Football in Kansas: “It’s just incredible” – Land Sharks, Energizer Bunny, flutes and HAVOC: behind line play for the state title qualifiers

Little River’s Grant Stephens leads Kansas in sacks and tackles for loss. (Photo by Little River’s Erin Wohletz).


Sports In Kansas looks at offensive and defensive lines for state championship-qualifying teams. Some of the lines, especially 3A’s Andale and Holton, are well-known. Other lines, such as 5A’s Maize, are overshadowed by skill players. The lines have yielded historical outputs for multiple squads. SIK looks at 10 of the 18 lines below.

-Little River’s Grant Stephens leads Kansas in tackles for loss

-Cunningham on pace for best six-man scoring defense in Kansas history

-Ashland’s Nathan Lynn all-state in flute and football

-Maize set to shatter school mark for points per game

-Mill Valley has best Kansas 11-man scoring defense in five years; on pace to break school single season rushing record

-Kingman has limited size, but big results; best 2A defense

-Wichita County closing in on Eight-Man, Division I single season points record

-Inman, Thunder Ridge battle through injuries

Inman’s line has delivered a big season for the 11-1 Teutons. (Photo by Doug Neufeld).

-Wamego defensive line key to success, first Red Raider state game in school history

Little River’s Grant Stephens with astronomical defensive numbers

Grant Stephens has played multiple offensive and defensive positions in his four-year Little River career. As a sophomore, Stephens was at defensive end on the LR state championship team. Last year, LR switched him to linebacker for a Redskins’ squad that fell in the title to Meade. Offensively, Stephens has mainly seen time at tight end and fullback.

Entering this year, Stephens recorded 186 career tackles, 19 for loss and 5.5 sacks. Stephens earned all-state accolades at linebacker as a junior.

Stephens rotated back to defensive end for 2022. In the quarterfinals, he returned to linebacker after a season-ending injury to Toby Jesseph. Regardless of positions, Stephens has delivered a statistical defensive season for the ages: 90 tackles (67 solo), 33 for loss, 20 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries and three fumble recoveries.

Little River coach Kevin Ayers has 201 career victories and four state titles. He is eight-man’s only coach to win crowns at three different schools. Ayers can’t recall any defensive player that he’s coached with those tackles for loss and sack numbers. Ayers said Stephens is “so smart” and just “gets football.” Stephens understands the Redskins’ entire defensive scheme.

“He does the technique, the steps, the reads, everything we ask, I mean, it’s just incredible,” Ayers said. “It’s so fun to watch him when you put film on him on a Saturday and just watch him work, and that goes back to his smarts, he is physical, he’s everything you want in a football player.”

On Saturday, Little River (11-1) will play Leoti-Wichita County (12-0) in the Eight-Man, Division I state championship game at Newton’s Fischer Field. Start time is 3:30 p.m.

“The kid just didn’t miss a beat,” Ayers said. “It’s just incredible. His technique, he’s physical, he reads plays exceptionally well, and then he has a motor. He’s just a dog out there on the field and has done a great job getting to the quarterback.”

In a 48-40 state quarterfinal win against Chase County, Stephens returned to linebacker and finished with 13 tackles and a tackle for loss. In the 48-0 win against Burlingame, Stephens wrecked the game with four sacks and two hurries.

“You would have thought that he’d been drilling linebacker all year long,” Ayers said. “I mean, he’s just right back where he was.”

Little River has permitted 14.3 points per game. In Week 1, LR lost 66-36 to rival Canton-Galva, an eventual Division II semifinalist.

“Our kids just really saw how much improvement needed to happen,” Ayers said.

In the regular season, Little River held Ell-Saline to 14 points and shutout Moundridge. Both teams won six games. E-S scored 33 points a game when not facing the Redskins, and Moundridge tallied 32.

