By CONOR NICHOLL
Sports in Kansas will have in-depth previews on all nine classes, six-man to 6A, in the next three weeks. All per-game football statistics and per-game rankings from Conor Nicholl, SIK, along with databases from KPreps and Prep Power Index.
Six-Man: Anticipation for first year of sanctioned KSHSAA six-man, early season-rematches
Last season’s Six-Man Wild West Bowl championship at Dodge City was predicated to be a close contest between undefeated teams Cunningham and Natoma. Cunningham, with lone senior Isaiah Reed, was expected to have a speed advantage with dual quarterbacks Luke McGuire and Trey DeWeese. However, McGuire suffered an ankle injury early and was hobbled throughout the contest.
The game was tied at six midway through the second quarter when Natoma took over the game and eventually won 60-12 via mercy rule. While Natoma outplayed Cunningham, the Wildcats had a couple of drives stall inside the Tiger 10-yard line. Plus, Natoma scored two touchdowns on relatively unusual plays, including a fumble that popped straight in the air and led to a score.
Before Cunningham shook Natoma’s hands in the postgame line, the Wildcats looked forward to a rematch.
“Several of them said, ‘We want them again,’” Cunningham coach Lance McGuire recalled to SIK this summer. ‘We want them now.’ Just the feeling of incomplete like ‘we are not done.’
Cunningham has not talked about the state game; McGuire said he’s just “left it on simmer.” In basketball and track, though, McGuire heard the Wildcats “every now and then” bring up the opponent.
“Can’t wait for Natoma, can’t wait for Natoma,” McGuire said.
The anticipation for the 2022 season has gradually climbed for Cunningham – and the rest of the classification in the eagerly awaited first season of KSHSAA sanctioned six-man football. Six-man returned to Kansas in 2014 when then-Weskan coach Marc Cowles installed it with the Coyote program.
Interest steadily grew. On Sept. 16, KSHSAA unanimously voted to make six-man an official KSHSAA sport starting in 2022. Kansas is the eighth state nationally to have sanctioned six-man football. Last season, 14 six-man squads played a full schedule. Two others, Ransom-Western Plains and Centre-Lost Springs, played a limited six-man slate, though did not qualify for the playoffs.
Natoma finished first at 9-0, Cunningham second with 9-1, Ashland third at 8-2 and Northern Valley fourth at 7-3. This season, six-man bumps to 26 teams. It marked Natoma’s first state playoff wins since 1974 and first-ever state title. Cunningham had one previous state title appearance, a runner-up in ’75.
“Attendance has been good, excitement is high,” McGuire said. “The boys, they are just looking forward to the football season, getting started. It can’t get here fast enough.”
Six-man added: Altoona-Midway, Chase, Chetopa, Ingalls, Southern Coffey County, Centre-Lost Springs, Peabody-Burns, Southern Cloud, Tescott, Waverly, Wetmore and Triplains-Brewster. The 6-Man schools have between 55 and 23 students on the KSHSAA ninth, tenth and 11th grade count on Sept. 20, 2021.
“I don’t think it’s done getting bigger,” McGuire said.
Waverly posted a 7-2 mark and Peabody-Burns went 4-4, though both took significant graduation losses, especially at the skill positions. Lost Springs finished 4-1 in its abbreviated season. The rest of the squads went 2-6 or lower and several teams had forfeits.
“Been very good for football and very good for the small town football,” McGuire said. “Gives everyone a chance.”
Plenty of uncertainty exists with the new group, with Waverly, Peabody-Burns, Triplains-Brewster and Ingalls in some form considered as the potential top teams. Triplains-Brewster features 6-foot-6, 245-pound senior lineman Brock Woolf, who has multiple offers, including Northwest Missouri State.
Peabody-Burns had just two home games, fewest of any KSHSAA team for all classes, per SIK research. P-B head coach Kody Tegtmeier is a Hanover alum and formerly a Cheylin assistant where he coached six-man. P-B went 4-4 and scored 33.3 points a game.
The top 2022 squads are likely six-man veteran squads, headlined by Cunningham, Ashland, Northern Valley, Natoma, Bird City-Cheylin and Pawnee Heights.
