By CONOR NICHOLL
WaKeeney-Trego’s Owen Day significantly played on defense as a freshman. He recorded 74 tackles, second-most for a 5-4 team. Last year, Day helped WaKeeney open with a 66-14 win versus Chase. In Week 2, the Golden Eagles lost, 50-0, to eventual state runner-up Leoti-Wichita County.
In Week 3, Trego played at home against Victoria. The teams alternated scores early, and the Golden Eagles mounted another drive inside the Knight red zone. Then, Day suffered a season-ending knee injury when he tore his MCL and dislocated his patella. WaKeeney didn’t score again. Two cancelled games because of COVID-19 followed. The Golden Eagles finished a 1-6 season with four straight losses and tallied just 42 total points.
Day concluded his sophomore year with 36 total yards. At that point, Day had never thrown a varsity pass or scored a varsity touchdown in his high school career.
“Man, it is the worst feeling, like I was really hoping never to go through it again,” Day said.
Charlie Russell, Cole Feldt and Day played an instrumental role in Trego’s 16-6 basketball season under coach Sean Dreiling, the team’s best showing under 12 years. In football, ninth-year coach Pat Haxton was excited about Day’s development at quarterback. Haxton and Feldt both noted Day’s work ethic in summer weights.
“He throws the ball really well,” Haxton said. “He is just such a dedicated kid. He loves football.”
This summer, about two weeks before fall camp opened, Day was playing basketball in open gym. He stepped on somebody’s foot and his patella went out again. Day, who “had a lot of emotions” after the summer injury, required six weeks recovery. Feldt, a senior all-purpose threat, took all the snaps in the preseason at quarterback.
Trego took a Week 1 victory when Chase forfeited. The 6-foot, 195-pound Day returned for Week 2 against Leoti-Wichita County, currently ranked No. 5 in the KPreps Eight-Man, Division I poll. Russell, a 6-foot-4 senior end and returning first team 2A all-state basketball player, also came back to football after a year away.
Day accounted for 181 passing and five touchdowns, along with 142 rushing and two scores in Trego’s seminal 76-28 victory versus Wichita County. Before the contest, people told Haxton they hoped WaKeeney could play a full game and not lose by the 45-point margin.
Last week, Trego went to Victoria, its second straight ranked opponent, for a playoff-type atmosphere for the Knights’ Homecoming. With 9 minutes, 35 seconds left in the first half, Day bulldozed up the middle for a 25-yard run. He landed and laid in the middle of the field. The game stopped.
Haxton knew Feldt could play quarterback but was worried. Day turned out to be OK.
“I had two guys laying on top of me, and I had the ball right on my stomach, couldn’t catch my breath,” Day said. “I was just heaving. I got the air knocked out of me pretty hard, but I was all right.”
Per rule, Day had to miss a play because of the injury timeout. On the next play, Feldt ran a great zone read fake to the right and went 20 yards for the touchdown. Overall, WaKeeney showcased its impressive speed and depth.
Day finished with 168 passing yards, 79 rushing scores and three TDs accounted for. Trego outgained Victoria, 452-386.
“Works his butt off, and he deserves this more than anyone on this team,” Feldt said.
Junior Gunner Wilson caught two touchdown passes, and junior James Kriegh rushed 23 times for 163 yards and two TDs. Russell made a key interception.
The offensive line returns seniors Matthew Hafliger, Isaac Brungardt and Garrett Kuhn. Victoria coach Doug Oberle said Russell helps WaKeeney “tremendously,” and called Feldt and Wilson weapons on the edge. He noted Kriegh’s speed and labeled Day “dangerous.”
Brungardt, Feldt, Day and Russell walked out as Trego’s captains before Friday.
“Vastly improved team,” Oberle said. “Maybe one of the most improved teams from one year to the next.”
WaKeeney sealed the 42-40 win when Day hit Russell on a 4th-and-2 pass with just under two minutes remaining. Trego has tallied 118 points this year, two more than it scored all last year. The Golden Eagles have vaulted into strong consideration as the favorite in wide open Eight-Man, Division I West.
“That’s a great team,” Oberle said. “It’s a non-district game, and tonight, they made a few more plays than we did, and they coached a little bit better than we did, so they deserve what they got. Hats off to them.”
The Golden Eagles are up to No. 4 in Eight-Man, Division I heading into this week’s key home district game versus 2-1 Hoxie. Day was one of the last ones to leave Victoria’s field.
