|AJ Verdini. KC Star.|
SM West (11-1)
Where:Yager Stadium, Topeka
When: 1 p.m., Saturday
Radio: Sports Radio 810 WHB
TV: KC Metro Sports (TWC channel 30)
Computer Spread: Hutchinson +6.3
Last Meeting: Hutchinson won, 21-14, in the 6A state title game in 2006.
What's at Stake
There's always a ton on the line in state title games but this one truly has history riding on it. For Hutchinson a win would be their eighth state title in nine seasons. By comparison, Olathe North's dynasty of the late 1990s and early 2000s brandished seven titles in eight seasons (they lost the effort for an eighth against Salina South in 2004). Lawrence High's dynasty is still the benchmark--10 state titles in 17 seasons--but a Hutchinson win would leave them just two titles away from LHS' mark in a much shorter time period.
SM West's last state championship came in 1985 when they defeated Dodge City 24-0. Since that time the Vikings have appeared in the title game once, in 2006, where they lost to Hutchinson by a touchdown. The '85 title was not only the last time SM West claimed a football championship, but also the last of its kind for the Shawnee Mission School District. A win for the Vikings would not only erase the title droughts but also provide some hope that Hutchinson is perhaps mortal. As it stands now the Hutchinson dynasty isn't going anywhere. The only way to slow it is to line up and beat them--a tall order that very few teams have been able to accomplish over the last decade.
Obviously Hutchinson's history in the state championship game is well documented. The Salthawks won 6A titles in 2004, '05, '06 and '07, and 5A titles in '08, '09 and '11. Their lone runner-up finish came against Olathe North in the 2003 6A title game. SM West has previously appeared in seven state titles--four in the 1970s, two in the 1980s, and one in 2006--winning twice in 1972 and 1985.
The 2006 title game between these two was one of the hardest fought state championship games of the last decade, and it really wasn't over until SM West fumbled inside the Hutchinson 10-yard line with just under a minute left. You can bet the mistakes from that game have been replaying in SM West head coach Tim Callaghan's mind off and on for the last six years and this game will be all about a chance at redemption. The Salthawks play as hard and with as much confidence as any team in the Midwest. How else do you explain their run of state titles?
What to Expect
Keep an eye on two things--big plays and turnovers. When these two met in 2006 SM West turned the ball over three times, twice on fumbles and once on an interception. Hutchinson did a better job, only giving the ball away once on an interception on a long third down try that proved to be more like a punt. In terms of big plays SM West managed one lengthy kick return but little else. Hutchinson had three plays of over 40 yards. That adds up to Hutchinson +2, SM West -2. It showed as the Salthawks won 21-14.
It will be the difference on Saturday. SM West linebackers Max Bullard, Marquan Osbey and Rashaun Owens will have their toughest assignment of the season trying to slow the Salthawks' fullback gives while also supporting outside runs. SM West screwed up one play in particular against Hutchinson in 2006--the first play of the second half--where one of their linebackers line up incorrectly allowing a gaping whole for an 80-yard touchdown run by Hutchinson. SM West's linebackers will have to be calculated in their efforts.
Hutchinson doesn't pass the ball very often but when they do it goes for big chunks of yardage. Quarterback Trevor Turner averages over 20 yards per pass completion. Many secondaries get lulled to sleep and then miss it when the Salthawks' swing a wing back out of the backfield on a wheel route or toss a long pass to top receiver Evan Gaines-Grissom. It's essential that SM West's starting corners, Andre Maloney and Ben Lake, maintain their discipline to the pass first before helping out in the run game.
Special teams will obviously play a major role and if the game is close it could be the difference. You only have to look as far as SM West's Sub-State game with Free State this past week to gauge the impact errors (Free State's self-inflicted blocked punts) or big plays (Joey Reed's two long field goals and the Maloney return for a touchdown) can have on a football game between two relatively even matched opponents.
Offensively the Vikings will need to use their passing game to loosen up the Hutchinson defense. In 2006 it was SM West's passing game that had the most success against a stiff Salthawk opposition. This time around it could be much of the same. Hutchinson will load the box, regardless of how the Vikings are doing through the air. Quarterback AJ Verdini must come up with big completions. It will be interesting to see the attention the Salthawks pay to Maloney given how well he's done on big play the throughout the season.
Lastly, Brett Sterbach needs to run the ball well. Half of that will be dependent on the offensive line but his own efforts will be paramount. In he 2006 game SM West's running back JD Steffen only averaged 3.1 yards on his 16 carries and his fourth quarter fumble in Hutchinson territory killed the Vikings' momentum. Sterbach must play one of his best games of the season. I'm not saying he needs to rush for 300 yards for the Vikings to have a shot at winning, but he needs to protect the football and break a few long runs to keep things honest.