In the playoffs, Chase County averaged 53 points a game not against Little River, Burlingame 51. In Ayers’ defense, the end is responsible for outside containment in the run game. Outside containment is often a non-stat play but critical on defense. Stephens has excelled in the run game, too.

“He has a lot of things he has to read and diagnose before we do turn him loose,” Ayers said. “Which is just even more impressive that he has that many sacks and tackles for loss, because not only is he excellent in the pass rush, but in the run game, he’s almost even better.”

Leoti-Wichita County’s underrated interior line helps WC close in on scoring record

Wichita County is well-known for its superb skill players, especially senior quarterback Erhik Hermosillo. He has cleared 3,000 total yards in each of the last two seasons.

WC, under defensive coordinator Haydon Parks, has lowered its output from 38.1 points allowed last season to 10.3 this year, the best in the five-year Brant Douglas era.

WC has scored 738 points and could break the eight-man single season mark of 764 points. Wichita County has developed the “Land Shark” mentality on defense. WC learned it from Mill Valley defensive coordinator Drew Hudgins at the KSHSAA coaches’ clinic in the summer.

Wichita County has received key play from senior guard Cordell Brown, junior guard Chris Michel and junior nose guard Brandon Price. Sophomore Juan Tapia (5-foot-11, 258 pounds) has emerged at nose guard. Price and Tapia are first-year starters.

“We almost get different alignments every time we play a new team, so they really just communicate, talk about where they need to be position-wise,” Douglas said. “They are not the biggest guys, but they understand body position and where they need to get, and I am awed, and that really springs our other guys to break some pretty big plays.”

Ashland lineman Nathan Lynn – “Energizer Bunny” excellent musician and lineman

Ashland senior Nathan Lynn is a highly talented flute player. The Southwest Kansas Music Educators Association includes Meade, Ashland, Elkhart, Liberal, Dodge City, Great Bend, Holcomb, Garden City, Southwestern Heights, Hugoton, Spearville and St. John, among others.

Lynn is the second chair flute for the SWKMEA band. The band lists 12 flute players, including a pair of alternates. Lynn weighs between 150 and 160 pounds for Ashland football and starts on the line. Lynn’s low center of gravity has allowed him get underneath opposing linemen.

“Kind of like two totally opposite sides,” Ashland coach Ben Fox said. “He’s a nasty, tough-nosed dude on the football field.”

The 10-1 Bluejays face 12-0 Cunningham for the six-man state championship game Saturday in Dodge City.

“He’s doing things effectively without the ball in his hands, rushing passers, just being a hard guy to block,” Fox said.

Lynn, a first team all-state selection last season, is Ashland’s smallest lineman. This season, he has 46 tackles, five for loss, along with a pass defended and a blocked punt. Ashland has permitted 21 points a game.

“The heart he plays with, and the grit he plays with and just the ability to just go play and play and play and play, kind of like the Energizer Bunny, and just make things tough,” Fox said. “Somebody has to show up and block him every time or he is going to cause a little bit of chaos.”

Cunningham’s DL Jack Ruckle and Trenton Schnittker improve for historically dominant defense

Cunningham has permitted 6.6 points a game, the best scoring defense since six-man football restarted in 2016. The Wildcats returned all but one player from last year’s runner-up squad. Cunningham has several well-known players, such as seniors Trey DeWeese and Lane Halderson and junior Luke McGuire.

But junior Jack Ruckle and sophomore Trent Schnittker (6-0, 260) have both emerged on the defensive front. Ruckle has 48 tackles, second-most to Halderson’s 60. Ruckle leads with nine tackles for loss, six sacks and three fumble recoveries. Schnittker has 22 tackles and two fumble recoveries.

On the 2021 team, Ruckle delivered 35 tackles with two sacks. Schnittker finished with 14 stops, one for loss.

“For us, it starts up front, and I do believe I have got talent at all three levels,” Cunningham coach Lance McGuire said. “But I know other coaches know this, my bigs up front, if you are going to run or throw, you have to make adjustments for them, I think.”

