Football in Kansas: How seven players under six-feet tall has shaped the state playoffs – and could do so again Saturday


SIK looks at several unsung players under six-feet tall who all could affect state championship games this weekend, notably in Eight-Man, Division I, Eight-Man, Division II, 4A and 6A:

Carter Holloway, Little River

Little River features its three experienced offensive linemen with senior Carter Holloway, Kaden Shafer and Kyle Bruce. Last season, they helped the Redskins to an 11-2 mark and Eight-Man, Division I state championship. LR set state eight-man records in its 70-58 title game win versus Wichita County, including the highest scoring combined point total in the Division I championship.

Overall, LR averaged 54 points per game and graduated its pair of first team all-state threats with Jayden Garrison and Graham Stephens. Garrison was the consensus Division I Offensive Player of the Year and accounted for 58 offensive touchdowns. Braxton Lafferty picked up KPreps first team all-state at receiver with 30 catches, 10 for scores. Shafer was also a first team all-state lineman.

This year, LR has averaged 51.8 points per game, though is better on a yards per play average than last fall’s historical season. In 2020, LR averaged 8.8 yards per play and 8.2 yards per rush. This season, LR is at 9.4 yards per play and 9.0 yards per rush.

The No. 1-ranked Redskins have won 20 straight games, the longest current eight-man winning streak, and have four one-score wins. Much of the LR’s blue collar mentality and offensive improvement comes from the 5-foot-9, 175-pound Holloway. He is at least 60 pounds lighter than Shafer and Bruce. On Saturday, Little River (12-0) faces Meade (12-0) for the Division I state championship game at Newton’s Fischer Field.

Holloway, who battles diabetes, is one of several unsung players for the state championship qualifiers.

“He’s a mental giant,” coach Kevin Ayers said. “The things that he has had to go through with his health and some real scary things and wondering if he was even going to be play. He just has handled that like a man.”

Holloway started at center when he was a sophomore. Then, Holloway was having blood sugar issues and some health reasons that forced him out of games. LR elected to switch Holloway to guard and put Shafer at center. Holloway played well at guard.

This season, Holloway played guard up until midseason. Then, LR believed the offense would be a little better if Holloway moved back to center, a more natural position, and Shafer returned to guard. Ayers said the move “worked out really good.”

“You put in the film, that’s the first thing that pops out about Carter, he’s got great feet,” Ayers said. “He understands angles, he understands leverage. He understands how to finish blocks.”

The perfect season has helped Ayers, 190-43 in 22 years and 32-4 in three seasons with Little River, have the longest winning streak of his career. Ayers won two state titles at Jetmore and the ’07 crown with Wallace County. He is the only Kansas coach to capture eight-man titles at three different schools.

Little River is 6-4 all-time in finals with titles in ’70, ’71, ’81, ’96 and ’99. The last perfect year was a 13-0 mark in 1996.

Ayers posted 13-0 marks with Jetmore in ’03 and Wallace County. He won 18 straight games from ’01-02, per the Kansas Football History database. At Wallace, he won 14 in a row from ’07-08. Ayers was surprised to learn about the streaks.

“You have a run of really good athletes that really buy into a program,” Ayers said. “And a community and parents that support the program, and it makes for some good memories and some special times, and I have just been blessed to have those situations at all the places I have been.”

Ayers said this year’s squad is a “little more diverse” than 2020. Again, LR has used two quarterbacks, this time with Rylan Konen and Lafferty. Their fathers are Ayers’ assistant coaches.

“This year, we are just a bunch of blue collar players,” Ayers said. “We have some good tight ends that catch the ball, different running backs, we run a lot of different formations and different looks.”

In the last two games, Little River has come back in the fourth quarter to defeat Madison and Canton-Galva. LR beat C-G, 76-68, behind 558 yards of total offense. Per Kansas historian Brett Marshall, the C-G win was the second-highest point total in any round for Eight-Man, Division I or II. The highest was 154 in an 86-68 win by Triplains over Rolla in the 1998 first round.

“He is having an outstanding, outstanding senior year,” Ayers said of Holloway. “His play these last three games, these playoff games, has just been tremendous. It’s exciting and rewarding to see a young man battle through this just because you know when life hits him, he is going to have that to lean on, and a real mental toughness to him, and his ability to handle adversity.”

Adam Phillips, Wheatland-Grinnell

Wheatland-Grinnell 5-foot-7 junior Adam Phillips saw limited playing time as a freshman and sophomore as the Thunderhawks turned around their football program.

Last season, Phillips recorded 42 tackles, though had a combined five stops against the Thunderhawks’ three toughest opponents. A key preseason question for W-G revolved around replacing defensive production from Trevor Zarybnicky, the Eight-Man, Division II Defensive Player of the Year.

Phillips has helped fill that role with 139 tackles, 13.5 for loss, four forced fumbles and three interceptions. He has 34 tackles in the three playoff games, including 13 last week in the milestone win versus Victoria.

W-G (11-1) plays Axtell (12-0) for the Division II state title Saturday at Newton’s Fischer Field. Phillips’ play has helped W-G improve its scoring defense from 32.7 points allowed a game last season to 17.8 this year.

Phillips plays on an edge. Coach Jesse Vincent labels him a “phenomenal” skilled tackler who can fight off blocks from players significantly bigger. As well, Vincent noted Phillips’ ability to make shoestring tackles.

Axtell has excellent speed with junior quarterback Isaac Detweiler and freshmen skill threats Brandon Schmelzle and Eli Broxterman. In the season-opening 62-16 loss to Axtell, Phillips had just eight tackles, which marks his second-fewest in a game this fall.

“He’s just so undersized that I never really got him on the field much,” Vincent said. “He played some special teams for us last year, but I couldn’t be more proud of Adam, and the year that he has had. … He has got a motor that just never shuts off.”

