
But I would argue that the league's reputation--on a regional and national scale--is being held back because teams are not playing competition outside of the area.
Think about it. This season alone the league (assuming the SL produces a state title rep) will combine to face a measly five (5) non-Sunflower League teams. Three of whom are from Johnson County (where nine of the SL teams are located), one from just north in Wyandotte County, and likely one from central Kansas.
And it has been this way ever since 2004.
The Sunflower League's reputation is being handcuffed by its own scheduling system. Sure, there are cons to scheduling one non-league game every season. There are travel costs involved, scheduling hassles and the general unfamiliarity with playing in a different county, state, region etc.
Teams would also lose out on one game against the already massive 12-team Sunflower League. And these are all things to consider. But I think in this case the reward of scheduling out-of-league games would outweigh the risks.
How much would you like to see SM East face off against Rockhurst--the school that plucks athletes from SM East's boundaries like apples in an orchard (or you could point to Nathan Scheelhaase, who literally lived across the street from SM West). Or what about Olathe South going toe-to-toe with Blue Springs?
And don't forget, there are several large metropolitan areas within a four-hour drive that could be traveled to, and back, in the case of a Saturday afternoon game. Lawrence Free State against Millard North (NE), SM West playing Columbia-Rock Bridge (MO), or Lawrence against Jefferson City (MO), anybody?
The fact remains that until the Sunflower League busts out from the scheduling restrictions, and actually requires one non-league game to be scheduled by each team every season, the league is going to continue to be an afterthought in national coverage.
Is Kansas high school football on par with that of Texas, Florida, California or Ohio? Not no, but hell no. Kansas prep football would even struggle against similarly sized schools in Oklahoma and Arkansas.
But to tell me Kansas can't compete with Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Colorado teams is absurd. I've witnessed high school games in all of those states and none of them are any better than what we see in Kansas, and more specifically the Sunflower League.
And yet, the national media polls consistently rank teams from those states higher than those from Kansas. It's not that those states produce better talent, or have more football-centric cultures. It's that the state of Kansas (and specifically its powerhouse league, the Sunflower League) are not being promoted outside of the state confines.
Every September (and sometimes early August) the entire Sunflower League gets a slap in the face when Hutchinson takes on Rockhurst. To me it's always seemed like Rockhurst's way of saying they're better than every team in the SL and would rather schedule a true "powerhouse."
But in all likelihood, Rockhurst is being hamstringed by the fact that they can't schedule SL teams (remember, Rockhurst played a home and home series with Olathe North in the late 1990s) and the next best option is shipping the game three and half hours west to Hutchinson, every other season.
I guess what it comes down to is what the Sunflower League wants to make of its massive, 12-team league. They can let it hold them back the way it does now, forcing teams to play the same rigor mortis schedules every year--or they can use the 12 teams to their advantage, spreading them out across the region every September to represent the league.
There would undoubtedly be losses and blowouts, but in my opinion the experience and exposure for programs and the league would triumph any game results.