By CONOR NICHOLL
Buhler coach Steve Warner is aware of the current trend surrounding his Crusader squad in rematches. This fall marks the seventh straight year Buhler has faced a team in the regular season and again in the playoffs.
In 2015, Buhler defeat Mulvane by six in the regular season and seven in the postseason. Since then, Buhler has accomplished one of two results. It’s either closed the margin of loss from a regular season defeat in the postseason game or upped the margin of victory from the regular season in the playoff contest.
In 2016, Buhler beat Maize South by seven in Week 4, and then won by 20 in the state semifinals en route to a runner-up finish to Bishop Miege.
In 2017, Buhler fell to rival McPherson by 12 in the season opener, and then lost by one in overtime on a two-point conversion.
In 2018, Buhler beat Winfield by seven in Week 8, then turned around for a 25-0 shutout in a Week 9 bracket game.
The following year, Buhler knocked off Mulvane by 11 in the regular season and 24 for the playoff match.
Last season, Buhler had a 36-point victory versus Circle in Week 8, and a 47-point win the following week. However, the Crusaders also lost to McPherson by 14 in Week 6, and then fell by seven in the playoffs.
This year, Buhler defeated Winfield by 11 in the regular season and posted a 59-20 victory in the Round of 16.
Warner is currently tied with Steve Wagner for eighth all-time in Kansas history in wins at 267-103 in 34 seasons. Warner has head coaching stints at Burlingame, Marysville, Liberal and has helmed Buhler for 15 years. He is second among active coaches behind Silver Lake’s C.J. Hamilton, the state’s all-time winningest coach. Wagner retired after last fall with a 267-124 in 37 years with Riley County, per Kansas historians Brett Marshall and Carol Swenson.
On Friday, Warner looks to flip a regular season result from a loss to a win for the first time in his career. In Week 2, Buhler trailed 14-0 before it took a 19-14 lead. Andover Central scored a late touchdown from Ashton Barkdull for a 21-19 victory.
On Friday, No. 2 Buhler (10-1) plays host to No. 1 Andover Central (10-1) in the 4A West semifinal matchup.
“These kids that we have are never going to quit,” Warner said. “They are going to play as hard as they possibly can. … They are relentless. They work very hard, and they don’t want to lose.”
Of the 16 matchups remaining from 6A to Eight-Man, Division II, five are regular season rematches and six others are playoff rematches from 2020, the prevailing theme for the state semifinals.
All eight Eastern matchups are either ’21 regular season and/or ’20 playoff rematches.
Pre-2015, Warner has faced the same team twice in a year on two occasions, according to the Kansas Football History database. In ’12, Buhler beat Mulvane by six in the regular season and took a 15-point playoff loss. In ’04, Warner coached Liberal when the Redskins took a 31-21 regular season defeat to Great Bend, and a 50-point playoff loss.
“You learn a lot about your opponent when you play them once, and then you play them again,” Warner said. “You know them better, and I feel like over the years, we have always done well with our staff to have the kids ready to go. We may have lost a game by 20, then we lose it by seven maybe, or you win a game by (11) like we did against Winfield, and then we kind of blew them out.”
“I mean, I think we do a good job when we play a team for a second time, that our kids get ready, and our coaches do a great job of having everybody ready to play,” he added.
In recent history, at least one team has reversed a regular season result in a high-profile playoff matchup. Last season, 3A Perry-Lecompton beat Holton (28-14) and fell to Topeka Hayden (10-0) in Weeks 3 and 7, respectively. In the Round of 16, P-L defeated Hayden, 20-7, and then beat Holton by 13 in the state semifinals.
In 4A, St. James lost to Bishop Miege in the 2020 regular season, and then won the playoff matchup.
In 2019, Mill Valley fell by seven to St. Thomas Aquinas by seven in Week 4, and then defeated the Saints, 34-31, in overtime in the semifinals. MV won the 5A state title.
This year, Dighton fell to Quinter, and South Barber lost to Norwich in Eight-Man, Division II regular season contests. Each team flipped to a playoff victory.
This week, SIK talked to three coaches: Warner, 4A Bishop Miege’s Jon Holmes, and Eight-Man, Division I’s Canton-Galva’s Shelby Hoppes. All three are in key rematches this week that are expected to be close games.
All three teams face an opponent they see frequently. For Buhler, this is the fifth matchup versus AC in the last five seasons. Eastern Kansas League rivals Miege and SJA have matched up six times since ’18.
Last year, Miege won 38-28 in the regular season, and St. James captured a 36-35 overtime win in the state semifinals before it won the championship. This year, SJA beat Miege, 45-28, in Week 8.
