|Hutchinson quarterback Turner Wintz' return from|
the injured reserve list helped fuel the Salthwaks late
season run. They've won six of their last eight games.
Photo courtesy Kansas.com
Previous state title appearances: 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2012
State championships: 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011
Current FBS alumni: Ben Heeney (Kansas), Geneo Grissom (Oklahoma)
Head coach: Ryan Cornelson
Last 20: 12-8
Offense: Power-I (pro style)
Points scored per game: 35.3
Points allowed per game: 27
If Kansas has ever had its own version of some mythical west Texas football community, it would be Hutchinson. The Salthawk nickname stems from the abundance of salt mines which rest in the area, providing employment opportunities to thousands within the community. The town has distinctive good and bad sides of the railroad tracks, and like any other "big" small town, the locals can all name the five to ten powerful families who have all the money and control commerce.
In 1997, former head coach Randy Dreiling ventured to the football program like some 1700s Spanish missionary in southern California, seeking to establish a collective "well-being" in the community. At that time the Salthawk program was the laughingstock of big-class football. They were amid a 26-game losing streak and had zero state titles to their name. Dreiling broke the losing streak in his first game, and by his seventh season the program was making its first state title appearance.
From 2004 to 2011, Hutchinson basically owned big-class Kansas football. They won seven state championships in that time frame (four in 6A, and three in 5A) and set the gold-standard for high school football in Kansas. The town's inhabitants took great pride and ownership of the success. The program's iconic gold 'H' logo adorned the front license plate holders of what seemed like every vehicle in the Reno County area. The outstanding fanbase even travelled notoriously well on the road, making a name for themselves with their ability to outnumber a home crowd's attendance in communities hours away from Hutchinson. The program and its constituents were cocky -- and they could be. In the 10 seasons from 2003 to 2012, they won 116 games and lost just 13.
Then the unthinkable happened, when following the 2013 season Dreiling announced he was leaving the program after 17 years to take the job at St. Thomas Aquinas. Dreiling's assistants followed him east, so the school administration made an external hire in Cornelson. There's no telling if Hutchinson football can keep their identity alive. The program made a nice rebound this year, and made the coveted state title game for the 10th time in 12 years, but the true tell-tale sign will be where they're at two years from now, when Dreiling's final leftovers graduate and move on. In the meantime, the Hutchinsonians will continue to show up in force to support their program, with the hope Cornelson will keep those gold 'H' logos on their vehicles for years to come.
**Nobody (myself included) expected the Salthawks to make a return to the 6A state title game this fall once Dreiling announced his intentions to take the St. Thomas Aquinas job. It certainly hasn't been all smooth sailing in year one under Cornelson, either. Through week six, the Salthawks' record sat at 2-4, and one of those victories had been by three points in overtime. But around week six many of their injured starters began returning to the starting lineup, and they've gone 6-0 since. Last week they absolutely manhandled a Free State program, on the road, that had been playing very well.
**You can't say enough about Hutchinson's running back, Blaik Middleton. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior hasn't garnered any FBS offers, but that may change once college coaches have a chance to sit down and evaluate his senior game film between now and January. Last week Middleton gashed Free State for 353 rushing yards and six touchdowns on a mere 21 carries. Most of his yardage came between the hashmarks, which made the numbers even more impressive. On the season he leads all big-class running backs in rushing yards, with 2,621, and he's also added 36 touchdowns for good flavor.
|SM East's Mike Bamford (45) and Will Kost |
celebrated their victory against Olathe North last
Friday. The Lancers have gone 23-2 since the start
of the 2013 season. Photo Kansas City Star.
Location: Prairie Village
Previous state title appearances: 2013
State championships: None
Current FBS alumni: Jordan Darling (Kansas)
Head coach: Dustin Delaney
Last 20: 18-2
Points scored per game: 47.3
Point allowed per game: 11
There's an identity crisis in the far northeast corner of Johnson County. SM East, a high school which pulls a substantial portion of its student body from Kansas' two wealthiest cities -- Mission Hills and Leawood -- isn't supposed to be dominating a sport which isn't offered at any of the exclusive country clubs which dot that part of the county. The Lancers own 52 state titles in men's sports, but not one of those championships falls under the category of football.
Take a step into the SM East world. It's set in a part of the county canopied by towering oaks and sycamores. There are houses the size of high schools. Its narrow, winding streets are sprinkled with quaint shops and high-end boutiques. Traverse those streets, among the BMWs and Volvos, and you gain a sense of why the program isn't a historic football power. This isn't some mining community. They aren't reliant on manual labor opportunities provided by the ebbs and flows of some oil boom, and there's not a collective chippiness among the locals. Those sorts of rustic qualities have been a staple of the communities surrounding some of the region's most successful high school football programs (see Hutchinson).
But, you can immediately recognize why it could be the state's next dynasty in the making. The program is buoyed by a support system of high-achieving students, highly-involved parents, strong community, and a seemingly endless line of sponsors willing to do their part to help create a winning atmosphere. SM East has small-town support with high-rise money.
More importantly, the country club school has bought into the blue collar offense carried to its shores by Delaney. The Lancers have never been a terrible program. For years they seemed to have final ledgers which fell between two and five wins. Former head coach Chip Sherman was able to get the Lancers over the hump in the late 2000s, but he left before seeing the program through to playoff successes. Delaney's arrival took what was an already steady program, and turned them up several notches. The result has been a 23-2 record since September of 2013. If they win a state title Saturday, the notions of the Lancers being solely a country club campus can be put out to pasture.
**SM East's identity sits with its flexbone offense -- the offense Delaney learned and used as the offensive coordinator at Hutchinson from 2006 to 2009. While the Hutchinson offense of the Dreiling years and SM East's offense essentially have the same bloodlines, there seem to be some minor variations. For one, the Lancers appear willing to throw the football more than what we saw from Hutchinson. Quarterback Gunnar Englund has passed for 1,191 yards and 19 touchdowns, and SM East is almost as potent through the air as they are on the ground. Second, SM East seems to run a more methodical version of the offense. While Hutchinson keyed on big plays from their fullbacks and slotbacks, the Lancers will run four straight fullback dives if it means they'll get 2.5 yards per carry. Those differences might stem completely from personnel differences, or simply subjectivity in the mind of the viewer, but I think they're worth noting.
**I don't think anyone would disagree defensive end Kyle Ball is the Lancers' best player. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound defensive force is as good of a defender as the Sunflower League's had since SM Northwest's Mike Rivera in 2003. Dating back to the beginning of the 2013 season (25 games) Ball's recorded 219 tackles (65 tackles for loss), and 18 sacks. He holds an offer from Kansas, but like Middleton, could see a few more come his way once his senior tape is released.