By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Yates Center’s unique offense, experience powers Wildcats to best start in 52 years
Yates Center coach Ryan Panko was talking with defensive coordinator Jeremy Neville, the former head coach at Southeast-Cherokee. Neville runs Yates Center’s defense and weight program.
The pair sat in Neville’s office around a month before the 2020 season started. Yates Center had just moved to eight-man football after a winless ’19 season. That year, Wildcats tallied 27 official total points and had to forfeit its last two contests.
Panko originally wanted to run a single wing-style offense. However, Panko knew other teams, especially league foes Colony-Crest and Oswego, have a similar look. Panko always tries to do something different that an opponent would have to spend more time preparing for.
Panko had toyed with the idea of massive offensive line splits with guards five yards away from the center.
“What if I just really spread everything out?,” Panko said. “And opened up these gaps and these holes? I said, ‘I wonder what that would do to a defense.’”
Neville and Panko went onto the practice field. At this point, Yates Center had no offense installed. The pair set up cones for different offensive and defensive looks. They agreed the offense would work.
Panko wanted to make sure the offense was even legal. He called some state officials.
“They told me, ‘Well, yeah, you can do it, but I don’t see how that’s going to work,” Panko recounted.
Then, Yates Center opened 2020 with a 48-0 loss to Colony-Crest’s single wing. YC moved the ball some. Panko wondered if the offense was a good idea. Crest eventually finished 10-1.
Yates Center stuck with the offense and started to score points. YC went 3-5 in its final eight games and averaged 35.8 points a contest. The offense is heavily reliant on senior quarterback Sean Hurst making the right read, either handing it off or running.
“We have some pretty deadly passing combinations that we can do out of that offense, too,” Panko said. “Basically, we had athletes. If we could find grass, we were going to be able to do something. So that’s what we did – we were like, ‘Let’s spread the field out, and then let our athletes kind of improvise a little bit with some structure.’”
Of the five losses, one came out of state. Another by four points. The other three were against teams that finished a combined 21-7.
“By the end of the year, we were firing on all cylinders,” Panko said. “We really didn’t have a defense last year to keep up with our offense, which put us in some bad spots.”
Yates Center returned every starter from last year for Panko, a well-traveled coach who is from Nebraska and assisted at several places, including on La Crosse’s 2011 2-1A state runner-up team. He has served as the head coach at Fredonia, nearby to Yates Center. In ’14, he led Fredonia to a 5-4 mark. Fredonia, his wife’s alma mater, had just three total wins from ’11-13.
This fall, Yates Center is among Kansas’ top surprises with a 4-0 record. It marks Yates Center’s first 3-0 start since 1969. The Wildcats opened with a 50-22 win against Colony Crest and beat Altoona-Midway (60-0) and St. Paul (52-6). Last week, YC defeated Oswego, 56-6. Yates Center has winless Cedar Vale-Dexter this week before a huge road game versus undefeated Sedan.
“We are just really in sync with what we do,” Panko said.
Yates Center can clinch its first winning season since a 7-4 mark in 2013. Before then, YC had not been over .500 since a 5-4 mark in 1996, per the Kansas Football History database.
Other top 4-0 breakouts have included Class 5A Spring Hill, 3A Girard, Concordia, Wellsville and Pratt, 2A Chaparral, along with Eight-Man, Division I’s Medicine Lodge and WaKeeney-Trego. Only Concordia (5-4) finished with a winning record last year. In Six-Man, Natoma is 4-0 for the first time since 2013 and the second occasion since 2000. Plus, Northern Valley is 3-1 after a 4-13 mark in the previous 17 games.
Panko, in his fifth season with Yates Center, originally was planning to coach at YC for one year, and then go to a more established program. After the initial season, Panko saw potential with Yates Center.
“There’s been some trying times, but kind of glad I stuck it out, though,” Panko said. “Because otherwise I would have missed out on this experience.”