Six-man is divided into four districts. District 1 is likely headed by Peabody-Burns and Centre-Lost Springs. District 2 features Cunningham, Natoma and Pawnee Heights. Ashland is the District 3 headliner. District 4 is likely the deepest with Cheylin, Northern Valley, Golden Plains and Triplains-Brewster.
Loaded, experienced Cunningham opens with marquee games
The KSHSAA six-man slate opens with a pair of high-profile games.
Cunningham starts at Ashland, and then plays host to Natoma. McGuire ran through “the whole gamut” of emotions when the schedule was released. He said the slate is “kind of the gauntlet being thrown.” Cunningham paced six-man in scoring defense with 17.2 points allowed a game, just ahead of Natoma’s 18.1. Natoma led in offense at 61.4. Northern Valley (54.8), Ashland (53.8) and Cunningham (53.2) followed.
“Oh wow,’” he said. “And then some of that, ‘Well, good, we will just find out right off the bat what we are made of, I think.’”
Junior Luke McGuire returns after he completed 46 of 72 passes for 729 yards with 18 scores against three interceptions. DeWeese is back after 52 of 93 passing for 772 yards with 19 TDs against three INTs. McGuire paced Cunningham in rushing with 76 carries for 690 yards and 11 scores.
DeWeese started as a freshman when Cunningham re-started football and posted a 1-7 record. Cunningham is 15-3 since. Coach McGuire is “very comfortable” with the two-quarterback system.
“Trey is the coach on the field that is kind of the intermediary between myself and the boys in the huddle,” coach McGuire said. “That extra year, starting as a freshman and really taking quite a few lumps, I think, I don’t know matured him in that way seeing what’s open and having suggestions and thoughts and ideas all at the same time. I think pretty much the team kind of looks to him in that role.”
Cunningham returns senior end Lane Halderson, possibly six-man’s best non-quarterback. Halderson was the Wildcats’ top receiver with 32 carries for 601 yards and 15 scores. He was 6-foot, 185 pounds. Halderson was first team six-man offense as an end/receiver, and Luke McGuire collected first team all-state defensive back.
“He can do everything,” coach McGuire said of Halderson. “He is I think gaining good weight. I think he is probably faster. I know he is stronger. Obviously, his hands people have seen, but I don’t know that people have seen the physicality that he brings, and I think football, he had success in basketball and track, but I think football is his passion, and I think sky is the limit for him. I think he could leave a lasting impression on some of the players in six-man.”
As well, two sophomores, Lucas Hageman and Dagim Reed, are expected to be key players. As a freshman, Hageman dealt with injuries and other obstacles and played in seven games with 255 rushing yards and eight scores. Reed is a dynamic hybrid player and was KPreps first team all-state kicker. Reed had 151 rushing yards and five scores, along with 169 receiving yards and four TDs.
The top-three tacklers all return: Halderson with 67, Reed at 58 and McGuire at 57. McGuire picked off six passes, Reed four. Reed delivered 14 touchbacks.
The line includes junior Jack Ruckle, whom coach McGuire said “is another physical player up front” and gained strength. Plus, sophomore Trent Schnittker is a big frame with deceptive speed. Coach McGuire has continued to tinker with the offense, especially with spread and getting players in space.
“It’s evolving, and I would say it’s almost an addiction, driving by myself or laying in bed at night,” coach said. “Just things in my experience from 11-man or eight-man…how can I do it? How can I do it simpler? How can I match this or change this to fit our kids. It’s all the time.”
Ashland headlined by its junior class
Since it moved to six-man football, Ashland is 12-3 in last two seasons and 26-7 in the past four. A core group of juniors and sophomore Lathan McPhail propelled the Bluejays to the state semifinals in 2021.
Ashland graduated just one senior. However, veteran coach Ben Fox, an Ashland alum, said at least three Bluejays who played last season are likely not on the football team for 2022. Instead, that group has elected to focus more on basketball and track.
Still, the key players remain: junior quarterback/hybrid Britt Grigsby, junior Landen McPhail, junior Trae Vera, junior Kale Harris, junior Gus Hink and Lathan McPhail all return. The McPhails are cousins.
