By CONOR NICHOLL
Bird City-Cheylin has a normal Monday routine under veteran coach Chris Walden. The Cougars don’t practice or even put on shoulder pads. Cheylin goes into the conference room and watches film from the previous week.
After a state runner-up and state championship in 2019 and ’20, the Cougars slipped to 3-5 last season with multiple close losses. All-state lineman John Serrano tragically passed away Oct. 23, 2021 in a car accident. During the first week of practice, the Cougars memorialized Serrano with his jersey number and last name at the top of the Bird City press box.
Cheylin has no seniors in key roles for 2022. The Cougars were a KPreps Potential Breakout Team this summer.
After three weeks this fall, Cheylin was 2-1. The Cougars opened with a 45-27 victory at Cheyenne Wells (Colo.). The Tigers had finished undefeated with a Colorado six-man state championship the previous year, though had taken significant graduation losses for 2022. At the time, Cheylin’s win versus CW didn’t deeply resonate with the team.
In Week 2, Cheylin rolled over rival Weskan, 60-0, and executed a high level. The following week, the Cougars lost a battle of top-five teams, 50-28, to Ashland. Cheylin was outgained by just 19 yards but was minus-two in turnover margin, and Ashland took an early lead.
“We were pretty down on ourselves,” Walden said. “Pretty licking our wounds from the Ashland game.”
In Week 4, Cheylin had another ranked matchup at Almena-Northern Valley, a program Bird City knows well. The Cougars had lost to NV by 50 the previous season. Cheylin’s and NV’s junior classes have developed a strong rivalry. While early, Walden believed the Northern Valley contest would shape District 4 in the first fall of KSHSAA sanctioned six-man football.
Cheylin has its three well-known junior skill players of Brady Ketzner, Logan McCarty and Pablo Bermudez; the latter two have both earned all-state selections. However, the Cougars started to incorporate 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior lineman Connor McPherson, along with sophomores Harley McPherson, John Paul Sabatka and Cooper Paugh.
Connor didn’t play football in 2021. Paugh was on the team, though never had game action. Sabatka had just a few varsity snaps as a freshman. Harley wasn’t ready for varsity as a freshman but was pressed into duty out of necessity.
Walden sat down all the players the Monday before Northern Valley in the conference room.
Walden first told the team he didn’t want to “make this game bigger than it has to be.” Walden noted Cheylin/NV was likely for the district title. Plus, a win against Northern Valley would likely yield a state semifinal matchup against Ashland, an expected district champion. A loss to NV would yield a quarterfinal game against Ashland.
“’We need to beat Northern Valley in order to not have to play Ashland earlier in the playoffs than we had to,’” Walden said. “There’s a lot of foreshadowing that had to go into that, and a lot of things that had to take place.”
Walden, a Cheylin alum, issued a statement to his team.
“We have to do whatever we can do this week to win this game against Valley,” Walden said.
Plus, Walden wanted to see more resiliency from his team, especially if Cheylin got behind. The Cougars delivered a signature 49-48 victory in a big comeback. The game featured 1,022 total yards, including 530 from Cheylin. NV had four turnovers, Cheylin zero.
The game had a remarkable seven lead changes. The Cougars battled back from deficits of 12, 12, and 10 points – and didn’t score in the fourth quarter. McCarty accounted for 499 yards, five passing and two rushing scores.
Both McPhersons tallied a touchdown. Connor recovered a fumble, Ketzner had 11 tackles, Sabatka finished with five. Cheylin was excited knowing it defeated a quality opponent in the Huskies – and likely wouldn’t see Ashland until late November.
In Walden’s eyes, Cheylin came out of the game very banged up. McCarty had thrown all but two of the team’s passes since the start of 2021. A returning first team all-state player, McCarty came up to Walden in practice the following week.
McCarty told his coach “I know this isn’t what you want to hear, but is there any way I can maybe not play quarterback this week and not take so many hits?” McCarty wanted to play some running back or receiver and regain health. Walden said Cheylin would “make it work.” Then, Cheylin started to use Ketzner at quarterback.
“He’s a smart kid and can throw the ball,” Walden said.
The last four or five weeks, Ketzner will play some quarterback, and let McCarty go to a running back or a receiver. Bermudez will sometimes step in at quarterback, too.
The backfield versatility and the continued growth of the newer players has yielded eight straight victories (including a bye) for the Cougars. Cheylin is currently 10-1 and ranked third in six-man.
“The creativity of offensive stuff, and it showed us a lot of kind of what our group is made of this year,” Walden said of the NV victory. “Before then, I really didn’t know how resilient we could be.”
