Football in Kansas: “Glimpses of greatness” – How a pair of 3-1 teams replaced nearly all its offensive production, lost Week 1, and won three straight

Cheney wide reciever/linebacker Jack Voth has again for a standout player for a 3-1 Cardinal team that had to replace nearly all its production. Cheney and Hoisington have been two teams that had major graduation losses, opened 0-1 and now 3-1. (Photo by Jean Nance).


“He loves playing”

Cheney quarterback Harrison Voth was perhaps the state’s most decorated male athlete in the 2021-22 school year. Voth earned SIK 3A Player of the Year after he led Cheney to a 10-1 mark, the most wins in school history. He threw 39 touchdown passes. Voth accounted for more than 5,500 yards of total offense in his last two seasons and made the Shrine Bowl. He also collected first team all-state basketball and baseball.

Voth was part of significant graduation losses for the Cardinals. No player returned with more than 73 rushing or 36 passing yards. Jack Voth was easily the Cardinals’ most recognizable name after he paced Cheney in tackles and finished with 34 receptions. Senior defensive back Carson Middleton, senior linebacker Hudson Ditgen, Voth, senior offensive lineman Levi Rust and junior offensive lineman Taj Thomas were the lone returning starters.

Caden Sowers had served as the backup quarterback the previous three seasons. He went to sixth-year coach Shelby Wehrman and asked to play a different position. Sowers has started at tight end and linebacker.

Sophomore Josh Burdick took over at quarterback. As a freshman, he played in the first JV game. Then, he suffered a back injury, which forced him to sit out for six weeks.

“It kind of crushed him,” Wehrman told SIK. “He’s a competitor. He loves playing.”

Burdick still came to practice with his back brace. He hung around the huddle and paid attention to what Voth and the quarterbacks did. Burdick heard Wehrman’s words to Voth.

“A student of the game,” Wehrman said. “There’s a lot of kids that kind of check out because they can’t play, and their season is pretty much done, and they feel sorry for themselves.”

Burdick’s back situation improved. The doctor said Burdick could throw. Burdick didn’t want to just throw, he wanted to take practice reps. Cheney obliged with 7-on-7 non-contact reps. Because Burdick had paid attention, he knew the offense. Since the season went longer with the playoff run, Burdick was eventually cleared to full practice.

Burdick took over as the starting quarterback and punter for the Cardinals in 2022. He has helped Cheney bump from an 0-1 start to 3-1, a rebound that only a few 11-man teams have made.

“Running the plays like he had been there all season and improving and making plays that I couldn’t believe he was a freshman,” Wehrman said. “I don’t know where his potential ends right now.”

A rarity: replacing a standout QB/RB, going from 0-1 to 3-1

Kansas 11-man football has 47 teams that stand at 3-1, per the KPreps database. Thirteen of those squads opened 0-1. Four, 6A’s Derby and Wichita Northwest and 3A’s Rock Creek and Holton have stayed top-5 after close losses.

A fifth, 1A Wabaunsee committed seven turnovers in a six-point loss in Week 1. The Chargers have three turnovers since and are generally considered the sixth-best team in its class.

Class 6A Junction City has its well-known turnaround with a road loss to Hays High and three straight quality victories. Class 4A Louisburg opened with a defeat to a non-Kansas team and has won three in a row.

The other six teams are: 6A Lawrence, 5A Shawnee Heights, 3A Clay Center, Cheney, 2A Fredonia and 2A Hoisington.

No teams had to replace more offensive production than Cheney, Lawrence, Shawnee Heights and Hoisington.

Lawrence, like Cheney, graduated its Shrine Bowl quarterback. Tyrell Reed moved in from Topeka and has emerged as a standout all-purpose player.

Shawnee Heights had to replace both a 1,100-yard passer and a 1,100-yard rusher.

SH pulled an upset against Basehor-Linwood, then No. 5 in 4A last week.

It marked the first time the T-Birds had defeated B-L in school history. Junior Allen Baughman has broken out with 95 carries for 781 yards and 10 TDs. Juniors Alex Dittman and Alex Dawkins have led the defense. SH allowed 31 points against in a season-opening loss to K.C. Piper – and 30 points since.

Hoisington, under veteran coach Zach Baird, is the only Kansas 11-man team to start 0-1 and move to 3-1 in each of the last two seasons. The Cardinals went 8-2 in 2021.

“The challenges we had this year were way different than what we had last year,” Baird said.

Like Cheney’s Burdick, Hoisington junior Tony Moore has emerged at quarterback.

“Sky is the limit for him,” Baird said.

This week, Hoisington has a key home game versus Pratt. The Cardinals had to replace Legend Robinson, a 1,907-yard running back. Hoisington graduated 92 percent of its passing yards, 74 percent of its rushing yards and 55 percent of its tackles for loss.

“The first week is not on the kids,” Baird told SIK this week. “I have got to do a better job of getting our guys ready to go Week 1. It’s real sloppy Week 1, but give our guys credit. They have worked their tails off in practice, and they have gotten better across the board, all the way from old guys to young guys.”