“For us to win (state), we expect to play these guys twice a year,” Miege coach Jon Holmes said. “They are a really good opponent.”
Canton-Galva gets the rematch with Wheat State League rival Little River, the defending Eight-Man, Division I state champion and on a 19-game winning streak. C-G is the last team to defeat the Redskins with a 56-38 win in Week 5 of 2020. This season, LR, led by legendary coach Kevin Ayers, won 60-52 in Week 6.
“It’s fun to know that you are preparing for a team that is coached by one of the best,” Hoppes said. “It’s fun to know you are preparing for a team that has some of the best players in the state on it. These are the games that as a player you love to play in and as a coach, you love to coach in, and it’s going to be a chess match.
“It’s who makes the plays, who doesn’t make the mistakes, and who makes the correct adjustments throughout the game that’s going to win,” Hoppes added. “And going up a guy against like coach Ayers, you know that he is going to be pretty good in most of those, so we are going to have to be really sharp all night, but it’s a privilege to play against them again.”
Buhler, Bishop Miege and Canton-Galva have all made improvements from the early loss. Buhler has seen defensive growth, replaced two offensive line starters, and significantly bettered team chemistry during the year.
“We had some internal issues that we had to get corrected,” Warner said. “And it took us awhile to get those things corrected, and our kids are all in, and those internal issues are gone. They have great attitudes, and they are working very hard, and I knew that we had the talent, but that’s just something that a coach has to take care of. You have to find a way to get all the talent to get along and to mesh, and that’s something I felt like we have really done this year.”
Miege and C-G have had key players back/healthy. Particularly, Buhler is now starting highly touted freshman Bodey Redenbaugh on the line.
“Our kids are just trying and playing very, very hard,” Warner said. “If you lose two starters on the offensive line, you think that’s going to really hurt your season, and we have actually played even better, so everybody else has stepped up. And the kids that have come in and replaced those guys are doing a great job.”
Miege is 5-6 against a brutal schedule with two out-of-state losses and wins against Aquinas and Blue Valley West. Holmes, the Stags’ all-time winningest coach with a 98-24 mark, has drawn parallels between this year and a 7-6 year in 2012 when Miege finished as state runner-up.
That season, the Stags lost to Aquinas, 27-24, in Week 9, and then beat the Saints, 9-7, in the state semifinals.
Holmes still vividly remembers the two games. In the loss, Miege was stopped inside the two-yard line as time expired. The Stags ran a slant, and the receiver was tackled before he could get in the end zone. The play set up a fourth down, so Miege couldn’t down the ball. Miege tried to run its field goal team out but couldn’t get a kickoff. Still, the Stags gained confidence in the close loss. In the win, Montel Cozart, an eventual FBS football player, made a touchdown-saving tackle.
That marks the lone time Miege has lost to a team in the regular season, and then beaten them in the playoffs under Holmes. Miege has won seven state titles since ’09, the first with Tim Grunhard as head coach, then six in a row with Holmes from ’14-19. Grunhard, a well-known former Kansas City Chief lineman, is back on staff this year as the offensive line coach. Holmes called the offensive line the “biggest upside for us.”
Miege has two seniors Jackson Hoshor (6-3, 270) and Collin Keeney up front, both captains and two-year starters. Junior Pablo Montoya starts at center. Sophomore Jeremy Schleicher (6-3, 280) is at guard, and sophomore Dominic Werner (6-4, 280) is at tackle. They have blocked for quarterback Mac Armstrong and senior running back Jaylen Burch.
“Those guys are playing with an edge,” Holmes said. “They have kind of taken on (Grunhard’s) personality I think with the way they are working in practice and the expectations of them.”
Canton-Galva went 2 of 8 on two-point plays versus LR. In the last few games, Hoppes has turned conversions over to his brother, assistant Zac Hoppes, a decision that has paid dividends.
Along with those three matchups, War on 24 Rivals Rossville and Silver Lake match up again in the 2A semifinals. No. 1 Rossville has won 24 straight games, including a 24-19 district win versus the Eagles. SL coach C.J. Hamilton stands at 447-97 in 46 seasons.
Since 2002, this marks the tenth time they will meet in the state semifinals, with the last coming in ’14, per Marshall. Entering that season, Rossville was 0-8 all-time versus the Eagles in the state semifinals. The Bulldawgs won that contest, which has started a string of four state titles in the last seven years.
In 6A East, Blue Valley Northwest defeated Blue Valley West, 21-0, in Week 8. The teams match up again. BVNW (10-1) has never made a state finale. West, which has pulled two straight upsets, stands at 7-4. West has made one final, a championship in ’07.
Multiple games are rematches from the 2020 playoffs.