Kingman’s Havoc defense – with a breakout season from linemen Brody Bell and Tristen Davidson – on course for tops since 2A became one class

Kingman, under coach Tanner Hageman, has reached the state championship game for the first time since 1972. The 12-0 Eagles defeated top-ranked Southeast of Saline in double overtime in the state semifinals. Kingman’s offense has averaged 6.2 yards per carry with 37 rushing touchdowns.

The Eagles have the same starting offensive line each game: sophomore left tackle Brody Bell (6-0, 210); left guard Bly Keimig (5-7, 185); center Adrian Ontiveros (5-6, 160); right guard Collin Schreiner (5-6, 180); right tackle Ty Birkenbaugh (5-10, 185). Kingman is extremely balanced with 2,066 rushing and 2,034 passing yards.

Kingman has had limited size the last couple of years, including the semifinal run in ’21. Kingman’s starting running back stands 5-11, 205 and starting quarterback Nolan Freund is 6-0, 190.

The defensive line is Jake Fischer (6-0, 205); Tristen Davidson (6-3, 195); Bell and Dalton Barber (5-10, 222). Kingman’s 3-3 Havoc defense has allowed 13.4, 10.3 and 6.8 points per game the last three seasons. In ’18, 2A split from 2-1A. Kingman has the best scoring defense in 2A since the split.

While Kingman has some well-known pieces such as Freund, junior defensive back Carter Helm and senior linebacker Ty Birkenbaugh, the line play has been terrific. Kingman has forced 32 turnovers, including 24 interceptions.

Birkenbaugh leads the team in Havoc scoring with 655 defensive points, including 14 tackles for loss. However, Bell has emerged as second in points at 509. Bell has 14 TFLs, too. Bell had 114 Havoc points last year.

Davidson, a junior, is third with 426 points, including 22 tackles for loss.

Mill Valley looking for state’s best statistical defense in five years; on course to set school single season rushing record

Massey Ratings is a well-known national site that provides high school football offensive and defensive ratings that combine points allowed and strength of schedule. As SIK noted in the past, Mill Valley was first for all 11-man teams in Massey Ratings defense in ’15, fourth in ’18 and second, first and first the last three seasons.

This year, MV has a highly experienced defense, especially at linebacker and defensive back, for coordinator Drew Hudgins and head coach Joel Applebee. MV posted a 22.1 rating last season – and is at 27.8 this year.

This is by far the best 11-man defense in 2022. Manhattan is second at 23.1 and Andale third at 22.0. Mill Valley has the best Kansas 11-man defensive rating since Bishop Miege posted 29.3 in 2017.

The 11-1 Jaguars are tops among 5A schools since Bishop Carroll posted a 32.3 rating in 2014. BC’s defense is currently the best 11-man defense since 2003. BC allowed just 65 points that season.

Mill Valley has permitted 63, though 12 points came off pick-sixes in 20-16 loss to Olathe North on Oct. 14. Since then, the Jaguars have not allowed a touchdown and shut out every playoff opponent. After 16.1 points and 13.4 points allowed the last two seasons, the Jags have allowed 5.3 this fall. MV first incorporated the “Land Shark” defensive motto from Ole Miss, which adopted the motto from former linebacker Tony Fein, who served on the front lines of the Iraq War.

Mill Valley is well-known for quarterback Hayden Jay, running back Tristan Baker, linebackers Noah Coy and Broc Worcester, and defensive backs Holden Zigmant and Mikey Bergeron in the 4-2-5 defense.

However, sophomore Jayden Woods has emerged with a team-high 12 quarterback hurries at defensive line. Woods, the son of former Mill Valley graduate and Kansas State cornerback Justin Woods, has five Power 5 offers: Baylor, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State. Mill Valley has known of Woods since he was a youngster in the well-known Jag youth program.