Landen McPhail was first team all-state linebacker.
“Those two guys have considerable passing skills and catching skills, just really good athletes,” Fox said of the McPhails.
Harris returns after he tore his ACL in back-to-back seasons.
“We need to keep him really healthy,” Fox told SIK this summer. “But we have got this good chunk of juniors here that are going to make a big impact for us.”
Fox noted Harris has “had a great summer” after 40 rushes for 235 yards and four scores in three games. Harris has tremendous athleticism. Fox likened Harris’ athleticism and quickness to Luke Reimer, who grew up in Ashland, moved to Nebraska, and led the University of Nebraska with 108 tackles last fall.
“Just has some knack to make moves, to make a guy miss,” Fox said.
Grigsby completed 72 of 121 passes for 1,038 yards with 19 scores against five interceptions. He also rushed 53 times for 253 yards and five scores.
He and Vera tied for second with 21 receptions.
“He can kind of do anything, so we are really appreciative of him,” Fox said of Grigsby. “Oh man, just a grinder of a guy. Kind of the player you want to coach. He will do anything. We will put him back there and have him throw passes. He’s got an arm. He’s got a baseball background, and he’s shown it since his freshman year, he can throw that thing.
“But we have thrown the ball to him even sometimes,” Fox added. “And actually at the end of the season last season, with the Harris kid out, we kind of got thin on running backs, and he started taking a lot of the rushes up the middle. Just our ground-and-pound game, too. He’s dang versatile.”
Landen McPhail finished with 91 rushes for 700 yards and 15 scores, all team-bests. He also hauled in four receiving TDs, and paced the squad with 24 catches for 324 yards. McPhail and Grigsby were 1-2 in tackles with 89 and 83, respectively. Vera delivered 66, McPhail 41. Ashland forced 28 turnovers and was plus-10 in turnover margin.
Vera and Hink are expected to play up front where Ashland has limited depth. Both Vera and Hink should play center after Andrew Endicott graduated.
Northern Valley with plenty of depth; Natoma and Pawnee Heights with potential key players
Marvin Gebhard has spent many years on Northern Valley’s staff, first as a longtime assistant to NV Hall of Fame coach Chuck Fessenden. Gebhard, also Northern Valley’s principal, took over as head coach after Fessenden retired. Northern Valley posted a 2-5 record in 2020, its first season of six-man football.
“These kids, they don’t care if it six-man or eight-man,” Gebhard told SIK last year. “They are getting an opportunity, and they are playing.”
Last season, NV rose to 7-3 with all wins by at least 45 points. NV lost, 53-50, to Natoma in a Week 2 game that came down to the final play. In the state semifinals, the Huskie fell, 57-22, to Cunningham. In the third-place game, NV lost, 39-38, to Ashland. Gebhard and McGuire shared Six-Man Coach of the Year honors.
Gebhard said six-man was a “different ball game” than eight-man, especially since the quarterback in six-man cannot run the ball after getting the snap. He changed some scheme for last season. NV allowed 21.7 points a contest, third-best in six-man. Cheylin was fourth with 28.9 points allowed a contest.
“We are so driven, like go after the quarterback, go after the quarterback,” Gebhard said. “Well, in six-man football, you don’t want to go after the quarterback, because you can’t run the football. It takes some time to transition.”
Northern Valley graduated just three of its 16 players, including Bailey Sides, an all-state selection at some level in football and basketball. NV has excellent depth and return key players that also helped the Huskies to a final four Class 1A, Division II boys’ basketball finish. Northern Valley returns Kai Cox, a first team all-state lineman.
Additionally, Northern Valley returns a group that includes: juniors Kenton Thalheim, Jeremiah Hansen, Gabriel Rudd, Brody Preston and senior Foster Brands.
“A lot of times in six-man, it’s the old adage, who has got the one kid?,” Gebhard said. “The fastest kid? … We probably don’t have the best athletes on the field, but I will take our six up against any six – even like seven, eight, nine, 10. We have got a deep, deep group.”
Natoma graduated its three exceptional first team all-state players with receiver Tracen Frye, running back Kayden Martinez and defender Derek George. Martinez and George were consensus six-man offensive and defensive players of the year, respectively.