“I really wanted to win this game, that’s all there was to it,” Day said. “I don’t want to come out here and bust my butt just to lose right at the last second.”
WaKeeney’s addition of a healthy Day and Russell encapsulates the first three weeks of the 2021 Kansas high school football season. Trego, Hill City, Bucklin, Pratt, Ashland, Mulvane, Hoisington, Chapman, and Jackson Heights have all benefited from a key player back from injury. Those nine squads are a combined 20-7.
Ashland is currently ranked No. 1 in Six-Man. Bucklin’s 3-0 start is the best in 14 years. Pratt was 5-13 the last two falls and 3-0 this season. Chapman running back Eli Riegel returned from an ankle injury and leads 11-man football with 612 yards. Hoisington (2-1) returns lineman Cole Gilliland after he missed a chunk of last year. Jackson Heights (2-1) had a litany of injuries in 2020 and has quarterback Jason Bosley and defensive back Jude Williams from injury.
“We have just got guys that are athletes, and last year, we had a couple of injuries,” Feldt said. “Obviously, Charlie didn’t go out, and I think people are just expecting us to roll over this year, and that just wasn’t the case. And we knew we were coming out strong.”
Day’s injury history, though, is far from the only obstacle the Golden Eagles have had to overcome.
Haxton, a Norton graduate, served as a Junction City assistant coach from ’92-98, and then coached at Southeast of Saline from ’99-09. He won 23 straight contests with the Trojans, including a 13-1 mark and Class 3A state championship in 2005. Haxton then went to Valley Center, a longtime struggling program, and posted a 3-24 record in three years before he came to WaKeeney.
Pat and his wife, Melanie, have four children: Ryan, Taylor, and twins Alex and Lexus. Notably, Alex was a talented football and basketball player for WaKeeney.
Ryan was born on March 4, 1994. The family moved to Salina when he was four. He graduated from SES in 2012. Ryan was involved in many activities and loved high school. He was the lead in the school play as a senior. Ryan was a state officer in FCCLA. He earned his Bachelor’s from Kansas State University in 2016, and then found a job in Manhattan.
In 2018, Ryan went back to school and earned a Master’s from Fort Hays State University two years later. In 2020, Ryan started to work at FHSU as an Academic Advising Development Specialist. Ryan and his family are very close. Ryan was known for outgoing personality, his smile and laugh. On March 19, 2021, Ryan passed away.
His influence was such that a Go Fund Me account raised $15k for expenses.
“Those that loved him knew him for his wonderful personality, and the support he gave everyone he encountered,” his obituary read. “He was kind, passionate, and his contagious laugh will never be forgotten.”
Taylor has served as football assistant for his dad since 2012 at Valley Center. At that point, Taylor was a Wichita State University junior and served two seasons as a Hutchinson Community College student coach.
“We are a tight family,” Pat Haxton said.
The normally gregarious Haxton paused.
“We think about it a lot,” Haxton said. “But just the time you get to spend with your kids is special, and then when you get to do it in this kind of an environment, where you are spending this much time working on something with Taylor, it is a special, special time. You realize how much after something like that happens, how important those times are, and that time you spend together.”
The Haxtons are one of only a few Kansas father-son coaching combinations, notably with Holcomb’s Kent and Trey Teeter, and Tonganoxie’s Al and Preston Troyer. Lexus works in WaKeeney for a local pharmacy. Alex helped a little with Trego football last year and is now working for the Colby Recreation Department.
“Taylor is a very, very, very, very good football coach, and he will be a great coach whenever he breaks away from me,” Pat said.
While WaKeeney has revitalized its girls’ sports, Haxton and Dreiling have looked to turn around football and basketball.
Trego has never played more than nine games in a season under Haxton with 6-3 in ’15 and 5-4 in ’19 the lone winning records. The six-win season is tied for the most victories in a single year since a 10-2 mark and state quarterfinal showing in ’02. In the previous 40 years, WaKeeney has reached the quarterfinals three times, nothing further.
Dreiling, a former Fort Hays basketball player, has had a linear climb, and is considered one of Kansas’ top young basketball coaches. In the last four years, Trego basketball has gone from five to seven to 13 to 16 victories. Eighty-one percent of last year’s points came from non-seniors. Russell will enter this winter with 758 career points.
Russell has encountered several obstacles, including the passing of his mother in the last several years. Feldt’s dad has also passed. Feldt and Russell are cousins. Russell has significantly helped in all areas, including blocking.