Tiave Watts/Aidan Janatello, St. James Academy

Defending 4A champion St. James Academy is well-known for its eight straight wins this fall after its 0-4 start. The Thunder play Andover Central (11-1) for the 4A state title game at Topeka’s Hummer Sports Park. SJA is trying to become the first team in Kansas history to start 0-4 and still win a title.

SJA has its prolific passing offense with junior quarterback Jackson House and its two receivers: senior Tyler Claiborne and junior John Niesen. House has completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,607 yards with 23 touchdowns against four interceptions and rushed for 737 yards.

Claiborne, a consensus returning first team all-state player, is SJA’s leader. He has 78 catches for 987 yards and 13 scores. Niesen, known for his tremendous athleticism, has 60 catches for 1,222 yards and eight scores.

However, senior running back Tiave Watts (5-9, 156) has quietly put together a nice season with 165 carries for 872 yards and 12 scores, all team-highs. He has caught 15 passes for 94 yards.

Last year, Watts recorded six carries for 26 yards and two scores in five games. St. James had LaJames White, the 4A Offensive Player of the Year, has the primary ball carrier.

SJA averaged 166 rushing yards, 6.4 yards per carry, 7.8 yards per play and 37.6 points per game. The Thunder permitted 30.4 points a contest.

This year, Watts has helped the running game stay strong with 148 yards a game and five yards a carry. SJA has averaged 6.5 yards per play with an average score of 30-24.

The Thunder season completely turned after the first month. St. James lost its four games, all against Eastern Kansas League 5/6A squads, by 21, 19, 32 and 37 points. The Thunder tallied 36 total points.

Watts has 11 touchdowns in the last five weeks, including one versus rival Bishop Miege last week. Coach Tom Radke labeled Watts the team’s biggest surprise.

“Tiave has been the piece that has made this offense go this year,” Radke said. “He may not be the biggest back, but he is so quick, fast and slippery that he has made many tacklers miss this year. I am really proud.”

Defensively, St. James turned when senior Aidan Janatello (5-10, 189) moved from strong safety to inside linebacker in Week 3. Janatello played strong safety last year.

“Transformed our defense,” Radke said.

Janatello delivered 103 tackles, six passes defended and three interceptions. His play has helped SJA’s defense. Thunder junior Wade Spencer deliver 21 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks.

 Spencer is a high frontrunner for 4A Defensive Player of the Year. Spencer has St. James single season school records for tackles for loss and sacks. Spencer’s two older brothers are currently at the Naval Academy, and his sister is in the Marines.

“His speed and awareness of the game helped transform our defense mid year,” Radke said of Janatello. “His ability to cover multiple gaps has really helped sophomore rising star ILB Spencer Dohm.”

Watts and Janatello are part of the eight seniors that have helped return St. James to the title. If SJA wins, it will also become the first team in Kansas annals to twice lose four games and still capture a championship. Radke said the team chemistry makes SJA special.

“After starting 0-4, our eight seniors, who have become great leaders, could have cashed it in, but they believed in the coaches, the program and each other,” Radke said. “They had faith that we had a good team, young, but a good team that had to grow through the early struggles. We talk about it often, “Keep the Main Thing (God), the Main Thing”.

“We aren’t just chasing victories, we are chasing and working on getting each other to heaven!,” Radke added. “That is what makes this team, school and this program special.  We have a bunch of hard working, dedicated, smart young men who believe in each other, believe in their coaches, and believe in our mission as a school.”

Derby defensive trio: Baker, Wash, Minton

Three-time defending 6A champion Derby is 11-0 this season and has won 17 straight games. Derby will play Blue Valley Northwest (11-1) for the Class 6A state title at Emporia State University. These are by far the classification’s top-two offenses. Derby has 605 points, Northwest with 528. BVNW features its experienced core led by quarterback Mikey Pauley and running back Grant Stubblefield, both school record holders.

Derby is well-known for its great offensive and defensive lines and junior running back Dylan Edwards, who has recorded 3,042 all-purpose yards and 38 touchdowns.

Derby has had several players step up on defense with sophomore defensive back Demaria’e Baker, junior linebacker Miles Wash, and senior linebacker Cole Minton.

Baker is 5-11, 180. Wash is 5-10, 205, and Minton stands 5-10, 190.

Baker played in one varsity game as a freshman. He has emerged with 39 tackles and two interceptions.

“He is going to be a stud,” Derby coach Brandon Clark told SIK.

Wash, the brother of former 6A Offensive Player of the Year Lem Wash, has broken out with 113 tackles, 12 TFLs and five sacks. He had 16 total tackles in 2020.

Minton had 23 tackles as a junior. He has 53, 10 for loss this fall.

The Panthers graduated all their linebackers, including Jack Hileman, the 6A Defensive Player of the Year.

“Wash and Cole Minton, our inside backers are really good,” Clark said.

The new players have quietly helped Derby slow down several of Kansas’ best passing games. Derby has wins against Maize (which will play for the 5A title), Lawrence, Lawrence Free State, Bishop Carroll, Maize South and Wichita East. Those six teams collectively posted a 46-13 record when not playing Derby. All six teams have quarterbacks that will likely earn all-state at least some level.

The Panthers held those teams to 23.2 points a contest. When those teams did not play Derby, they averaged 35.6 points per game. Overall, Derby forced 12 turnovers last season and 25 this year.

In those six games, Derby had at least one interception in five contests. Those teams collectively completed 95 of 168 passes for 1,357 yards with 14 scores against seven interceptions. None cleared 300 passing yards, per Hudl stats and SIK research.

Overall, Derby has won 15 consecutive playoff games and has six state titles with Clark.

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