Two years ago, Yates Center was coming off its winless season. Panko knows the program could have went one of two ways. Either players would not return, or he would have “hungry” kids that wanted to get better. Yates Center had some upperclassmen on the 2019 team, but all the current juniors and seniors were freshmen and sophomores.
“They are the future,” Panko said. “Because they obviously want this, and they are bought in. So it was a risk. … Kind of put my faith in them and told them, ‘You guys survive this gauntlet here, in a couple of years you guys should be pretty solid.’”
The freshmen and sophomores showed up to summer conditioning and weights and summer football workouts. Panko elected to play the younger Wildcats. That season, Yates Center’s roster whittled down to 11 players for 11-man football. Some of the current juniors were 120, 130-pound freshmen and had to play offensive line. Hurst played quarterback.
“He was not the specimen he is now,” Panko said. “He took a lot of beatings that year. A lot of those kids did. That was a very trying year that year, but I would like to argue though …. that might have been my best year as far as coaching. To keep those kids out, and to keep them positive and to keep them hungry, a lot of that is why we are where we are right now, because those kids did stick it out and kept working after that.”
For Yates Center, Hurst is now 6-foot-4, 200 pounds. He has completed 13 of 21 passes for 361 yards with five touchdown passes with zero interceptions.
He has 41 carries for 587 yards and 14 scores. Hurst is known for his strength, quickness, ability to make a move on a defender, and probably most of all, his intelligence.
Despite missing two games with COVID quarantine, Hurst rushed for 856, passed for 799 and accounted for 24 offensive scores in ’20.
“He wasn’t very physical when he came in as a freshman,” Panko said. “And then even as a sophomore, something happened in the middle of his sophomore year, that year we went 0-9, just I don’t know what got over him, but all of a sudden, he just started playing with a chip on his shoulder and started playing more physical. Again, he is one of the more physical kids we have.”
Senior running back/linebacker Jaron Morrison has 21 carries for 178 yards and three TDs. Junior running back/linebacker Shane Weber has 13 carries for 155 yards and three TDs.
“He has played in almost every game for us,” Panko said of Weber. “He is our running back and linebacker. He is a little guy. About 150 pounds. He is blind in one eye, but he is one of those tough farm kids that likes to lift weights, and he’s pretty physical.”
Panko called Morrison, who weighs around 150 pounds, probably the team’s most physical defensive player.
“He’s a guy that really got better,” Panko said of Morrison. “He started hitting the weight room hard the last couple of years with us. He was always a pretty good little player – pretty good physical, hard-hitting player, but once he started getting in the weight room, it’s really upped his game.”
Junior Cash Cummings has caught nine passes for 257 yards and five scores; Panko believes he is all-state caliber. Cummings will take over at quarterback next year.
The offensive line is experience-laden with senior Blake Audiss and juniors Jayston Rice, Preston Hurst, Adam Spencer and Canon Cavender, known for his physicality.
“We have got some good ones,” Panko said. “We are really not weak in any position.”
Audiss is probably the team’s most experienced player and started a couple games when he was a freshman. Senior Carter Burton is a multi-purpose player and serves as the backup quarterback.
Rice has started on both lines and can play middle linebacker. He is 5-foot-11, 225 and leads with 34 tackles. Rice is tied for second with six tackles for loss.
“He is first team all-state material as a junior,” Panko said. “So next year as a senior, I can’t imagine how good he is going to be. But that kid has been a beast for us the last couple of years, anchoring down that defensive line. He’s kind of a man amongst boys out there. There’s not too many teams that he would not be able to play for in the eight-man, 1A type teams.”
In addition to normal weights and conditioning in the summer, Yates Center spends 2-3 days a week working on just football skills and Xs and Os.
As of Monday afternoon, Yates Center had just 13 healthy bodies for its up-tempo offense. Officials have told Panko they are “dog tired” by the end of the game trying to keep up with Yates Center’s pace.
