By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Last fall, Girard coach Neal Philpot “felt pretty good” with the Trojans’ direction. Girard posted 4-6, 5-4 and 4-5 records in his first three seasons. Last year, Girard went 4-6.
“Things were starting to click, and it just didn’t take hold,” Philpot said.
Girard took a loss to an out-of-state team. The Trojans fell by one point to Pratt in a game scheduled late and played at Butler County Community College because of COVID-19. Overall, the Trojans lost a pair of contests by a point and another by seven.
The year was consistently plagued by turnovers. Girard committed 34 turnovers and finished minus-20 in turnover margin. The Trojans outgained its opponents in three losses.
“One of the worst teams in the state,” Philpot said of the TO differential.
This season, that trend has completely flipped. Girard has enjoyed a plus-six win improvement to 10-0, the program’s best start since 1999. Girard will travel to Holton (10-0) in a Class 3A state quarterfinal matchup Friday. Holton is ranked fourth in 3A, Girard fifth.
Overall, Girard is plus-13 in turnover margin and has committed just five turnovers this season. Girard lost the turnover margin in the first eight contests of 2020. In 2021, the Trojans have never lost the turnover battle and never committed more than one miscue in any game.
Girard, which has never made a state title, has three all-time semifinal showings, the latest in ’06. That season and Girard’s quarterfinal showing in ’16 are the Trojans best playoff showings in the last 20 years before this fall.
“We didn’t win as many ballgames as I thought we could have,” Philpot told SIK earlier this fall. “We struggled really poorly in the turnover situation, but we felt like we were in a lot of games.”
Additionally, Girard has done well with bouncing back. In several contests this year, including the Round of 16 matchup, Girard has trailed or been tied at multiple occasions before it has quickly answered with a score. Girard returned just one starting lineman, junior Cordell Searan, for Philpot, a Norton graduate and former All-American quarterback at Pittsburg State.
The Trojans brought back returning starters in junior quarterback Luke Niggemann, senior linebacker/end Brecken Troike, junior linebacker Alex Coester, senior running back Ethan Merrell and senior defensive back Gage Davenport.
Girard has averaged 35.1 points per game and allowed 9.5 a contest. The Trojans are fourth in 3A in scoring defense, per Prep Power Index.
Girard has delivered 342 yards a game, 241 rushing, per SIK research and Hudl boxscores. Girard has permitted 213 yards a game.
“This year, we haven’t had that kind of negative setback in the game that just kind goes the wrong way for you that you can’t respond to,” Philpot said. “I think that’s the big thing for us is when we have had those bad plays or we have given up something on the defensive side, that we have responded well to it. That comes with a little confidence when you start winning a few ball games, you believe you can win, and you believe that you can make those plays.”
Philpot gave credit to Girard’s improved practices the last two seasons. Many key 2021 players were on JV last year.
“We are able to go quick, we are able to get good, quality alignments and good quality reps,” Philpot said. “We are not going back and having to correct a lot. We can kind of correct off film.”
Philpot has been significantly pleased with the team’s offensive line, several whom switched to new roles in ‘21. Searan starts at left tackle. Sophomore Caleb Combs is at left guard. Junior Ryan Jarboe starts at center. Junior Justin Ferguson is at right tackle, and junior Aarick Williams (6-1, 250) has been at right guard.
The three-man defensive line front has done well with slowing down running games. Girard has permitted just 107 rushing yards a game. Multiple players have been on the front, including Searan, Ferguson, Combs, Williams, along with juniors Adam Shireman and Juan Pizarro.
“Our biggest thing is that we all have to be on the same page,” Philpot said. “And so they have been a tight-knit group, and they have kind of bought into their roles a little bit of making sure that we are all on the same page, and even if we are wrong, we are doing the same thing together.”
Last week, Girard beat Parsons, 32-13. The Trojans outgained Parsons, 408-245. The Trojans ran 75 plays, 38 more than the Vikings. Girard held a 354-91 edge in rushing yards. Plus, the Trojans had zero turnovers and finished plus-three in turnover margin.
Parsons tied the game at seven and 13. Then, Girard tallied 19 straight points. Troike hauled in an 18-yard scoring pass from Niggemann.
Coester scored on a five-yard run to end the first half scoring. In the third quarter, Merrell scored on a 21-yard TD run.
Coester finished with 20 carries for 143 yards and a score. Merrell delivered 22 carries for 141 yards and a TD. Niggemann tossed two TD passes, both to Troike. Defensively, Troike recorded eight tackles. Niggemann and Troike were two of 3A’s most well-known players entering the fall.
Also a standout safety and punter, Niggemann has thrown for 1,016 yards. Coester has rushed for 635 yards, one fewer than Merrell.
Junior free safety Aiden Damman picked off two passes, Shireman recovered a fumble, and Coester blocked a kick.
Two weeks ago, Girard led Caney Valley, 35-0, at halftime. Five different players scored a touchdown –Davenport, Ethan Davidson, Wyatt Foley, Jaden Norris, and Beau Harris. Niggeman tossed 135 yards with two scores against an interception.
Versus Frontenac for the district title in Week 8, Girard trailed 6-0 after the first quarter when the Raiders hit a 64-yard TD pass. Girard came back with a three-yard TD run by Davidson in the second quarter. Late in the contest, Troike caught a three-yard pass from Niggemann.
Those big defensive plays, turnover creation and bounce-back TDs have occurred all year.
In Week 1, Girard defeated Colgan, 33-7, behind three non-offensive touchdowns. Senior Brahm Born had a 55-yard interception return. Coester delivered a 58-yard punt return. Troike returned the second half kickoff 75 yards for a TD.
In a 48-0 win versus Baxter Springs in Week 2, senior Josh Boore returned an interception 37 yards for a score. Levi Blair delivered a late safety.
Versus Columbus in Week 3, Frontenac delivered a 47-26 victory with a 90-yard scoring run by Niggemann and two non-offensive touchdowns. Davidson returned a kickoff 88 yards for a score. Davidson iced the game with a 70-yard interception return in the fourth quarter.
At Prairie View in a high-profile Week 5 road contest, Girard trailed 8-6 in the first quarter and 15-14 in the second. However, Niggemann scored on a one-yard run, which started 24 straight points. Wyatt Foley caught a pair of 30-yard passes from Niggemann. Girard went on to win 38-15.
“Too many mistakes that cost us some of those games,” Philpot said. “And that’s been an emphasis for us this year. Of hey, we can’t make those same mistakes and expect to win games.”