“Always knew that he had the potential to be really, really good,” Applebee said. “Obviously very gifted athletically but seeing him come up through the program and seeing where he is at now is obviously very rewarding. Very rewarding for those junior football coaches and see what he is doing now.

“The thing I love about Jayden is he is one of the most humble kids I have ever been around,” Applebee said. “It’s always team first. It’s always what can I do to help this team win, it’s not about me. Obviously, I think he obviously understands he’s gifted athletically, and he wants to be the best he can with those gifts.”

Senior Grant Rutkowski plays strong side defensive end. Senior Spencer Vaka plays at nose guard. Junior Truman Griffith, also an exceptional athlete, is at defensive line. Woods is the weak side defensive end. Woods has 46 tackles, 10.5 for loss. Rutkowski has 45 tackles, seven for loss. Griffith has 34 tackles, nine TFLs. Vaka has 33 stops, 5.5 for loss.

On the offensive line, 6-foot-7, 245-pound junior Gus Hawkins switched from tight end to left tackle. Hawkins moved in from Scott City. He played a little tight end during the summer before the coaches switched him to left tackle in the beginning of August. Hawkins has a Kansas State offer.

“He’s just really kind of taken with it and run with it,” Applebee said. “Done a really, really good job for us.”

Sophomore Jack Melvin is at left guard. Senior Ty Marsh is an anchor at center. Senior Jack McKinnon is the right guard, and junior Mason Kemp is the right tackle. MV has churned out 276 rushing yards a game and 6.7 yards per carry with first-year starters at tailback and receiver. Last season, the Jaguars recorded 190 rushing yards a game and 5.8 yards per carry.

Overall, MV has 3,306 rushing yards – and will likely break the school record for rushing yards of 3,358 set in 2019.

Inman much improved with healthy players

Inman has produced great line play for QB Tanner Heckel. (Photo by Doug Neufeld).

Inman has reached the state championship game for the second straight year, the lone two trips in school annals. Inman has remained metronomically consistent defensively with coach Lance Sawyer. Inman and Olpe are the state’s only two 1A teams to allow less than 10 points a game each of the past three seasons.

Inman has become healthier down the stretch. Standout quarterback Tanner Heckel was hurt for five weeks. Sawyer said Dawson McConnell has “really played well” after he returned from a broken hand. Inman defeated Conway Springs, 23-6, in the semifinals and flipped a result from district play.

In the past three years, the Teutons have allowed 9.7, 8.6 and 9.4 points per game and finished final four, state runner-up, state championship qualifier. Dominic Nuese-Rasmussen and Zaden Johnson have been top players on both sides. Sawyer noted Zach Martisko has “really come on strong” in the playoffs. Heckel has passed for 842 and rushed for 749 yards. Josiah Buller has passed for 672 with 12 scores against five interceptions.

Martisko leads Inman with 120 tackles. Nuese-Rasmussen and Johnson both have 18 tackles for loss.

Maize, Thunder Ridge, Wamego among state qualifiers

Maize’s Cole Chalashtari has been part of a loaded offensive line for Maize QB Avery Johnson, the state’s top recruit. Maize will shatter the school record for scoring offense. (Photo courtesy of Chalashtari family).

Maize has plenty of Division I skill players, especially quarterback Avery Johnson (Kansas State) and wide receiver Bryce Cohoon (Syracuse). But the Eagles’ offensive line has significantly helped the Eagles enjoy the program’s best scoring offense in at least 25 years.

Maize has averaged 50.8 points a contest. Since 2011, the Eagles have never collected more than 41.9 points a contest. Last season, Maize was at 35.2 a game. The Eagles generated 408 yards and 7.6 yards per play in 2021.

This year, Maize’s line features junior Cole Chalashtari and seniors Jack Kerr, Zach Wertz and Mason Thrush. Sophomore Jonathan Gould has also been a key player. Thrush was an all-state pick last season and several could be in the conversation this season to land more honors.

Maize has been remarkably balanced: 2,590 passing and 2,516 rushing yards. The Eagles have skyrocketed to 9.6 yards per play.