YC tries to snap the ball in under five seconds once the ball is placed. Panko said the Wildcats “do a lot” of shifts before they get a play off. All the plays are called from the sideline with code words, tags and dummy tags. Yates Center spends significant time in film session and chalk talk.
“It’s all calculated,” Panko said. “Not only does it throw the defense off a little bit but now they have got to re-align themselves, which if you are not really physical conditioned like we are, that’s going to take a toll on you, and we have multiple looks out of our spread offense, and I would say five, six seconds and we are going.”
Spring Hill looking for best season in at least 24 years
Coach Jason Feeback has posted 4-5, 5-5 and 4-4 records the last three years with Spring Hill. That is consistently in line, or slightly better, in recent history for the Broncos.
In 1997, Spring Hill posted a 7-3 record, according to the Kansas Football History database, still the highest mark in the last 23 years. Since then, the Broncos have won five games seven times. They have never won six. Five other seasons have yielded four victories. This year, the 5A Broncos have an experienced group and opened a surprising 4-0.
Plus, Feeback has taken advice and notes from one of his former high school coaches, Royce Boehm, who won state titles in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
He has learned from Kansas 5A powers Mill Valley and Wichita Northwest. MV and Northwest have finished as back-to-back 5A champions and runner-ups, respectively.
Feeback communicated with Northwest head coach Steve Martin and defensive coordinator Marc Marinelli. He saw Martin present at a Pittsburg State conference a couple of years ago. Since then, Feeback has conversed with the coaches through Zoom two to three times that totaled six to eight hours.
“Really kind of just picking brains of people we think just do a really good job,” Feeback said.
Last year, Spring Hill played Mill Valley, located 21 miles north on KS-7. Mill Valley won 51-0. Feeback took several pages of notes off the game. Spring Hill has simplified its offense and gone tempo more often. Feeback wanted SH to get “mentally right” for games. Spring Hill has done more film and meetings during the week, looked to be more efficient with time and continue to build positive relationships.
“We have changed some things on our approach,” Feeback said. “And how we do things. Our Fridays look different after school. I said, ‘Hey, we are either going to win or take a lot of notes.’”
This year, Spring Hill shutout Louisburg, 31-0, and won at longtime foe Paola, 42-12. In the last two weeks, SH won at Ottawa, 54-7, and beat Bonner Springs at home, 54-6. Paola had not lost in the regular season since Week 8 of the 2018 season.
Spring Hill had been 2-15 versus Paola since 2004, including four straight defeats in the series. SH was 3-14 in the last 17 meetings with Louisburg. It marked the biggest margin of victory for the Broncos in the Louisburg series since before ’90, a stretch of 30 meetings between the schools.
“It’s a good group of kids,” Feeback said. “It’s kind of a smorgasbord of personalities and abilities. But I think the main thing is, they just play hard, and they are very coachable.”
Senior Fletcher Pankey has completed 46 of 70 passes for 633 yards with 11 scores against one interception. Pankey started quarterback since junior high and took over as the starter in early 2020. He has worked with receivers in the spring and summer. Junior Draven Pipkin has 55 carries for 316 yards and five TDs. Nick Madelen is the veteran offensive coordinator. Alex Winkler has ran the defense the last several years.
“I have been really impressed with our guys just playing hard and playing for each other,” Feeback said. “That’s been a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun to coach. These guys have been together for a long time, from youth football on up, and now we have got a good group of seniors here, and they have been playing for few years in high school starting for us.”
“And we have got some new kids that have stepped up and embraced the challenge,” he added. “But all summer, they were incredible in the weight room and our summer workouts and camps and all that. Their attendance was off the charts, and now they are able to find some success.”
Senior Zach Knowlton has 15 carries for 218 yards with a pair of scores. Knowlton, one of Kansas’ top multi-purpose players and two-way stars, paces with 12 catches for 187 yards and is second with four receiving scores. A slot back/free safety, Knowlton was the team’s player of the game versus Bonner Springs. He recorded 40 tackles and three INTs last season and has 14 stops in ’21.
