By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Class 4A preview. All game-by-game records and scoring offense/defense rankings from KPreps.com and Conor Nicholl research.
St. James Academy football coach Tom Radke has a few screen savers on his computer and phone to remind him of the memorable 2020 postseason run.
The Thunder, known for its strong defenses, had consistently been a winning program, though had never went past the state quarterfinals. St. James bumped down from 5A to 4A for last fall. Before last season, SJA installed the Air Raid offense headlined by quarterback Dakota Burritt and wide receiver Tyler Claiborne.
The year started in Week 2 because of COVID-19 precautions. St. James opened as a top-5 4A squad, though rival Bishop Miege remained the overwhelming favorite. Miege had won the last six titles in a 4A classification, often by massive margins.
In Week 4, St. James lost, 38-28, to Miege. The following week, the Thunder fell, 44-29, to longtime Missouri power Rockhurst. But Radke and the team believed the new offense had started to gel. Two weeks after Rockhurst, SJA dropped to 3-4 with a 38-28 loss to Blue Valley, an eventual 6A semifinalist.
That marked the Thunder’s last loss. St. James reeled off five straight wins, including 45-35 against unbeaten Paola in the Round of 16. In the state semifinals, SJA delivered likely the most memorable moment of 2020 football with a 36-35 overtime victory against Miege. St. James trailed at intermission, several times in the second half and again in overtime.
La’James White, who transferred from K.C. Piper to St. James before the season because COVID-19 concerns, blocked Miege’s extra point in overtime. Then, White scored on a five-yard TD run, and St. James won the game with an extra point.
The screen saver that resonates with Radke the most comes from a photo taken right after the Miege game. Radke had all three of daughters – Grace, Kendal and Emma – involved with the football program in 2020 as a cheerleader or manager. Kendal, a junior, is a Creighton soccer commit.
In the photo, Radke’s wife, Laura, is holding Tom’s headset. Tom is getting ready for an interview. One of his daughters is jumping up in the air.
“Her hair is halfway up,” Tom told me last week. “And my wife has just this super joyous smile on her face. It’s one of those moments is why sports is so special and cool. You get to have some of those moments of just pure joy.”
“You have a kid, and you get married, and those were kind of stressful situations,” Tom added. “And it’s all beautiful and awesome. But to win something like a game you’ve worked so hard for in so many years – and the last bit of it was like 20 minutes of just pure joy. And I think that’s why sports and high school football is so special to where you get to have just some of those moments – and to have those moments with your family.”
The following week, St. James defeated Arkansas City, 56-34, and won the Class 4A state title. SJA finished 8-4 and Ark City went 6-7. AC has a magical playoff run with three wins by a combined seven points, including back-to-back one-point wins in the last two victories. St. James had the fewest wins of any state titlist in KSHSAA history, and Ark City had the most losses of any runner-up.
Radke earned SIK All-Classes Coach of the Year, and Arkansas City’s Jon Weimers was 4A Coach of the Year. In July, Radke was the Kansas City Chiefs’ nominee for the Don Shula Coach of the Year award. In August, Radke was a recipient of the EKL Joe Amos Champions of Character Award.
The top of Radke’s personal facebook shows a photo gallery from the ring ceremony at St. James in late February. Radke is 61-41 after 10 years with SJA and 83-68 in his head coaching career.
“It was like a dream season at the end there,” Radke said. “It’s like a movie thing. You can’t really describe how great it was.”
This year, Grace Radke went off to college. Radke misses her, but when he looks back at the pictures and screen savers from last November, the memories come back.
“It’s super special,” Radke said.
This season, Miege and St. James return as the prohibitive 4A East favorites. Paola, Tonganoxie, and Arkansas City finished 3-4-5 in the final KPreps 4A Poll.
Paola and Tonganoxie each suffered massive graduation losses. Paola coach Mike Dumpert is 182-53 and returns just two starters: standout running back Jovanni Blackie and center Cody Hendrickson. Paola is 29-4 in the last three seasons with one regular season loss.
