By CONOR NICHOLL
Plainville coach Grant Stephenson’s desk and chair sits atop a stage in the Cardinal weight room, an edifice known for its rock wall. After football games, the team walks up a short hill from the football field into the facility.
In Week 5, Plainville took a 48-3 home loss to Inman, the biggest margin of defeat in a regular season game in the seven-year Stephenson era, a stretch that has yielded a state runner-up. Plainville and Inman both returned the bulk of its key players from 2020. For the Cardinals, that included veteran defensive backs Anders Dewey and Carter Cellmer.
Dewey is a returning second team all-league corner and led Kansas in punt return yards last season. One of the best all-around players in 1A, Dewey has 31 passes defended and seven interceptions in his career.
After the Inman defeat, the weight room was deathly quiet. Stephenson sat back in the chair and looked out among the players. His laptop sat in front of him as the game film slowly downloaded. He said little.
Stephenson believed Plainville wouldn’t have changed how they scouted and prepared for the game. On multiple occasions, Plainville significantly guarded Inman’s skill players, a group that included seniors Kendyn Blank and Kyler Konrade, junior Harrison Brunk and sophomore Tanner Heckel, in 1-on-1 matchups.
However, Brunk, with a defender draped on him, caught a quick slant for an early touchdown. He outjumped another Cardinal for a score. Once, Stephenson even switched his defensive backs just before the snap. Inman senior quarterback Jace Doerksen still completed the pass.
“Their quarterback put the ball on the money numerous times,” Stephenson said.
Inman coach Lance Sawyer has labeled Doerksen, a four-year starter, the best quarterback he’s ever coached. Sawyer stands 67-76 in 15 years, 33-27 in six seasons at Inman.
“Our receivers played really well,” Sawyer said. “I mean, they went up and got balls.”
Defensively, Inman allowed its first points all season when Plainville kicked a field goal. Three weeks later, Inman traveled an hour north of Plainville to Smith Center. For much of the last eight years, Plainville and SC have been the hegemony in 2-1A/1A West.
Inman delivered another complete effort in a 38-15 victory. The Teutons allowed its first touchdowns of the year. Inman ended Smith Center’s 23-game district winning streak. Inman became the first non-Phillipsburg team to defeat SC at Hubbard Stadium in more than eight years. Inman has outscored opponents, 452-18, this year.
“It’s just amazing to beat a program like that,” Sawyer said.
No. 2 ranked Inman improved to 8-0 and captured 1A, District 3, its first district title in 20-plus seasons. The Plainville win is one of several scenes that has encapsulated the Teutons’ rise that could cumulate in Inman’s first state championship game appearance. Inman was 9-3 and state semifinalist last fall.
“We wanted to be this good, and we have worked hard for it,” Doerksen said.
Overall, Inman exemplifies the playoff picture as all classifications move into the Round of 16 after Friday. All eight defending state champions – 6A Derby, 5A Mill Valley, 4A St. James, 3A Andale, 2A Rossville, 1A Olpe, Eight-Man, Division I Little River and Eight-Man, Division II Hanover – remain alive.
Derby, MV and Andale have a current streak of multiple state titles. Derby, Andale, Rossville, Olpe and LR have current win streaks of at least 13 games – and are currently ranked No. 1 in its classification.
In 4A, private schools St. James and Bishop Miege, despite some regular season challenges against bigger schools, remain viable contenders. So is 6A Olathe North, 5A Wichita Northwest, 2A Silver Lake, 1A Smith Center and Eight-Man, Division II Victoria. NW has three straight state runner-ups. ON, SL, SC and Victoria have combined to win 33 state titles.
Juxtaposed are teams like Inman, squads that have never won a state title, or in most cases played for a state championship game. Even after the SC win, coach Lance Sawyer knew the Teutons could play the Redmen a second time. Inman earned a Week 9 bye.
Class 6A Blue Valley Northwest, 5A Hays High, 4A No. 1-ranked Basehor-Linwood, 4A No. 2 Andover Central, 4A No. 6 Mulvane, 3A Cheney, 2A Kingman, 1A Inman, Eight-Man, Division I WaKeeney-Trego and Division II Wheatland-Grinnell have totaled zero state titles. Only AC and Kingman have ever made a final. Those squads are a combined 67-7 this year. All likely need to beat at least one powerhouse, possibly more.
The dichotomy between the traditional teams and the new powers is the early theme of the 2021 playoffs. Perhaps no team has come further than Inman.