Spring Hill stresses multi-sport athletes. Feeback called Knowlton a great tackler and a great player in the middle of the field, traits he attributes to wrestling and playing center field in baseball. He has taken over extra points (3 of 3) and kickoff duties.
Three seniors: Daniel Mitchell, Carter Meade and Kameron Crotchett all have at least 10 catches. Offensively, SH returned everyone on the skill positions. Feeback believed the offense could be “pretty explosive.”
Senior Aidan Palmer (6-2, 240) is the team’s only returning offensive lineman. Palmer has changed his frame in the program. As a sophomore, he was around 5-8, 150. Palmer never missed a workout and went to state in track as a thrower last spring.
Several sophomores start up front, including Carter Meek. Senior Andrew Campbell (5-11, 230) is at right guard. Senior Aiden Wegele (6-0, 200) is left guard. Morgan Abel coaches the offensive line.
“They are very coachable,” Feeback said. “They care about football, and I think they really care about each other, and they just play really well together.”
Spring Hill runs a 3-4 defense. Senior Austin Rivers paces with 53 tackles, and junior Brandon Richardson has 50 stops. Meade has intercepted two passes. The nose guard, called “the tip of the spear,” is sophomore Kasey O’Neal (5-11, 185).
Feeback was at Humboldt and then went to Chanute. Feeback had his introduction to spread offense at Chanute. He liked the tempo and the ability to get athletes in space. Chanute never really had big linemen. Feeback came to Spring Hill seven years ago. Martin has set multiple state offensive records at Wichita Northwest.
Defensively, they learned goal setting from Marinelli and quantifying plays. Marinelli heavily emphasizes tackles for loss and turnovers. Spring Hill has 33 TFLs, 10 sacks and three turnovers in the first month.
“We were able to kind of simplify some things we were doing this year,” Feeback said. “You could run whatever you want to run, but when you have got some good athletes, it really helps. I think that’s what we have got right now, we have got some pretty good athletes.”
Northern Valley adjusts to six-man game; sees big improvement
Almena-Northern Valley coach Marvin Gebhard served as a longtime assistant under Chuck Fessenden, who spent 43 years with the Huskies. Gebhard took over Northern Valley in 2019. The Huskies went 2-7 and faced low numbers before the transition to six-man football last season.
Northern Valley posted a 2-5 record. This year, the Huskies have plenty of depth, and Gebhard has learned to coach six-man. The last two six-man champions, Moscow and Cheylin, have both had a progression and improvement as the coaching staff has understood how to coach six-man.
“This year is more comfortable, and the kids hit the weight room hard,” Gebhard said. “Some of them, and they matured, and they got confidence, too. Like last year, we lacked confidence, we were younger. Now, we are getting some confidence and playing pretty good.”
Northern Valley opened with a 45-0 win versus Greeley County. In Week 2, NV led for the bulk of the contest, though fell, 53-50, to Natoma. In the last two weeks, Northern Valley beat Deerfield (84-18) and Rolla (69-6).
“We are so driven, like go after the quarterback, go after the quarterback (in 8),” 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.”
This week marks a huge separation week in six-man football. Natoma (4-0, 4-0 North) is open this week before it travels to defending champion Cheylin (2-2). Weskan (3-1) is at Northern Valley (3-1). Ashland (4-0, 3-0) is at Cunningham (4-0, 3-0) is a big 6-Man South contest.
Northern Valley is deeper than most six-man teams. Last week, senior running back Bailey Sides missed the Rolla game because of the wedding for his older brother, Riley, a former SIK Class 1A, Division II Basketball Player of the Year.
NV lists 16 players on the roster, including sophomores Jeremiah Hansen and Brody Preston, along with junior Foster Brands. Sophomore Kenton Thalheim plays quarterback. Junior Kai Cox is an anchor on the line.
“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.”