“Personally, I am sure glad he’s out,” Haxton said.
Russell already has eight catches for 151 yards and a score, and 195 all-purpose yards. The INT against Victoria marked the first of his career.
“You have seen it in basketball, you see it here,” Feldt said. “He’s just a player. Proud to play with him. It’s amazing. Last year, we needed him. We definitely missed him. He’s just a great guy. He brings positivity to the team. He’s always happy, he’s always energetic, and he’s a great athlete.”
Bucklin has enjoyed its great start, including a 50-48 milestone win versus Hodgeman County last week. Sophomore Andrew Bowman had limited time last season, and sophomore Drew Ellis did not play at all. Coach Trever Powell told SIK expected Bowman to make an “immediate impact” on both sides of the ball. Ellis is known for his strength and quickness.
Bowman has 14 offensive touches for 157 yards and two touchdowns, along with 60 kick return yards. He is tied with 25 tackles and leads the Red Aces with four tackles for loss.
Ellis has 15 tackles, three for loss. Overall, Bucklin has 16 tackles for loss and averages 6.9 yards per play. They have helped Bucklin permit 18 points a contest. Last year, Bucklin went 6-4 and allowed 40.2 points a game. The Red Aces had just seven TFLs and averaged five yards per play in the first three contests in 2020.
Hill City sophomore Aiden Amrein was hurt in Week 1 last season and limited to kicking duties most of the fall. Amrein was expected to be a breakout player this year. HC is 2-1. He has thrown for 217 yards and two TDs, along with 81 carries for 443 yards and seven TDs.
“We knew we’ve got a kid that can play football,” Hill City coach Travis Desbien told me after Week 2. “Now, we’ve just got to keep him healthy and make good decisions, and the sky is the limit for that kid.”
Pratt is 3-0 behind an offense that has averaged 54.3 points a game. The Greenbacks, though, has allowed just 47 points, including a 36-7 win at Central Kansas League rival Hesston last week. Pratt beat Hesston for the second time in school history. Senior defensive lineman Trevor Stimatze was an all-league player as a sophomore and broke his leg at the start of 2020. He has three tackles, one for loss.
Mulvane has quietly emerged as a much improved team in Class 4A behind senior quarterback Mason Ellis, a highly athletic multi-purpose player. The 6-foot-2, 188-pound Ellis has posted 4.36 in the 40-yard dash and has committed to North Dakota State University. Ellis was injured in Week 1 last season and sparingly played in 2020.
Ellis has led AVCTL Division IV in passing with 40 of 73 for 441 yards with two scores against three interceptions. He leads with 53 carries for 235 yards and four TDs. Mulvane has 809 yards of total offense, including 459 passing. Last season, Mulvane had 935 yards all year in a 1-7 season. Mulvane opened 2020 with a 56-0 loss to Wichita Collegiate, a 63-0 defeat against Andale and 61-14 to Clearwater.
This year, Mulvane lost, 24-14, to Collegiate, ranked second in Class 3A, and then fell, 32-6, to Andale, ranked No. 1 in 3A. Andale has a state best 28-game winning streak. Mulvane won at Clearwater, 32-13, last week.
Ashland ended Cheylin’s 11-game winning streak with a 42-32 victory. Sophomore Kale Harris tore his ACL halfway through 2020 after a big start. On Friday, Harris finished with 34 carries for 189 yards.
“Kale has made a huge impact coming back,” Ashland coach Ben Fox told SIK.
Day believed 2021 would be Trego’s year. The Golden Eagles finished undefeated in seventh and eighth grade.
“This is the same group of guys playing against the same teams, same groups of guys,” Day said. “And we thought we got better.”
Day’s arm strength came from “a lot” of baseball growing up and the weight room.
“He’s a kid that’s easy to coach, too,” Haxton said of Day. “You tell him one time, he will work on fixing and doing everything he can. I know it was a surprise to a lot of people, but really to me, he’s been working. I have been waiting for him just to get healthy and be able to throw the football and run our offense.”
Day is third in Kansas eight-man in total offense with 285 yards per game. His last pass Friday sealed the win. Trego faced the 4th-and-2 and elected to go for the first down. Day ran a boot play and considered running. Instead, he saw Russell coming across, and threw a perfect strike in his chest. It was a play that wouldn’t have occurred in 2020. It’s a play that’s now shaped 2021.
“I wouldn’t have another guy that I could throw it to like that,” Day said. “We don’t have another tight end like that, so great hands, and he is really smart.”