By CONOR NICHOLL
DIGHTON – Sophomore wide receiver Daniel Cramer has been ensconced in Dighton athletics throughout his entire life. His parents, Dean and Cindi, have six children. The eldest five: Kaylee, Katren, Sara, David and Traci, all signed to play a college sport, a remarkable feat for one of Kansas’ smallest schools.
Sara is one of Dighton’s legends and a former Class 1A, Division II Player of the Year in basketball. She led Dighton to a state basketball title, state volleyball runner-up and holds the school record in the 800-meter run. Katren ran on the school record 3,200 relay.
David stood out on the famous 2018 “Dighton Nine” team that had nine players and won nine games. That season, he caught a remarkable game-winning touchdown pass against Otis-Bison in the playoffs, a play that went viral. As well, David played on the ’16 state runner-up squad that finished 12-1.
After 2018, Dighton struggled with numbers and talent and went a combined 2-15. The Hornets rose to 9-2 last fall and returned to the state quarterfinals. In Week 8, No. 5-ranked Dighton won Eight-Man, Division II, District 8 with a 46-0 win against Minneola in a contest that ended at halftime.
Junior quarterback Carson Shimer completed 15 of 19 passes for 150 yards and three scores. That included 118 yards and two TDs to Cramer. Returning first team all-state senior Max Neeley, who moved from quarterback to running back in midseason, rushed for two TDs.
Coach Ken Simon, in his 12th season as Dighton’s football coach, gathered his team for a postgame meeting in the end zone. Simon mentioned the team’s special performance against Minneola’s high-powered offense. At the end of the talk, Simon clenched his fists together and motioned them up and down as he scanned his players. He became emotional and talked about the potential special run Dighton could enjoy.
Dighton had battled sickness throughout the week. Simon was sick the night before Minneola and woke up with a fever and chills on game day. After the discussion, Simon started to choke up again when talking with the media.
“To come out and put that effort forth, I was just really proud,” Simon said. “We have worked our tails off. Practices aren’t easy. Those guys, they go through a lot. We have got to do what you have to do to be successful, and they are willing to do it, so just proud of them.”
In all his years around Simon and Dighton, Cramer had never seen his coach show that emotion.
“He is usually a pretty strong guy, but him and the seniors have been through a lot, so I know that it means a lot to him, and to the seniors, and the rest of us, too,” Cramer said.
On Thursday, Dighton moved to 9-0 with a 51-0 home win against Coldwater-South Central in a Week 9 bracket game.
“He really expects a lot, and he brings a lot of intensity,” Cramer said.
Additionally, three major results shaped Thursday, all against teams Dighton has defeated.
Quinter beat Clifton-Clyde, 28-22, with a big comeback. C-C entered with one loss and a district championship. Bucklin recovered to best previously undefeated Stafford, 32-30. Minneola held off upset-minded Kinsley, 68-50. Hodgeman County beat South Barber 58-28. Rawlins County rolled Lincoln, 48-0.
Those five teams form the 16 squads left in western Eight-Man, Division I/II. Dighton has defeated all five. The quintet is 31-9 when not playing the Hornets.
“He is a great play caller,” Shimer said. “He is a great coach overall. Our practices kind of (stink) sometimes, but there is a reason for that. He is a great coach. I am blessed to have him. Let’s be honest, we all are.”
Much of Eight-Man, Division II’s spotlight is on the pair of eastern teams: No.1 Axtell and No. 2 Canton-Galva. Axtell carries a current 22-game winning streak. C-G has set or tied multiple state records.
The West is generally led by No. 3 Victoria, No. 4 Thunder Ridge and No. 5 Dighton. However, Dighton is making a case for not only the classification’s best western team – but possibly the best in all of Division II. Dighton will play Sylvan-Lucas (7-2) in the Round of 16 next week.
Per MaxPreps’ strength of schedule rating and quality win component system, Axtell, Dighton, and Canton-Galva are the top-three Division II squads entering Week 9. The gap likely narrowed after Thursday’s results. Dighton has six seniors: Rey Castillo, Neeley, Hector Wilkison and Eli Wilkinson, Antonio Dominguez and Beau Hammond. Dominguez (6-foot-2, 260) has improved at center.
“This could be a special group for us, so we are hoping to make a deep run,” coach Simon said.
This year, Dighton has outscored teams, 411-62, including three straight shutouts and four this fall.
Wilkinson (5-11, 200) earned the school’s student of the month honor for September and is well-known for his academics, athletics and personality. He delivered a big block that sprung a key touchdown against Minneola. Neeley leads with 73 tackles. He is a two-time 1A pole vault champion and committed to Pittsburg State for pole vault. Wilkinson has 71 tackles, 10 for loss. Junior Coltin King has emerged at nose guard.
“Just blocks his tail off every down,” Simon said of Wilkinson. “And he plays a really good defensive end, lot of teams I think just try to run away from him, so just a great football player, he is hard-nosed.”
Cramer, the team’s leading receiver last season, has 42 catches for 701 yards and eight scores. He should earn first team all-state honors. Cramer enjoyed growing up as the youngest in his family and labeled the atmosphere “always a bunch of fun, always competing.”
“When (David) was playing, I would go play catch with him, and he would take the time to go play catch with me,” Cramer said of his older brother. “Always it was fun in the backyard, and we would routes out there, so he would help me out, too.”
Cramer is 5-foot-9, 150 pounds. Like his brother, Daniel is crafty with excellent ability to get open and catch the ball.
“He is a good athlete, and a heck of a basketball player,” Simon said. “He is just quick, and he is a smart kid, good IQ, so he kind of understands how to get open. We try to teach him pre-snap read, you may have to adjust your route a little bit to their alignment, so he just does a tremendous job route running as well.”
Shimer played a few games as Sterling’s starting quarterback his freshman season. His family moved to Dighton when his father became Dighton’s principal. Shimer said he is “pretty comfortable” playing quarterback.
“We were all really open to it,” Shimer said. “The team was very accepting. Coach said we wanted the best for the team, and we still have options, too. We have a lot of depth with offensively and exchanging personnel.”
Neeley has completed 47 of 71 passes for 721 yards with eight scores against two interceptions. Shimer has 34 of 43 passing for 519 yards (a state-best 79 percent) with eight scores against no interceptions.
“Carson is one heck of a quarterback,” Simon said. “He can throw the football. Got all the confidence in the world with him, and Max has been great with it. He says he enjoys playing running back honestly, so it’s fine. We are getting used to it.”
Neeley remains the primary ball carrier with 120 carries for 700 yards and 17 TDs. Simon has told Shimer he is the “next Tyler Lingg.”
Dighton opened with a 50-0 win against struggling Oberlin, defeated Atwood (38-12) and eked past Quinter, 30-26. Dighton started to experiment with Shimer in Week 4 against Hodgeman County. Simon called the 6-foot-3 Shimer “a tremendous athlete.”
“It was really evident that we were just more explosive offensively, and just a little cleaner,” Simon said.
In Week 6, Dighton defeated Bucklin, 54-6. Neeley played one series at quarterback before the Hornets made the permanent switch. Neeley gives Dighton a veteran presence at running back.
“Honestly it was a bold move,” Simon said. “It was a tough decision. But we feel like that we are better, we are cleaner, having Max at running back, and Carson at quarterback, just the simple fact that with Max at quarterback, we had some younger guys that were doing a pretty solid job, but were they going to help us make that run? I don’t know.”