Blackie rushed for 1,484 yards and 18 scores. Tonganoxie brings back sophomore kicker Jackson McWilliams (41 of 43 on extra points and 3 of 4 on field goals), and senior Sam Kleidosty (593 all-purpose yards, 37 tackles, five total TDs).
In the West, McPherson, Buhler, Arkansas City, Andover Central and El Dorado are the top contenders. The key 4A question: Will Miege rise back up, or will another team enjoy a St. James-like moment?
Miege is still highly talented under alumnus Jon Holmes, though probably not at the level of some of its state teams. Miege is 93-19 under Holmes, including 5-5 in 2020 versus a schedule of 5/6A/out-of-state teams.
Jaylen Burch is back after 921 rushing yards and 11 scores, and Rohan Putz caught 31 passes for 570 yards and seven TDs. Miege returns more on defense with star end Collin Williams (4.5 sacks) and junior defensive backs P.J. McCallop and Aidan Wing. Only five of the returning starters are seniors: Burch, Williams linebacker Jake Welsh and offensive linemen Jackson Hoshor and Collin Keeney.
McPherson has taken crushing losses in four straight state semifinals. The Bullpups are 0-6 all-time in final four games. McPherson is 33-1 in its last 34 regular season/Week 9 contests under coach Jace Pavlovich. McPherson returns all but 51 of its rushing yards. Junior Jaytin Gumm, a big surprise last year, delivered 1,329 rushing yards, and senior Sky Schriner had 474. Seniors Trey Buckbee and Gus Ruddle combined for 75 catches for 1,104 yards and 14 touchdowns.
McPherson is consistently known for great defenses with longtime coordinator Chet Harlin. In ’19, the Bullpups and rival Buhler went 1-2 in 4A scoring defense at 8.3 and 12.3 points allowed a game, respectively. Last year, McPherson and Buhler went 2-3 with 16.3 and 16.6 points allowed a contest.
Arkansas City had its best season since a runner-up showing in ’86. AC has one all-time title, in ’79. Arkansas City junior quarterback Gabe Welch returns after 235 of 637 passing for 2,679 yards with 12 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. All but 53 of AC’s rushing yards are back. Both Welch and junior Wyatt Bahm rushed for 12 TDs. Two of the top-three receivers are back. Junior Cadon Clark recorded 74 catches for 638 yards and a TD.
Senior Lucas Barnes added 33 catches for 613 yards and four scores. Ark City likely needs to up its offensive efficiency. The Bulldogs averaged 5.2 yards per play, 2.4 yards per rush and 7.6 yards per pass attempt. By comparison, Andover Central, which finished 1-1 versus Ark City with a playoff loss, delivered 6.7 yards per play, 5.7 yards per rush and 8.1 yards per pass attempt.
Andover Central is 0-2 all-time in title games, falling to Miege both in ’15 and ’19. AC went 7-2 a year ago and has a tendency to significantly outperform preseason expectations, including ’15, ’19 and ’20.
AC brings back significant experience, including linemen Drew Daniels, Andrew Mann, Bronx Wood, Nathan Peek and Isaac Sheeran. AC has one of Kansas’ best offensive lines. Last year, the Jaguars upped its yards per carry from 3.4 to 5.7, the program’s best since 2010. Andover Central returns top running back Ashton Barkdull, who recorded 803 rushing yards and 60 tackles. AC finished fourth in scoring defense at 17.6 points permitted a game in ’20 and was sixth two years ago.
Buhler did capture its lone football crown in ’13 under coach Steve Warner earned runner-up to Miege three years ago. Warner is 251-102 in his career, including 8-3 and 6-4 the last two years. Buhler will play Andover Central in Week 2, a game cancelled because of COVID-19 last year. Buhler running back Sam Elliott headlines a veteran Crusader team. A two-time state wrestling champion, Elliott was the AVCTL Division III Offensive Player of the Year after 1,962 rushing yards and 29 scores.
