By CONOR NICHOLL
KENSINGTON – Hill City met on the football field immediately after the postgame handshake line last Friday. HC limited Thunder Ridge’s physical playmakers and explosive offense in a 48-22 win. TR is highly senior-laden and significantly larger than Hill City. Thunder Ridge quarterback Dylan Bice and end Kaleb Wagenblast both have KCAC offers.
Throughout the week, Hill City’s veteran staff of head coach Travis Desbien, defensive coordinator Craig Amrein and line coach Vince Walker discussed goals for the game. One of the keys was forcing Thunder Ridge into grinding drives. In the first half, Thunder Ridge ran 41 plays, 31 more than Hill City. However, the Longhorns had just one touchdown and 106 total yards.
Hill City, which graduated 65 percent of tackles and sacks from its ‘21 state semifinal team, had multiple new players in the two-front starting defense, a unique look in eight-man football. The group has seniors Noah Lee and Trent Long at defensive line. Both had very limited time last season and combined for 23 tackles.
Sophomore Sylar Rohr and senior Conner Dinkel are at inside linebacker. Dinkel is a returning first team all-state player. Rohr logged eight tackles as a freshman and is undersized.
Juniors Aiden Amrein and Jayden Nuss are highly experienced at outside linebacker. The back end has senior Kaleb Atkins, a top eight-man player, and sophomore Dayton Stephen. Entering this season, Stephen had one all-time tackle. Lee and Dinkel are Hill City’s two biggest players at 212 and 207 pounds, respectively.
“We lost a bunch of seniors,” Nuss said. “And we didn’t know who was going to step up. At practice, we had to make sure that these sophomores were going to step up and do good for us and make something happen, and they have proved themselves, and out here on the field, they are proving themselves.”
Hill City continued to corral Thunder Ridge’s offense in the second half. During the game, Atkins broke up a pass in the end zone in 1-on-1 coverage. HC limited the 6-foot-1, 215-pound Wagenblast to one catch.
“It’s a big confidence boost, and I am here and ready to play,” Nuss said. “And I am trying to make a name for myself right now, and I am trying to get out there, and I want to make things happen, and I am willing to do anything I can do for this team to make sure that are successful.”
HC led by one score entering the fourth quarter and eventually pulled away. TR rushed 45 times for 260 yards and finished 6 of 20 passing for 56 yards and two interceptions.
“It’s our intensity and our physicality,” Long said. “Last year we were known as one of the most physical teams in the state, and we lost a lot of players that gave us that. So we knew this year that we had to make a statement, and it started with our physicality again.”
Thunder Ridge, then-ranked third in Division II, entered last Friday with five TDs against no interceptions passing-wise. TR averaged 8.8 yards per play in the two wins, and 4.8 against Hill City.
“Our defense showed up big tonight,” Desbien said. “We stopped what they do best, and they had to resort to passing, and that worked out in our favor, so I was really, really proud of our defensive effort tonight.”
In the postgame huddle, Amrein reviewed Hill City’s success in certain defensive and special teams areas. He noted HC didn’t shut out the powerful Longhorns. However, the third-year defensive coordinator and longtime coach offered a final superlative.
This was the Ringnecks’ best defensive performance since he came to Hill City.
The game has also help produce, by one measure, Eight-Man Division I’s top defense throughout Kansas in the season’s first three weeks.
In the summer, Desbien knew Hill City’s strengths. HC has likely the Ringnecks’ best backfield in eight-man football with Amrein at quarterback and Atkins/Nuss in the backfield. Especially Atkins is a dynamic pass catcher and hybrid player.
“He is small, but he doesn’t play small,” Desbien said. “The kid has just got a heart of a lion.”
In ’21, Hill City was sixth in offense with 51.2 points per game. The Ringnecks were No. 12 in defense at 26.7 points allowed.
“They are basically our seniors even though two of them are juniors,” Long said. “And they just keep us going, and something happens wrong, they explain this is what we have got to do different.”
It marked the second straight year HC has fielded a top-15 scoring defense in Division I. Amrein has led Hill City’s improvement after a longtime stint at alma mater Ellis, first as an assistant and then head coach.
“This very unique defense that Craig Amrein set up for us, it’s great, and teams don’t expect it, and it’s different,” Nuss said. “And teams have to situate to it.”
In the two front, the Ringnecks play Amrein significantly down the line of scrimmage off the defensive line.
“They have just got two studs in the middle, and they really control it,” TR coach Joel Struckhoff said. “And that (Dinkel), really good middle linebacker. He just flows really well, and the more you get through the game, the better he plays, and I think he’s a key part of their defense, and obviously Amrein plays a super good job out there.
“Just coming downhill and just basically taking the outside away from you, being outside like that, but still coming downhill where he can crash on an inside run too if he has to,” he added.
Hill City has limited football history. The 2010 state runner-up season is the best year in school annals. That team allowed 17.6 points a contest. From ’11-19, the last season before Amrein, Hill City allowed: 42.8, 45.1, 42.6, 30.7, 31.5, 32.9, 35.3, 32.9 and 32.4 points per game, per SIK research.
Last year marked the first district title in school annals. Hill City, though, graduated physical players and leaders such as Cody Presley and Ayden Nickelson.
“Throughout the season, we are going to have develop leaders to make a run like that,” Desbien told SIK this summer. “That’s one thing we are missing right now, but certainly I think we have the talent to.”