“You see progress on Friday nights, you can see progress on Monday nights,” he added. “So that’s hats off to our guys. Being coachable, working hard at practice and then going and applying that.”

While 0-1 to 3-1 can manifest itself through big-picture statistics such as offensive and defensive points per game and turnover margin, it’s often the daily improvement and positional changes that yield the larger increases. Wehrman has been most pleased with his team’s gains with physicality and play execution.

“Play by play, I guess, you see certain glimpses of greatness,” Wehrman said. “And that’s what I told the kids (Monday) is, ‘We have been great at times, and there is no doubt about it, everybody hit their block, and everybody got their fit, and so it’s those glimpses of greatness, I think that you look at, and then you say, ‘Well, if we can do it one time, why can’t we do it every time?’”

“And just try to build on that,” he added. “When that actually happens, I think is different for each kid, because they have to start believing themselves that they can do it.”

“A little bit of synergy”

In the season opener, Cheney faced 2A No. 3 Kingman. The Eagles are highly experienced and known for their 3-3 Havoc defense that allowed 10.3 points per game, third-best in 2A last year. In film study, Wehrman looked for a weakness on Kingman’s defense. He couldn’t find one.

“All their positions are solid, so knew they are a good team,” Wehrman said.

Cheney committed five turnovers and trailed 14-0 in the first quarter in an eventual 28-14 loss. However, the Cardinals moved the ball with 276 total yards, nine fewer than Kingman. Burdick finished 23 of 36 for 246 yards with two scores against three INTs.

“Just kind of thinking, ‘Oh boy, how ugly is this going to get?,” Wehrman said. “And I credit the team, the kids for just kind of bowing up and realizing that they can play the game and kind of relaxing a little bit. We did really well later half of the second quarter and into the third quarter, and I thought we had a chance to kind of turn the tide a little bit, but then had another turnover.”

Afterward, Wehrman highlighted the positives to his team, a “spark of hope” for the Cardinals moving forward. Cheney believed, and it’s shaped the season.

Since then, Cheney has not lost. The Cardinals won at rival Garden Plain (37-7), defeated Douglass (55-7) and won versus Pratt (43-21) last week. Per Massey Ratings, a nationally known statistical site, Cheney was a three-point favorite against Pratt. It marked one of the more surprising results in Week 4.

Burdick is part of a key group of Cardinals that includes Voth, Caleb Wehrman, Kason Messenger, Ditgen, Colter McDaniel and Carson Middleton. Cheney is plus-4 in turnover margin in the three-game winning streak.

Burdick has completed 67 of 98 passes for 852 yards with seven scores against five interceptions, top-15 for all classes. Cheney is up to 6.4 yards per play after 7.8 last season for a top-4 3A offense. Burdick has made good reads on the run game, too.

“I think overachieving at this moment,” Wehrman said. “So happy with him, and he’s a great kid, just quiet, confident, and just a great teammate to everybody.”

Cheney’s three victories have come against teams a combined 7-2 when not playing the Cardinals. Cheney is one of Kansas’ early season surprises. Cheney is at Smoky Valley (2-2) in a Class 3A, District 7 game.

“It’s a little bit of synergy when they start seeing how it works together,” Wehrman said. “And then everybody gets excited and gets on board.”

Hoisington: “He’s not playing like a first-year quarterback”

Last season, Hoisington opened with a 68-18 loss to Pratt. The Greenbacks were more physical. This year, the Cardinals fell, 21-14, to Hesston’s passing offense and athletic junior quarterback Hudson Ferralez.

Baird said Hoisington’s personnel was different this year compared to 2021.

“Week 1 this year, we were real sloppy in assignments,” he said. “Our technique was really bad. And then, we just got wore down, and we got gassed. I thought Hesston played harder than us, especially late first half, early second half.”

Baird believed the fixes were probably easier to make than ’21. After the loss, Hoisington defeated Halstead (28-0), Lyons (56-6) and Southwestern Heights (49-0). While those opponents are a combined 3-9, Baird has seen improvement from his squad.

Baird said Halstead played “extremely hard.” Hoisington improved from Week 1 and “understood the difference” about fighting through being tired.

“You tell your guys, you can’t control who play or where you play,” Baird said. “You control how you play, though. I thought our attention to detail and focus on maybe those teams that maybe aren’t quite as strong as what they are going to be has been pretty good. And give Halstead credit. Halstead was a great game for us and much improved.”

Moore, an all-purpose player as a sophomore, has stepped in as the starting quarterback. He has completed 11 of 15 passes for 234 yards with four scores against no interceptions.

“He’s done a really, really good job,” Baird said. “He’s not playing like a first-year quarterback.”

Moore has rushed 21 times for 332 yards and four TDs. The top-five running backs are non-seniors. Junior Ian Smith (5-10, 195) had limited time before ’22. He has a team-high 43 carries. At inside linebacker, Smith has 15 stops, two for loss.

“Probably does as good a job if not better than anybody I’ve ever had as far as preparing,” Baird said. “Whether it’s watching film, whether it’s attention to detail in practice. So he is one of those guys who earns everything he gets. So he kind of sets the tone for us defensively.”