“This was a big step, but I think our guys, especially after last year, they have their final goal in mind, and that goal needs to be that we are going to finish this in Hays (at state), and it’s going to take going through them again,” Sawyer said.
Sawyer is an Inman graduate who served head coaching stints at White City and Hillsboro. In 2017, Inman finished 0-9 and scored 77 points all year.
“We really struggled doing anything,” Sawyer said. “Our running game was terrible. I think we averaging 0.9 yards per play when we went 0-9. I mean, we couldn’t run the ball at all, and so we needed something that had some misdirection.”
Sawyer reached out to well-known national coach Rick Stewart, who runs the Pistol Wing-T. Stewart has specialized in turning around losing programs. His offense has been installed at more than 70 schools.
“We have so many options,” Doerksen said. “We can go to different guys, have different formations, so it’s a lot of fun, because we can do a lot of stuff, and we can spread the ball around.”
Three times, Stewart has turned around programs that had lost 19 or more games in a row. Inman posted 6-4, 6-5 and 9-3 marks. Last year, Doerksen set the school single season record for passing yards. Inman averaged 41 points a game, third-best in 1A.
“We have to get downfield and block,” Sawyer said. “All the misdirection we try to do, doesn’t matter if we never go get a linebacker, so we really teach our receivers to try to get downfield and block. But I think the biggest thing is they are so unselfish, and they just want to let other people score, they go and do stuff like that. They really work hard.”
Inman significantly ball fakes and sometimes has multiple handoffs on the same play. One of those included a flea flicker that went for 80 yards and a touchdown to Brunk versus SC.
“It helps when you have such athletic kids that you can run some of that stuff,” Sawyer said. “Think of all the moving parts. We had two handoffs with a pitch back, so it takes a lot for that to happen.”
Plus, Inman has speed. Stephenson and Smith Center coach Darren Sasse both immediately said the Teutons’ biggest strength is its speed.
“We all love football, and we are big in the weight room, and we are big on the field, and we like to run,” Doerksen said.
Inman had three touchdowns of at least 30 yards. Inman held Smith Center to 242 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry. SC entered with 330 rushing yards a game and more than eight yards a carry. Like Stephenson, Sasse believed Smith Center practiced “really well” all week and “did some really good things” in the game. Inman was just too fast.
“No doubt their speed,” Sasse said. “But we knew that. You saw that on film, and it’s just something that you can’t practice. We had our opportunities there in the first half to put some drives together and just couldn’t do it. Again, that’s their defense. Hats off to them.”
“Speed plays both ways, right,” Sasse added. “Offense and defense, so that’s something that we are just going to have to figure out a way to deal with, if we get a chance to play them.”
Last spring, Brunk finished third in the Class 2A 100-meter dash finals and fifth in the 200. Doerksen qualified in both hurdles.
“He goes and gets the ball really well,” Sawyer said of Brunk. “He is able to give space. With that deep route, he is able to slow his route, and then burst. He’s just 100-meter dash speed, and then he’s able to run hard, and then stop on a dime, and then he’s able to make a play after he gets the ball.”
The 400 relay that had Heckel, Blank, Brunk and offensive lineman Dawson Mannebach earned third. The same quartet took fifth in the 1,600 relay. Heckel was sixth in the long jump and fifth in the triple jump. He was the lone freshman to qualify in both events. Inman finished eighth in 2A as a team.
“Tanner is a great athlete,” Doerksen said. “I think he is underrated in some aspects, because we have so many guys that can do stuff, but he’s just fast, and he’s shifty, and he’s strong, too. He’s got a strong lower body, so he can break tackles.”
Last year, Doerksen completed 92 of 145 passes for 1,546 yards with 18 scores against seven interceptions. Blank rushed for 742 yards and 11 scores.
”We have a lot of team chemistry,” Brunk said. “…Even sometimes we don’t even need to talk about things. We just know what we need to do.”
Heckel finished with 68 offensive touches for 583 yards and 10 TDs. In basketball, Heckel was a first team all-league pick. Sawyer calls Heckel “a stud” in “everything.”
“He’s an all-around great athlete, and you talk to him, he’s a great kid, too,” Sawyer said. “I mean, he’s the nicest kid you’ll ever find. He has two younger sisters, and he’s an excellent brother as well.”
Entering Smith Center, Doerksen had completed 72 percent of his passes (42 of 59) for 993 yards with 14 scores against one interception. Blank had 42 carries for 685 yards and 15 rushing scores. Heckel had 40 offensive touches for 676 yards and nine offensive scores. Brunk had delivered 11 catches for 380 yards and six TDs.