Even after the first two weeks, Desbien noted “everyone” on the outside “had question marks.” He read multiple media reports last week that predicted Thunder Ridge would score 50 against HC.
After three games this season, Hill City has allowed just 16 points a game. Following Friday’s win, Desbien was asked what most pleased him this season. He quickly responded “our toughness on defense.”
Hill City opens District 6 play with back-to-back home games at Atwood-Rawlins County and Quinter before likely a huge game versus Hoxie in Week 6.
“You don’t have to be big to be good in football, and tonight, I think we proved that you don’t have to have 200-pound horses everywhere,” Desbien said. “You have just got to have good football players, so I was extremely proud of how our defense played, because man, they played big, and that’s what you can ask for. You can’t make them to grow bigger, but you can ask them to play hard, and that’s what we’ve got.”
The win propelled Hill City from just outside the top-five to No. 3 in the KPreps Division I rankings. Thunder Ridge continues to be a state contender and is ranked fourth in Division II.
“This is a very good football team,” Struckhoff said. “Probably one of the top-3 in the state in Division I in my opinion. Got a lot of different weapons there, and they are just very good all the way around, solid eight players.”
Each week, 45 teams are ranked, five per class, from 6A to six-man. After three weeks, 14 squads have entered the poll that were unranked in the preseason. Seven of those squads are ranked fifth: 6A Olathe North, 5A Hays High, 4A Basehor-Linwood, 2A Silver Lake, 1A Centralia, Eight-Man, Division II Dighton and Six-Man Bird City-Cheylin.
There’s a quartet of No. 4 teams that were unranked in the preseason: 5A Hutchinson, 4A Eudora, 2A Norton, and 1A Troy.
Three teams that were unranked before the year started are now No. 3 or above: 6A No. 1 Manhattan, Hill City and six-man No. 3 Tescott. This is the first season of KSHSAA sanctioned six-man football. Tescott won seven games in the last six seasons and has enjoyed a remarkable rise. The Trojans face No. 1 Cunningham at home on Friday.
Manhattan, which led 6A in scoring defense last year, ended Derby’s 46-game home winning streak in Week 1. Of those 14 unranked to ranked teams, five of those squads have improved their scoring defense by more than 10 points off last year. Tescott, helped by the classification change, is one.
The other four are Eudora, Troy, Centralia and Hill City. Troy and Centralia play each other Friday, and Eudora’s strength of schedule has not been statistically challenging.
Hill City, though, has played Osborne, WaKeeney-Trego and Thunder Ridge. Those teams are a combined 5-1 when not playing the Ringnecks.
There are two basic statistics to rank a defense: points allowed and yards allowed. A third measure, though, provides a more detailed look at a defense’s quality: points allowed against strength of schedule, known as the Simple Rating.
Hill City has allowed 16 points a contest. Those three opponents – Osborne, WaKeeney, and Thunder Ridge, have scored 52.7 points a contest when not playing HC, a difference of 36.7 points.
All three teams have returning quarterback who earned all-league honors at some level: Osborne’s Doak Guttery, WaKeeney’s Owen Day and Bice. The trio is a combined 22 of 53 for 205 yards with one score against four interceptions against HC’s pass defense.
“These kids, they love the physical side of football,” Desbien said.
Overall, Division I is likely the closest class with limited separation in the top-10. Leoti-Wichita County, Chase County, Hill City, Little River and South Sumner Co. are the top-five.
In District 2, Chase County, Burlingame, Lyndon, Madison, and Cair Paravel are all 2-1 or better. Defending champion Meade is on an 18-game winning streak. Meade has allowed only six total points, though has not played as challenging a slate as Hill City. Chase County beat Division II power Colony-Crest, 70-54, in Week 2. Crest averaged 55 points a game in its other two contests.
While strength of schedules will certainly fluctuate, Hill City currently leads Division I in Simple Rating after three weeks:
Ranked Teams/Top Contenders:
Hill City -36.7
South Sumner Co. -25.3
Wichita County -24.8
Chase County -9.7
Little River -3
Last season, Hill City allowed 15.3 points a game after the first three contests and had a defensive Simple Rating of -25.4. This year, the retooled defense has delivered early and put the Ringnecks back in state contention.
Last week, Desbien noted Long and Rohr had stepped up on both sides. They are very different players. Rohr is 5-7, 148. Long is 6-5, 180. On Friday, Rohr recovered 15 tackles and picked off his first career pass. Early in the fourth quarter, he and Dinkel provided key blocks on the right side for an Atkins touchdown that gave HC a two-score advantage.
“Sylar is an excellent sophomore coming up,” Nuss said. “We didn’t know where he was going to be this season, and we didn’t know where any of us were going to be. Sylar wanted on that field, and he proved himself that he could be on that field and play with us, so I am very proud of him for that.”
Long averaged 16.9, 7.4 rebounds and shot 55 percent for a 17-5 basketball season. In football, Long has proved difficult to block with his length. Throughout the season, Long has one job: get the ball.
Long and Dinkel are tied for the team lead with 38 tackles. The 5-foot-9, 187-pound Dinkel has 334 career stops.
With 4 minutes, 18 seconds left, Hill City led 34-22, though Thunder Ridge had just recovered an onside kick. Thunder Ridge threw three incomplete passes at the HC 35-yard line. Long recorded a quarterback hurry to force an incompletion on one play.
“D-line, my height is my advantage right now, being so tall, I have got my lengthy arms,” Long said. “I can just get them off of me, and shuck and try to get to the ball as fast as I can.”