When Moore came into high school, Hoisington was aware of his athleticism. Moore is an instinctively smart player with strong work ethic.

He repped quarterback in practice a little last season, though didn’t play the position much in JV games. Hoisington had always considered Moore at quarterback – putting the team’s best ball carrier under center.

“We have played teams like that,” Baird said. “And it puts so much pressure on the defense.”

Sophomore Teron Kraft is a key ball carrier and paces the defense with 23 tackles, three for loss. Hoisington has 9.2 yards per play after 6.4 last season.

Senior right tackle Cole Gilliland (6-2, 253) is a decorated player and one of the team’s few returners. Junior Caiden Hoffman (6-3, 310) is right guard. Senior Logan Philbern is at center. Junior Caleb Birzer (5-9, 235) is at left guard. Senior Jace Riese is at left tackle. But Hoisington rotates in several players.

“To give breaks,” Baird said. “We feel like we have got other good players who can help us. … Our philosophy is, the more guys you can play, the better off you are.”

“Really fun to watch them grow”

Cheney has tried to have competition drills in practice that challenge that physical nature. The Cardinals talk about the physicality of opponents, including the Week 4 game against Pratt. The Greenbacks started to run the single wing last season and are 9-4 in the last two seasons. Pratt’s culture is built around physicality and running the ball.

Cheney does the competition drills at least once a week, sometimes twice in the last four years. This year, Wehrman believed his team didn’t quite understand leverage, aggressive push and moving an opponent. Cheney had a board drill to teach leverage and keeping feet moving with good body position. The players have responded.

The offensive line has been fluid. Kolton Rohloff was one Cheney thought would play on the offensive line. But the Cardinals elected to have him just play defense. Jack Gregory was a player Cheney wasn’t sure about, but he’s been playing guard.

Wehrman called him a great pulling guard. Senior Brennan Fairall, like Sowers, has received his opportunity as a senior. Sophomore Garren Campbell (6-3, 275) is the right tackle. He is continuing to learn and develop his strength to be a good blocker. Wehrman has been highly pleased with Campbell’s effort.

“First and foremost, just the physical nature with which we have been playing has been improving and been a lot better,” Wehrman said. “And then the second thing is the execution of plays and knowledge of who to block and how the schemes are, and the responsibilities on defense and just the knowledge of the game.”

Wehrman noted Kingman is “pretty physical” and a “very good team.” Cheney faced another test with Kingman. Wehrman wanted to give credit to the defensive line. He challenged them Monday, four days before the Pratt game.

Wehrman told them that if Cheney was going to win, it was going to be because of the defensive line and controlling the line of scrimmage. Pratt has a big, strong defensive line and knows how to move.

They keyed on the defensive line staying low, firing off the ball quickly and maintaining gaps. In its first three games, Pratt averaged 342 yards. They had 192 against the Cardinals, including three interceptions.

Messenger and Wehrman have started at defensive end all four games. Messenger has 19 tackles, two for loss. Wehrman has delivered 15 stops, five for loss, a pair of quarterback hurries, a sack, forced fumble and pass breakup.

Caleb Wehrman is coach Wehrman’s only son; he has five sisters. Several players are at interior defensive line. Rohloff and Ethan Hall mainly played against Pratt. Hall has 17 tackles, Rohloff has eight.

“Just seeing how we have progressed and being able to beat Pratt, I felt like our physical game greatly improved being able to match up with a team like Pratt,” Wehrman said. “…That’s what’s really fun to watch them grow in their abilities on the football field.”

Sowers finds a new role for Cheney

Hudson Ditgen and Jack Voth have returned at linebacker. Wehrman noted the duo has been “super solid.” Ditgen has delivered 36 tackles, five for loss. Voth has 35 stops, two for loss, along with a sack and quarterback hurry. Caden Sowers is a first-year starter at outside linebacker.

“Doing a great job of reading their keys, and finding their fits,” Wehrman said. “And plugging the holes up on the line of scrimmage to keep the running game from really developing.”

Wehrman is pleased with Sowers’ improvement, a season that has yielded 26 stops, four for loss and four quarterback hurries. Sowers came to Wehrman and said he would rather play a different position.

Sowers had played limited linebacker in the past, though Cheney wanted to keep him healthy for quarterback. Sowers is close to 6-3, 200 and has been a big frame with deceptive speed. A state qualifier in the 3A javelin last spring, Sowers has the athletic ability to make tough plays. Teams have often run to the strong side, and Sowers has understood how to fit, fill the gap and make a play.

“He is having fun playing with his friends and being part of the team,” Wehrman said. “I have just been really impressed with his progress as far as understanding the position and doing what we ask of him.”

Cheney has intercepted six passes, including three pick-sixes. All the defensive touchdowns came when there was pressure on the quarterback. Colter McDaniel has three INTs, Middleton with two and Weston Hill has one. McDaniel recorded pick-sixes against Garden Plain and Douglass. Hill delivered a pick-six versus Pratt.

“The progress with improvement has been the most impressive to me,” Wehrman said. “And the way the guys have wanted to invest and get better, so it’s just been really fun to coach them, because they are interested in getting better and doing their best, and it shows on the field.”

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