In 6A West, three-time defending champion Derby and its 16-game winning streak faces off against Lawrence. Last year, the Panthers beat Lawrence, 40-20, the state quarterfinals.
In 5A West, two-time defending champion Mill Valley faces St. Thomas Aquinas in the state semifinals for the third straight year. They also met in the ’18 state quarterfinals, and semifinals in ’15-17.
In 3A East, Holton faces Frontenac. Holton won the quarterfinal, 42-6, last season. In ’17, Frontenac defeated Holton, 55-21, in the playoffs. Holton captured a four-point win in the ’15 and ’16 playoffs.
In 1A East, Olpe and Centralia face off in the playoffs for the fourth straight season. Olpe won in ’18. Centralia earned the ’19 victory, the Eagles’ last loss. Since then, Olpe is 21-0 in on-field games with 16 shutouts.
The Division II games are playoff rematches. Last year, Axtell used a big comeback to defeat Thunder Ridge, 42-40. Each team returns key players, especially at quarterback with Eagle signal caller Isaac Detweiler and TR’s Dylan Bice. That’s similar for Victoria at Wheatland-Grinnell, a pair of veteran-laden squads. Victoria won 44-26 last year.
All season, Buhler has enjoyed a superb ground game from senior Sam Elliott, the reigning conference offensive player of the year. Buhler has jumped from 6-4 to 10-1.
Buhler has enjoyed several 2,000-yard running backs, including Fisher, Jorden Oden and Riley Allen, under Werner. Elliott, the frontrunner for 4A Offensive Player of the Year, cleared 200 rushing yards versus Mulvane. He has 2,178 rushing yards this season and 5,058 in his career, 17 away from Fisher’s record.
Elliott has captured back-to-back wrestling titles, the only one in Buhler history to accomplish the feat. Warner believes Elliott can be a great Division II running back.
“All of them are highly competitive,” Warner said. “They are very athletic, and they want our team to be successful, and they want to carry the ball. They want it to go around them, and I think that’s something that they all have. He is not as fast as some of the others, but he’s probably stronger and quicker and more elusive. The top-end speed – he’s not a 4.4 guy – probably a high 4.5, 4.6, and all those other guys were (4.4).”
Quarterback Bradley Neill, known for his natural leadership, has completed 70 of 126 passes for 1,253 yards with 17 touchdowns against four interceptions.
Warner labeled Tanner Tustian “an amazing middle linebacker.” Tustian has most improved with getting off blocks. He paces Buhler with 119 tackles. Warner called Bo Van Bruggen “probably our best defensive player.” A defensive end, Van Bruggen has eight sacks this season and a school-record 21 in his career. Van Bruggen, Elliott and Neill are all three-year starters.
Senior Diante Campbell has emerged as one of Kansas’ top defensive backs. Warner called Campbell a Division II-quality defensive back. He contained McPherson standout Trey Buckbee in a key regular season victory. Buckbee, who finished with 53 catches and eight touchdowns this year, has received more than five collegiate offers, including FCS Drake. Buhler trailed by 10 and came back to win.
Campbell paces the team with five interceptions. Buckbee tried to run triple moves to get around Campbell and finished with three catches for 62 yards and no scores. Campbell didn’t come out for football until his sophomore year and has improved his physicality and football knowledge.
“Tremendous lock-down corner,” Warner said.
Brock McCurdy delivered nine tackles versus Mulvane, a performance Warner called “great.” McCurdy contained standout Mulvane receiver Hunter Seier.
“All of our defensive guys play very well,” Warner said.
Overall, Mulvane finished 10 of 28 for 133 yards with zero touchdowns against one interception. Senior Cameron Campbell, Diante’s twin, is a high-level player. Elliott plays linebacker and ranks second in tackles.
“(Diante) is more physical, Cameron is more physical,” Warner said. “They are making tackles where they weren’t making tackles at the first of the year, and they are very, very athletic and can run. And now that they are becoming football players, it definitely helps our defense.”
Buhler replaced two starting offensive linemen and had better team chemistry as the year progressed. Senior lineman Jackson Childs started on offense as a junior and is now starting both ways.
“Just turned into a tremendous football player for us,” Warner said. “And we are very pleased with Jackson.”
The Crusaders have put in junior Bryan Regier (6-0, 196) and freshman tackle Bodey Redenbaugh (6-3, 275). Warner said Redenbaugh is “going to have an amazing career.” Redenbaugh has lifted with his dad his whole life and is highly strong.
He will match against AC’s experienced defensive front, which Warner calls the Jaguars’ biggest strength and “as good as we have seen.” Buhler won its lone state title in ’13 and has taken two seconds. AC finished runner-up in ’15 and ’19 to Miege.