The Cougars have tied the single season school record for victories, set in a 10-1 Eight-Man, Division II season in 2010. Walden was the team’s leading receiver on that squad.
“That was when we kind of stepped up and realized we could do this,” Walden said of the signature win. “And we can play football with the best of them again.”
On Friday, Cheylin travels to No. 2 Ashland (8-1) in a rematch for the state semifinals. Start time is 5 p.m. The Cougars’ seven-win improvement is among Kansas’ biggest, regardless of class.
Ashland has three players with at least 273 passing yards, and the team has a combined 30/0 TD/INT ratio. Walden called Ashland junior running back Kale Harris (1,072 all-purpose yards) maybe the best six-man running back he has seen in the last several years. Walden believes Harris, on SIK’s All-Underrated Team earlier this fall, would start on eight- and 11-man teams. Walden and Ashland coach Ben Fox, an AHS alum, are both 2011 graduates and good friends.
“John’s passing kind of galvanized this group,” Walden said. “And kind of hardened them and made them realize that every day is not given, and they are playing hard right now, and want to do something special here in a few weeks for him.”
Since the Ashland loss, Cheylin has two total turnovers and a resume that kept on improving. Cheyenne Wells went 7-4 and advanced to the Colorado state quarterfinals. Weskan was 4-3.
McCarty is again in strong running for Six-Man Offensive Player of the Year. He has completed 65 of 102 passes for 1,238 yards with 21 scores against zero interceptions. McCarty has 100 carries for 1,063 yards and 20 rushing TDs. For the next two or three weeks after NV, McCarty didn’t play quarterback.
“When we move him around on the field, that draws a lot of attention to it at other places rather than where the ball is going,” Walden said. “So that helps us a ton.”
Overall, Cheylin has 31 TDs against no interceptions – the state’s best ratio. Ketzner has six passing scores. The highly athletic Bermudez has 74 offensive touches for 984 yards and 19 touchdowns. As the center (all players are eligible for a pass in six-man), Connor McPherson has 12 catches for 240 yards and five scores. Bermudez (82), Ketzner (74) and McCarty (73) are the three leading tacklers.
“Putting four more kids on our roster that are impact players that everyone has to watch has helped, that’s been our biggest difference maker,” Walden said.
Walden is most pleased with his team’s development of depth.
“Our sophomore group has come along probably better than anticipated,” Walden said. “…And I will be honest, a couple of them had kind of maybe surpassed my expectations in terms of development, and then we had two or three other kids that came out for football this year that hadn’t played in the past, and they have helped tremendously in terms of just adding depth and adding bodies that we could use at practice.”
The next four tacklers are: Connor McPherson (44), Sabatka (40), junior Eduardo Baca (34) and Harley (28).
Walden said Sabatka had a “huge growth spurt” in the summer and participated in wrestling last winter. Sabatka, with a changed mentality and attitude, starts both ways at tight end and defensive end. Paugh (6-0, 180) had a big growth spurt, too.
Harley has a team-high five interceptions, and Ketzner four. Bermudez now has 15 INTs in his career.
In 2021, McPherson had to significantly play as a freshman. He finished with 19 tackles and no interceptions.
“I wouldn’t say he was ready to play varsity level football by any means, but he was one of our faster kids, so we needed to have him on the field,” Walden said. “He had to be kind of baptized by fire all year last year, and he got beat a lot on offense, got a beat a lot on defense, and kind of had a pretty rough go at it. But he has come on a lot more for us now.”
McPherson doesn’t start for Cheylin on either side. But like a quality sixth man in basketball or a good running back who subs in for football, McPherson is the first player off the bench. He has a pair of pick-sixes.
“He doesn’t have that pressure on him that he has to perform right from the first whistle,” Walden said.
Offensively, McCarty, Bermudez and Ketzner are in the backfield in some form. Sabatka and Paugh play tight end. McCarty, Bermudez and Ketzner are the three linebackers. Paugh, McPherson and Sabatka play defensive line. When Harley comes in, he plays running back/receiver on offense, and either defensive back or linebacker on defense.
Cheylin has an average score of 51-15. Last year, the Cougars’ average score was 38-29.
Much of the change happened in Week 4. Seven weeks later, Walden believes he has a much different team than the first meeting against Ashland.
“I will be honest with you, when we started looking back at those two games, and even that Ashland game we had Week 3 and comparing to our team now, we are a much different team,” Walden said. “Harley wasn’t playing very good then, and Connor wasn’t really in shape, hadn’t figured out how six-man football works, and John Paul and Cooper, they didn’t get in hardly any playing time in those first three weeks. The amount that we have grown since the beginning of the year until now is I guess probably the biggest feat.”