Wamego has over 90 kids out this season. Very high numbers for a smaller 4A that was in 3A the last cycle two years ago. Weston Moody seems to be building something special with a deep playoff run last season led by then sophomore multiple sport star Hayden Oviatt. Oviatt is one of the most underrated in the classification.
Class 4A has multiple FBS caliber players returning.
KC Piper led 4A in scoring defense at 15.7 points allowed a game for a 5-4 squad that had to play all of its games on the road because of COVID-19 precautions. Junior Camden Beebe has older brothers that have played Power 5 football. He holds a Kansas State offer.
Lansing finished 5-4 and returns senior quarterback/defensive end Caden Crawford, the No. 2 recruit in the Kansas Class of 2022, per recruiting leader 247. Crawford has committed to Iowa. He passed for 1,089 yards with 60 tackles and four sacks.
El Dorado went 5-3 for its best season since 2000. Lineman Gavin Bell has offers from Akron, Bowling Green and Emporia State.
Basehor-Linwood (7-4) and Fort Scott (9-1) each have a standout returner. B-L running back Zack Sisemore finished with 295 carries for 1,690 yards and 21 scores. Sisemore led Kansas in carries, per MaxPreps. Basehor could be one of the most underrated 4A teams in the state and have high numbers. Fort Scott’s Jacob Stinnett was the SEK Defensive Player of the Year after 97 tackles but has moved to California.
The best returner, though, might be Tyler Claiborne. The 6-3, 188-pounder is a top-25 Kansas recruit for the Class of 2022. He hauled in 76 catches for 1,171 yards and 12 scores. Overall, he helped Burritt throw for 2,783 yards with 28 touchdowns. In ’19, SJA averaged 20.1 points a game with 1,416 passing yards and nine TDs.
Radke first knew of Claiborne in junior high.
“He was really good at basketball,” Radke said. “Football, he was good, too, but he was a really good basketball player.”
Claiborne went to Good Shepherd Catholic School, which is close to SJA. Claiborne played a little on the Thunder varsity as a freshman and posted a strong sophomore year. Overall, Claiborne carries a 4.37 GPA. Last year, St. James kept the new Air Raid concepts simple and ran stick and mesh with coordinator Matt Joshi, a former Aquinas quarterback. Radke was a former college receiver. In previous seasons, St. James had consistently had strong running backs, though they got hurt at year’s end.
For 2020, St. James elected to throw more frequently. Because of COVID, SJA didn’t have 7-on-7 to implement the new concepts for ’20. But Radke said the players caught onto it “super quick.” St. James changed its practice plan and continually repped the new offense.
“He’s just such a competitor,” Radke said of Claiborne. “He’s one of those guys if you are going to play any kind of pickup game he is trying to win. He is trying to make you look bad while he’s doing it, too. He is the ultimate competitor. Super nice kid. Great leader this year. One of our school leaders, too in the building. But he competes, and that’s what makes him super special.”
For 2021, St. James also returns junior John Niesen, another 6-3 receiver that Radke called an “exceptional athlete.” Niesen saw limited time in 2020 with three catches for 79 yards in three games. Juniors Finn Burritt and Callahan Huston are in the mix, too.
Junior Jackson House will take over at quarterback. Radke said House had a great 7 on 7 this summer. House’s dad is Matt House, the third-year Kansas City Chiefs linebackers coach.
“He has done a good job of leading that group back there,” Radke said of House.
Senior Josh Bichelmeyer has played very well on the offensive line. He is a returning second team all-league selection. Sophomore linebacker Spencer Dohm and senior free safety Holden Artzer are key returners on defense.
Class 4A Top-15 Scoring Offenses (of 32)
St. James Academy 37.6
Andover Central 31.1
Rose Hill 30.8
El Dorado 27.1
Fort Scott 26.4
KC Piper 25.2
Class 4A Top-15 Scoring Defenses (of 32)
K.C. Piper 15.7
Andover Central 17.6
El Dorado 17.6
Fort Scott 19.3
Labette County 23.1