“It’s real nice, because it gives us two-way offense,” Heckel said. “We can run the ball whenever we want, and we can pass it.”
Versus SC, Doerksen completed 17 of 22 passes for 240 yards and two scores against no INTs. Heckel finished with 12 offensive touches for 148 yards with a rushing score off a double handoff. Blank rushed 10 times for 39 yards. Twice, Inman threw halfback passes for two-point conversions.
“They are all pretty unselfish,” Sawyer said. “Kendyn Blank didn’t have a whole lot of rushing yards, but they were gearing toward him, so once one guy isn’t there, somebody else will step up and make a play.”
Line-wise, Mannebach, along with Olpe’s Ted Skalsky, are the likely frontrunners for 1A Defensive Player of the Year. Since the summer, Sawyer has called Mannebach the most athletic linemen he has ever coached. Mannebach has 10 tackles for loss.
“Our line is really solid this year,” Brunk said.
He, senior Christian Winsky, and senior Grant Thimmesch are returning starters up front. Dominic Nuese-Rasmussen played well on the defensive line versus Smith Center. He helped force the Redmen backs down a gap.
“Our front six did a really good job containing those offensive linemen,” Sawyer said.
In addition to the speed, Inman has shown great bounce back ability and physicality.
Doerksen, Heckel, and Konrade had several impressive tackles. That included a notable fourth down stop from Konrade. Mannebach said Inman put in a new defense for SC with more players up on the line. Last year, Smith Center beat Inman, 29-22, the first all-time meeting between the squads.
“Our tackling was pretty good, especially on fourth and short situations, I thought our defense was extremely, extremely sound,” Sawyer said. “They stepped up when they really needed to. We gave up some yards, we gave up some long drives, but when we really needed it, we made the plays, so I am extremely proud of our defense.”
Doerksen rushed for a three-yard score for the game’s first touchdown with 24.8 seconds left in the first quarter. A halfback pass went for two and an 8-0 lead. Then, Smith Center became the first team to tally a touchdown before Inman quickly responded.
Sawyer noticed his team “kind of down” after the touchdown and some “weird” feelings. Sawyer expressed some relief that streak, which had earned statewide attention for several weeks, was complete. Then, the multi-dimensional Teuton offense quickly drove 64 yards.
On 4th-and-8, Doerksen delivered an impressive 30-yard touchdown pass to Blank. Inman tallied the conversion for a 16-8 lead – and never trailed again.
“That was the biggest play of the game,” Sawyer said. “Us going down and driving to score.”
The teams lost three fumbles in the third quarter. When the fourth quarter started, Inman faced 4th-and-10 from the Redmen 11-yard line. Inman had called a timeout, and Doerksen called a play. Doerksen completed a 10-yard pass, and then scored on the next snap for a 24-8 advantage.
“I am kind of glad it’s over,” Sawyer said. “Somebody scored, and you don’t have to think about it anymore, and so I am impressed with our guys. Pretty tough kids, so they came back, and they realized that our offense is pretty good, and that we can go down and score.”
For decades, Smith Center has earned wins on getting tough yards on third and fourth down.
With 6 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter, Smith Center faced 4th-and-2 from the Inman 41-yard line. Jake Kirchhoff ran left. Konrade met him low. There was a vicious popping of pads. Konrade tackled Kirchhoff for a one-yard loss.
“Konrade is an amazing linebacker,” Sawyer said. “I mean Konrade can fill with the best of them, and he can stop them. …When he does meet them, they are not going to push him over.”
After the game, a joyful Konrade stood on the Smith Center track with his smiling teammates. Konrade had dried blood on his face. He cut his hand and started to itch his nose, which brought the blood to his face.
“I knew they were going to run up the middle,” Konrade said. “That’s what they have always done, and I saw the guy, and I shot the gap and got them. It hurt my shoulder pretty bad, I won’t lie, but it was a great hit, and it just happened to be that our line shot their gaps, and I got the open holes.”
Sawyer stood on the Hubbard Stadium grass next to the end zone. He looked down to the middle of the field and looked at Konrade, the other players and fanbase. Sawyer thought back to when his program was 0-9 – and looked toward what could happen for his team in November.
“Smith Center is a pretty good team, too,” Sawyer said. “Where we have come from in four years is amazing. Just fun to watch those guys over there.”