“He’s big, but he’s strong, but he also has great feet,” Warner said. “And so we were mixing him in and out at the entire beginning of the year in case of an injury, but we knew that he would be a good one. And, then of course, when he got the opportunity, he’s just gotten better every week.”
In the first matchup versus Little River, Canton-Galva quarterback Garrett Maltbie just came back from injury. He threw for 436 yards and five touchdowns. The first game featured 605 offensive yards from C-G, 543 by Little River. Eagle senior wide receiver Tyson Struber has set eight-man state records for receiving yards and receiving TDs.
LR running back Braxton Lafferty rushed for 332 yards behind the Redskins’ double-tight end option look and big offensive linemen. Hoppes likes the two contrasting styles.
Canton-Galva turned the ball over four times, including the only two interceptions this fall from Maltbie. LR had three turnovers. After the first meeting, the Eagles looked to limit turnovers and making tackles when in position defensively. Significantly, the Eagles looked at two-point plays.
“We have to convert,” Hoppes said.
Hoppes said C-G has “not been great” at two-point plays in his five-year tenure that features a 46-9 record and state title. Hoppes realized that and turned all the two-point play design and scripting over to his brother, Zac, a former C-G head coach.
Shelby is the head coach, offensive play caller and game manager. Since he started, Zac running the two-point plays has yielded success in three of the four weeks. In last week’s 52-6 win versus Sedan, C-G went 5 of 6 on two-point plays.
During the week, the Eagles normally practice between 12 to 16 plays. C-G likes to give as much motion and looks as possible pre-snap.
“When you just put together a six or seven play drive, you kind of have that relief or that sigh or maybe that letdown a little bit,” Shelby said. “And then you have got to go right back into your script and try to come up with a great two-point play. They are so important.”
“To where now, I can have my script, and get in a rhythm play calling, but I know at the end, he is going to have a formation, and a play for me, and something designed really well,” he added.
C-G is currently healthy with starters and scout team, an underrated part. The injured linemen did play in the first LR contest, though didn’t practice until Thursday of that week. In the last two weeks, the Eagles have had their healthiest scout team since the first week of practice. C-G shifted Xavier Westbrook from line to a skill position. Preston Minson is starting at left guard.
“A lot of people don’t understand, at small schools, when you can have a better scout team, obviously that gives you a better look throughout the week,” Hoppes said.
Bishop Miege has played the fourth-toughest schedule in Class 4A, per Prep Power Index. Miege has a pair of out-of-state losses and is 1-2 in games decided by three points.
Holmes has mentioned the strength of schedule to his team, especially the quality wins versus St. Thomas Aquinas and Blue Valley West. Holmes has watched Miege’s confidence increase during the fall. In Week 6, Miege lost to Blue Valley, 31-28, in the final seconds, a 6A squad that was ranked No. 2 most of the year. Afterward, Miege knew it could play with any team.
“When you play really good teams, they are going to exploit things, they are going to attack things that you may be weak in,” Holmes said. “Early on in the year, that’s what was happening to us. But our kids stuck with it. I think they stuck with the plan. They got confident.”
Holmes said the Stags’ mindset is “way different” for this St. James meeting compared to the 2020 semifinal since Miege lost the early matchup this fall. St. James opened 0-4 and has won seven in a row. The Thunder look to become the first team in state history to open 0-4 and win a state title.
“Kind of one of those games that felt like a playoff game,” Holmes said. “The atmosphere is great, and the competition was great. And I think for us now as a young team to have that experience to where we know what it’s like to step on the field, we know what it’s going to take to beat them, I think that’s going to help our guys.”
Junior Aidan Wing has switched from safety to cornerback and is expected to help against SJA’s standout receivers. On a cold and windy night, Wing matched up against Eudora’s standout Division I duo and contained them in a 21-6 victory in the quarterfinals. Eudora had averaged 37 points a game.
“Aidan is going to be key Friday,” Holmes said.
Sophomore outside linebacker Justyce Betts missed Week 1 with an injury and has started every game since.
“You look even the first time we played St. James, the improvement he has made in those three weeks since then has been really instrumental,” Holmes said.
Keeney switched over to defense after the St. James loss. Keeney said he came to Holmes and asked to help Miege on defense if possible. He has played alongside Collin Williams, a commit to FCS Southeast Missouri State. Keeney is a rare Miege lineman to play both ways. Junior Isaiah Coppage is playing at wide receiver and safety. Coppage missed the first SJA game with an injury,
“As a captain, he’s got a right to do that,” Holmes said. “Has really been a difference maker for us when you can put him, Collin Williams and Collin Keeney next to each other.”