Still, Natoma returns two highly athletic players: sophomore quarterback Roy Bright and senior receiver Javon Letsch. Bright completed 39 of 59 passes for 781 yards with 15 scores against two interceptions. Letsch delivered 16 catches for 303 yards and five TDs.
Defensively, four of the top-six tacklers return, all seniors: Jared Griffin (59), Letsch (53), KC Conlin (42) and Ian Mayberry (41). Letsch is 6-2, 225 and was honorable mention all-state as a sophomore. Griffin is also 6-2.
As of Aug. 8, Pawnee Heights senior standout Alec Carlson confirmed to SIK that he had not fully decided yet about football but didn’t think he would be playing. The 6-foot-3 Carlson is in the strong conversation for best boy athlete entering this school year. He has a 43-inch vertical, averaged 20 points a game in basketball and has triple jumped 46 feet, 5 inches.
In five games, Carlson completed 16 of 28 passes for 314 yards with five touchdowns against three interceptions. He delivered 11 carries for 164 yards and two scores. Plus, Carlson caught 17 passes for 230 yards and four TDs.
Cheylin looks for vault back up the standings
Bird City-Cheylin was the six-man runner-up in 2019 and went undefeated and won the title in 2020. Last season, the Cougars dropped to 3-5 last year with just three home games. Cheylin had three losses by 10, four and eight points to Ashland, Weskan and Natoma, respectively. The Cougars fell, 44-15, to Cunningham in the state playoffs.
The Cougars have around nine players who will push for starting spots. Cheylin has no seniors and just one freshman. Cheylin has nine or 10 sophomores and juniors that will significantly lead the squad. The Cougars have its two well-known juniors: quarterback Logan McCarty and defensive back Pablo Bermudez.
McCarty completed 100 of 163 passes for 1,345 yards with 23 scores against six interceptions. McCarty paced with 76 carries for 551 yards and 12 TDs. Bermudez had 22 catches for 294 yards and five scores. McCarty led with 85 tackles, while junior Brady Ketzner finished with 63 stops. McCarty picked off five passes, Bermudez four. Bermudez has 12 career INTs. McCarty and Bermudez had solid summers at various camps and combines.
Cheylin will also have Harley McPherson, Eduardo Baca, John Sabatka, along with Victor Hernandez, who has been a Cheylin student for years and is playing football for the first time.
Centre-Lost Springs an intriguing team
Veteran Centre-Lost Springs coach Kelly Steiner called last season “a crazy year.” Lost Springs started with eight kids and about a week into practice had a player break his hand. The Cougars decided to cancel their eight-man games and play six-man. Then, Centre went through a bad COVID bout.
Centre had roughly a week of six-man practice before the first game versus Cunningham. Then, Centre had five to six more kids decide they wanted to play. Centre won its final four games and finished 4-1. Lost Springs’ leading rusher is junior Santiago Knepp (5-9, 155). Knepp is quick with good speed and elusiveness. Knepp joined the Cougars later in the season.
Junior Gentri Holub (6-1, 255) is the top returning tackler and likes contact. Junior Nick Krch (6-1, 150) is the top returning receiver. Krch has improved his hands, catching abilities and Steiner said is “very fast” in the open field. Centre graduated key player Luke Hudson. Steiner’s freshmen twins Kolby and Koltin Steiner are both 5-9, 145 and will be counted on to help a lot this season.
At most, Lost Springs will have one senior. LS lost 55-6 to Cunningham and then earned big wins against Rural Vista, Burrton, Western Plains and Golden Plains, squads that had a combined 3-20 record.
“We have a fairly strong junior and freshman class and both classes have good numbers in it,” he said.
6-Man Offense (all 14 teams that were playoff eligible)
Northern Valley 54.8
Pawnee Heights 43.1
Bird City-Cheylin 37.5
Golden Plains 29.8
Tribune-Greeley County 27.0
Northern Valley 21.7
Bird City-Cheylin 28.9
Tribune-Greeley County 40.3
Golden Plains 45.8
Pawnee Heights 48.3