“I tell those guys, it starts with you guys up front,” Maize coach Gary Guzman told SIK earlier this fall. “If you guys can’t get it done, then we are not going to get it done.”

“Offensively, obviously their offensive line has done a really good job this year,” MV coach Joel Applebee said. “They have ran the ball better than they ever have, and that’s been a big, big part of their success.”

Thunder Ridge has had multiple changes on the offensive line. The Longhorns, though, have nearly the exact same output in the last two seasons: 52.3 and 52.4 points per game.

Sophomore Brayden Burge, who had never played varsity before, was key in the postseason at guard. Seniors Brian (6-3, 300), Hunter Gitchel (6-2, 247) and Kaleb Wagenblast (6-1, 230) are experienced players. TR has ground out 300 yards a game.

Wamego has lowered its scoring defense from 22.9 points a game last season to 6.9 this year. Wamego’s defensive line is: Jake Meyer, Ariston Gamino, Gage Woodward, Wyatt Burgess and Jackson Ziegler. 

“They have a tendency to eat up a lot of double teams,” Wamego coach Weston Moody told SIK earlier this season.

Other Interesting Notes from Chet Kuplen of Sports in Kansas

-Mill Valley is going for its sixth state title since 2015. No matter if the Jaguars have been Independent, EKL or Sunflower, they’ve been dominant. This years team has over 160 players out. Joel Applebee has taken this program to the most consistent title contender in Kansas over the last seven years. The Russell, Kansas native may have never won a playoff game as a football player in HS, but he’s dominated as a HS football coach. Already a Kansas legend.

-Kingman (2A) in title game for the first time since 1972. Wamego in first title game ever. Gardner Edgerton looking for first ever title, first appearance since 2009. Bubba Starling was the QB the last time they made it when he was a junior. Manhattan looking for first title since 1988. Maize still looking for first ever title in 5A.

-Several looking for first ever state title. Gardner Edgerton (6A), Maize (5A), Wamego (4A), Kingman (2A), Inman (1A), St. Marys (1A), Wichita County (8M-I), Cunningham (6M) have never won a state football title.

-Fort Hays State connections in last weeks semis: Tanner Hageman (Kingman), Joel Struckhoff (Thunder Ridge), Weston Moody (Wamego), Tony Crough (Hays), Anthony Orrick (BVSW), Jace Pavlovich (McPherson), Marc Henry (Clay Center) all played football at Fort Hays State University and all had their teams in the semifinals last week.

-How classifications have changed? St. Mary’s played in a 3A title game back in 1999, now 1A. The Bears have now been in title games in 3A, 2A and 1A. Their runner-up team in 1983? They lost to Osborne in the 3A title game, Osborne is now a 8M-II program. Maize was a school about half the size back in the 1980s before it became a 6A and split into two 5As in 2009 when Maize South opened.

Nemaha Valley (now Nemaha Central – consolidation of Baileyville B&B & NV in 2014) was a 4A HS in the 1980s, now in 2A with two schools that consolidated. The last time Kingman was in a title game they played Kapaun (now 5A) back in the 1972 title game in 3A (less classes then).

Kingman was also a 4A school around 20 years ago. Gardner Edgerton (6A) was a 4A Hs in the 1980s and parts of the 1990s before exploding in enrollment and becoming a big 5A then big 6A high school over the last 20 plus years. Mill Valley opened in 2000 as a 4A and 22 years later its one of the best dynasties we’ve had in Kansas for football, even more incredible that its all been in the last seven years.

If they win on Saturday, that would be six titles in eight years. 3A now is basically the old 4A (the smaller ones at least, also once 4A-II). Traditional 3A’s like Silver Lake, Rossville etc. have moved down to the 2A class, while traditional small 4A’s (Andale, Holton etc) make up the new look 3A with the old small 4As and top enrolled old 3As. For years Holton and Andale were two of the smallest 4A football programs in the state and were still producing state titles.

