By CONOR NICHOLL
From 2010-2020, the Eight-Man, Division I and Division II Coaches of the Year form a hallmark list of legends. Overall, there were 22 awards named through KPreps/Sports In Kansas.
Madison’s Fred McClain and Baileyville B&B’s Justin Coup each won two awards. Madison’s football field is named after McClain, who has since retired. Coup is in administration as Solomon’s current superintendent.
Central Plains’ Chris Steiner and Victoria’s Doug Oberle won two, both when the Oilers and Knights captured state titles. Current Osborne coach Steve Tiernan has the most honors with three, coming in ’10, ’13 and ’19.
Hanover’s Matt Heuer, Canton-Galva’s Shelby Hoppes, Hoxie’s Lance Baar, Little River’s Kevin Ayers and current Oswego coach Matt Fowler (formerly at Spearville) are among those active coaches with one coach of the year. Heuer has six all-time state championships, tied for the most ever by an eight-man coach.
Of the 22 winners, 19 of those captured a state title.
In 2017, Pike Valley’s Don Melby picked up the honor in his final fall after 40 years with the Panthers. Then, Dighton coach Ken Simon paced the Hornets to a pair of memorable seasons. In ’16, the Hornets finished as state runner-up to Hanover with 15 players.
Two years later, Simon with his “Dighton Nine” of nine players led the Hornets to a 9-3 season and semifinal showing.
This year, Simon has again crystallized himself as one of eight-man’s premier coaches with another remarkable turnaround – and the Hornets are in strong contention for more postseason hardware.
Dighton finished 2-15 with one on-field win in the last two falls. This season, the Hornets, buoyed by junior quarterback Max Neeley, lone four-year senior Jaden Coleman and multiple breakout players, are 9-1.
Dighton will travel to No. 3 Victoria (9-1) in an Eight-Man, Division II quarterfinal contest this Friday. The Hornets’ plus-eight win improvement is tied for the second-biggest year-over-year eight-man turnaround in the last 15 years, per SIK research and the Kansas Football History database.
The biggest jump was plus-nine from Osborne, which went from 4-5 to 13-0 from ’15-16. There were several notable plus-eights. Otis-Bison went from 2-7 to 10-1 from ’08 to ’09. Quivira Heights vaulted from 1-8 to 9-3 from ’06 to ’07. Jeff Savage coached the ’07 squad and finished his career at Quinter this year.
Sharon Springs posted 3-5 in ’06, then hired Kevin Ayers and finished 11-1 in ’07.
The biggest turnaround ever found was St. Paul, which went from 1-8 in ’90 to 12-1 in ’91 with coach Doug Tuck. The biggest 11-man jump was Gardner-Edgerton’s 0-9 to 10-1 from ’17 to ’18, the latter season under Ryan Cornelsen.
In the last six years, Dighton has won at least nine games three times. Before then, Dighton had three seasons of at least nine wins since 1956. The Hornets finished 9-1 in ’91, 10-2 in ’95 and 9-1 in ’97.
Dighton has made the quarterfinals in ’13 and ’21, along with the runner-up finish in ’16 and semifinal showing in ’18. Those are four of the five best playoff showings in school annals.
In Week 2, Dighton lost, 36-22, to Quinter. Afterward, Simon believed a turn could occur.
“We are at least a solid team,” Simon said.
Simon, though, still wasn’t sure how strong Dighton could be. That has solidified over the next two months.
The Hornets won eight straight games, including key wins versus Minneola (46-0), and at Bucklin (34-14) in district play.
Last week, Dighton defeated a depleted Quinter squad, 52-22.
Dighton is fifth in the classification in scoring defense at 13.2 points per game allowed, per Prep Power Index. The Hornets have tallied 44.9 points a game, tenth-best in the classification.
This year’s Hornet squad is constituted differently than Simon’s two most famous teams. Dighton lists 21 players on the roster. The Hornets have 73 percent of its yards in their running game and ran the ball 76 percent of the time.
“They have done a heck of a job working in the weight room and busting their tails to try to get better, and it’s kind of paid off for them,” Simon said.
In the state runner-up squad, Dighton had standout QB Tyler Lingg and WR Dylan Foos. The Hornets delivered 46 percent of its offense on the ground.
In ’18, Dighton had Blair Hoffman at quarterback, who passed for 1,627 yards and rushed for 865. The Hornets ran the ball for 54 percent of their yards.
This season, Neeley has completed 57 of 101 passes for 771 yards with 11 touchdowns against four interceptions. He has 202 carries for 1,494 yards and 31 scores. Neeley, who won the 1A state pole vault title in the spring, has nine 100-yard rushing games. Coleman has 130 carries for 809 yards and 14 TDs.
Five players have between 106 and 294 receiving yards. Coleman leads paces Dighton in catches (18) and receiving yards. Freshman Daniel Cramer, the next in a long line of great Cramer athletes, leads with six receiving scores.
“He has definitely come a long way,” Simon said of Coleman. “He has obviously improved in his strength in the weight room. And his speed as well. That was kind of a big one with him, with his speed.”
Defensively, Neeley leads with 94 tackles. Junior Eli Wilkinson has 88 stops and a team-high 12 TFLs. Simon labeled Wilkinson is a “real force” at defensive end. Coleman has 64 tackles. Senior Koda King has extensively played for the first time this year with 58 tackles and five TFLs. Simon said King does a good job controlling the ‘A’ gaps at nose guard. Senior Seth Rupp has 48 stops with seven TFLs.
Dighton has forced 22 turnovers, including six interceptions from Cramer and five from King. Plus, the Hornets have blocked three punts. Wilkinson has been a strong specialist with nine touchbacks and 36 yards per punt. Dighton has also enjoyed superb returns with three kickoffs for scores – two from Coleman and one by Neeley.