By CONOR NICHOLL
Christien Ozores was set to graduate from Fort Hays State University in May 2020. A three-sport athlete at Junction City, Ozores spent time on the Fort Hays football team as a defensive back. In March 2020, in-person classes halted because of the pandemic. Job searching became challenging for Ozores.
“Tough,” he said.
That spring, Ozores made a list of short and long goals, benchmarks he still has. Ozores always wanted to teach and coach. He had a goal to become a head coach by 25. Ozores wanted to turn around a program and make an impact with his family and community. Another goal was to be “the best man I can every day.”
Ozores had a couple of schools interested in the Wichita area, 5/6As that offered a ‘C’ team or JV football coaching position. Then, Kate Westerhaus, his high school sweetheart, then-fiance and current wife, took a job as a Hays Middle School science teacher. Ozores knew he was going to remain in the Hays area.
In May 2020, typically very late in the hiring cycle, Russell picked up Ozores as a PE teacher. In ’20-21, he served as RHS’ defensive coordinator and solo JV baseball coach. Ozores quickly became known as a future head coach.
Ozores, propelled by one of the best senior classes in Russell history, has quickly vaulted up the coaching ranks and helped with significant Bronco history in football, basketball and baseball.
“I love what I do,” Ozores said.
Last March, less than two years after Russell hired him, Ozores was promoted to head football coach. In the fall, Russell won its first playoff game since 1979, captured a league title and posted a 6-4 record, its most wins since 2003. In basketball, coach Blaine Maier led RHS to a 14-9 mark, its most wins since ’90-91, per KRSL radio.
Ozores took over the head baseball job. Russell, which has long co-oped with Victoria in baseball, has enjoyed success on the diamond, especially from 2014-16. Last year, Russell went 9-10.
This season, the Broncos are one of the 13 undefeated teams across all classes entering Thursday, per KSHSAA standings. Inman and Russell are the only ones of the 13 squads that did not have a winning record in 2022. Among all 226 teams that play baseball, Inman, Russell and Rose Hill (7-14 to 10-2) have enjoyed the biggest year-over-year improvement, per SIK research.
Ozores is pleased he has already accomplished some of his 2020 goals. However, one big goal for baseball this spring is to reach state for the first time since a third-place finish in ’16.
“I have completed a lot of those things,” he said. “Which is good, but obviously there is still a lot of work to do. But yeah, no, it’s definitely crazy being this young, and I definitely learn something new every day. I tell the kids ‘Be a sponge with everything you do.’ I am still learning as well, but it’s awesome. It’s crazy.”
Ozores paused and laughed. In the spring, his workdays generally stretch well plus 12 hours. Christien and Kate have a one-year-old daughter. Each night after practice and dinner, Christien tries to spend time with his child. Kate is now the Russell science teacher. Her dad is the Great Bend athletic director.
“It’s what I have signed up to do,” Ozores said. “It’s what I have always wanted to do, so yeah, I am just trying to take advantage of it.”
Russell has six seniors, all whom play a key role, along with several standout freshmen/sophomores.
“We are a really fast team,” Ozores said.
Russell has multiple collegiate signees.
Senior Jackson Cross, who has played a key role in football, basketball and baseball, has committed to Cloud County baseball. Senior Charles Krug, a baseball player, has committed to Nebraska Wesleyan football. For Russell track, Jace Peerman has committed to Fort Hays track. In basketball, Jordayn Buhrle, RHS’ 6-foot-9, 220-pound post, has committed to Neosho CC basketball.
Wyatt Griffin, sophomore Mason Rohr and freshman Max Evans have delivered key innings on the mound. Rohr catches, and Evans plays third base. Cross homered twice in the second Minneapolis win. Senior first baseman Cameron Farmer is hitting over .600. Entering Tuesday, Krug carried a .517 average, Cross .458.
Griffin is at second base when not pitching. Wyatt Middleton, who passed for 1,863 yards and 19 passing touchdowns at quarterback, starts at shortstop and is known for his great IQ.
“Really balanced,” Ozores said.
Several times, Ozores noted the baseball team’s grit, work habits and focus. Since the winter, players have hit indoors either at the school or in Hays. Ozores labeled his squad “really blue collar.”
“That’s why we are playing well right now is because we put in the time,” Ozores said.
On Tuesday, Russell dominated Minneapolis, 16-1 and 15-1 in a doubleheader home sweep on the new turf at Shaffer Field. Russell will celebrate Senior Night on Friday against Ellis. The Broncos have its best start in at least nine years.
Brandon Ridgley, who played on highly successful Russell teams, serves as Ozores’ pitching coach. Russell has two wins apiece against Colby (7-6) and much-improved Ellinwood-Stafford (6-4). Ozores coached multiple players who were on the ’21 Russell JV squad. He’s liked seeing the development during the last couple years.
Russell is part of the 3A Goodland sub-state. From win-loss, this is the best 3A baseball sub-state with the Broncos, Holcomb (8-0), Scott City (9-1), Goodland (6-2) and Colby (6-6). Colby has Shane Puckett, among 3A’s best players and has splits against SC and Goodland.
Victoria’s Thaddeus Wohler and Jarron Schmidt were exclusively JV players on Ozores’ first team. Both have major improvements. Wohler starts in the outfield and helped turn a triple play.
“They know how I want them to play and the style that I want,” he said.
Rohr had a big freshman year. On the mound, Rohr can spot well. Ozores calls the curveball probably Rohr’s best pitch.
“He’s just a true baseball kid,” Ozores said. “He loves baseball. He breeds baseball. He is a kid that wants to hit 30 minutes after practice and get extra ground balls for another 30 minutes. He will want to go out there on a windy, cold day when it’s 35 degrees just so he can get it extra work, and he’s just a grinder, and I think that’s what makes him so good.”
Griffin hovers just below 80 miles per hour. He is known for his arm angle and location. Cross has all the tools – a high 80s fastball, a good 12-6 curveball. Cross has always been an impressive player and showcased his talent in the pre-high school ranks.
However, he’s improved his leadership and worked hard in the weight room. The 180-pound Cross led RHS football with 46 catches and 613 yards and ranked second in basketball with 12.2 points a contest. Cross and Krug play in the outfield.
“Really just pitching with a lot of confidence,” Ozores said. “Our pitching coach does a really good job with those guys building confidence and making sure that those guys are getting in bullpens, and that they trust their offspeed stuff.”