A few standouts to Watch this week from Chet Kuplen

6A: Dawson Kindler of Gardner Edgerton (RB), Keenan Schartz (QB) of Manhattan. Both teams rely on a lot of role players and a total team effort.

5A: Of course Avery Johnson (QB) of Maize but his line has been great this year as well. Defensive Lineman Caden Miranda is also an underrated player. Maize recievers and backs are top notch too. Hayden Jay (QB) of Mill Valley and his line up front, plus DE Jayden Woods, a sophomore with D1 offers. Mill Valley DBs are about as solid as you can get.

4A: Colin Donahaue and Hayden Oviatt out of the backfield, both QBs this year, but both can do a lot. Donahue has passed for over 2,000 stepping in for the injured Oviatt, who has rushed for over 800 yards the last four weeks since healthy. Mac Armstrong (QB) and Isaiah Coppage (WR) may be the best QB/WR duo in the state. Both lines have really stepped up this year as well.

3A: Riley Marx of Andale. Pound for pound one of the states best athletes. The line play of this team has been outstanding led by Jack Kraus (OL/DL), Noah Bruce (TE/LB) and Brayden Weber (DL/OL) on both sides. Jonah Meyer has also been a big time playmaker on defense as has Karson Butts. Wyatt Spexarth is also an underrated passer and can put up big numbers if ever needed to do so. The loaded backfield of the Holton Wildcats has been impressive with Garyson Booth, Matt Lierz, Jayden Fletcher and Jace Boswell. Boswell is a North Dakota commit and Booth has over 1,600 yards (13 YPC) rushing. The line has really stepped up, we shall see if they are up to the challenge of the incredible defense of Andale.

2A: Nolan Freund is one of the state’s best players for Kingman at QB. Avrey Albright has also had a huge year for the Eagles. As far as Nemaha Central, Cooper Hajek is a 1,800+ yard rusher and one of the best players in 2A. Deters and Bass are two of the best lineman in the class at 6’6″ 290 and 6’4.5″ 275 pounds

1A: Keller Hurla is one of the state’s top small school athletes, looking to be a four-sport all-state athlete this season. He has passed for over 2,000 and rushed for nearly 1,000 more in leading the Bears to the title game. Cason Gomez and Abe Huaracha have also stepped up big this season, but the offensive line with just one senior and the rest non-seniors have really played a big role in the title appearance. Inman is led by Eli Brunk, Harrison Brunk, Tanner Heckel and Josiah Buller who have had big years in leading the Tetutons to back to back titles.

8M-I: Braxton Lafferty and Grant Stephens have been incredible for LR this season. Stephens has some of the best defensive numbers in the state while Lafferty may be one of the best overall players in all of 8-man when it comes to offense and defense combined. Erhik Hermosillo has been a highlight reel for Leoti Wichita County with over 3,000 yards of offense at quarterback.

8M-II: Isaac Detweiler (QB) of Axtell is one of the best of all-time in 8-man with a 25-game winning streak. Brandon Schmelzle is likely the top 8-man sophomore in Kansas for Axtell. Eli Broxterman leads the squad in tackles, Detweiler second and Grady Buessing is third. Dylan Bice is a career 4,000 yard passer and career 4,000 yard rusher, a very rare feat. He has great size at 6’2″ and 200 pounds for the Thunder Ridge Longhorns. This school has been loaded out of the backfield for the last 11 years when it comes to names like Bice, Joel Struckhoff, Trevor Lowe and Reece Struckhoff.

6-Man: Landen McPhail and Kale Harris out of Ashland have combined for over 2,500 yards rushing this year. Harris leads the team on defense in tackles while Britt Grigsby is second. Trey Deweese has passed for over 1,000 yards while Luke McGuire has added a 1,000 yards of offense. Lane Halderson and Luke Albers have been big in the receiving game for Cunningham.

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