By CONOR NICHOLL
VICTORIA – Victoria runs a turnover circuit at least once a week. One area the Knights focus on is forcing fumbles by grabbing the ball straight out of the opponent’s hands. In 2020, Victoria coach Doug Oberle believed Grant Schoenrock accomplished the rare feat three times.
Last Friday, Schoenrock delivered two plays when he ripped the ball from the Caldwell runner in a home Eight-Man, Division II Round of 16 matchup. The first time came with 4 minutes, 9 seconds left in the first quarter. Schoenrock collected the fumble and ran straight down for a 51-yard TD. Victoria took a 16-8 lead.
“Very heady,” Oberle said.
With 4:43 remaining in the contest, Schoenrock delivered another play. Victoria led 58-52, and Caldwell had the ball on 2nd-and-7 at the Knight 34-yard line. Schoenrock took the ball from standout Bluejay junior quarterback Keiondre Smith.
“I just saw where he went, and we were taught all week go for the ball when you get there, so I went for the ball,” Schoenrock said.
Victoria eventually held on for a 58-52 victory when it made a fourth down stop at the Knight 36-yard line in the final seconds. It marked the last game for Caldwell in school history before it co-ops with nearby South Haven to create South Sumner. Tenth-year Caldwell coach Sean Blosser was emotional on the field postgame discussing his program.
“Obviously it could have been a lot more fun, but it’s still a great game to be a part of,” Blosser said. “Our kids competed, they competed, and that’s just the way the game should be played.”
Schoenrock has won a playoff game as a starter in all four falls of high school. Because of injuries, Schoenrock, a multiple-year starter at quarterback, switched to fullback in the last several weeks. He threw a touchdown pass and rushed for a TD. Afterward, Oberle immediately brought up the fumbles. Oberle had one word for the plays.
“Legendary,” he said.
The adjective also exemplified last Friday for Ellis County football, home to Victoria, 5A Hays High, 2A Thomas More Prep-Marian and 2A Ellis.
Hays High won at Andover, 18-6. The Indians improved to 8-2. TMP bumped to 8-2 with a 36-27 victory at Hoisington, previously ranked fourth in Class 2A.
The Monarchs were 0-8 versus Hoisington since ’04. The defending runner-up Cardinals had captured eight straight victories this year and had not lost a home playoff game since 2017. TMP led 20-6 at halftime.
“That was probably the best first half of high school football I have ever been involved with,” Monarch coach Jay Harris said on his postgame radio show.
The results yielded collectively the best single night in the history of Ellis County football.
Hays High reached the state quarterfinals for the first time since ’95. Before this season, the Indians’ all-time best finishes were semifinals in ’84 and ’93 and quarterfinals in ’81, ’90 and ’95. HHS will play an 11th game for the third time in school annals. The Indians have never played 12.
TMP has tied the second-best finish in school annals. The Monarchs reached the semifinals in ’70 and ’02 and the quarterfinals in ’99. This marks the first ever time cross-town Hays High and TMP are both in the state quarterfinals in the same year, per Prep Power Index archives. The KSHSAA playoff system started in 1969.
Plus, Victoria has enjoyed another deep playoff run. Victoria, one of Kansas’ top-five all-time small school powers, has seven all-time state titles and has spent most of the fall ranked third in Division II. The Knights most recently won in ’14 and ’15 and were a final four team last fall.
Ellis, which is 0-4 all-time in state quarterfinals, struggled to a three-win season. However, former coach Craig Amrein, an EHS alum, relocated to Hill City two years ago and became the Ringneck defensive coordinator.
His son, Aiden, is HC’s sophomore quarterback. Aiden, who excelled in Ellis youth football, has helped Hill City to a 9-1 record, the second-most wins for a single year in Ringneck history. HC beat Hoxie, 68-48.
The No. 5-ranked Ringnecks will travel to La Crosse (8-2) in an Eight-Man, Division I state quarterfinal matchup. La Crosse, 23 miles south of Hays, beat Argonia-Attica, 58-56, on a pass with a second left from Caden Morgan to Gage Burk.
Amrein has accounted for 2,591 total yards and 46 touchdowns. If HC gets three more games, Amrein could break state records. La Crosse senior tailback Colby Stull has 5,059 career rushing yards.
This week, Hays High is at No. 3 Maize, 8-2, behind junior quarterback Avery Johnson, a Power 5 recruit.
TMP plays host to No. 4 Kingman (9-1) at Fort Hays State University’s Lewis Field Stadium. Victoria plays host to Dighton (9-1). This marks the first time HHS will play Maize since 1997. TMP has never played Kingman, and Victoria has not faced Dighton since ’13.
All three teams have similarities. Each has a core group that has played together for many seasons and enjoyed success in the younger ranks. The squads have a veteran quarterback – Schoenrock, Hays High senior Jaren Kanak and TMP junior Kade Harris – that are among Kansas’ best signal callers. Each one has overcome injuries this fall. Victoria and Hays High have a combined three wins that have essentially been decided on the final play.
Afterward, Schoenrock stood amongst teammates and fans on Victoria’s field. He had been clutching the regional championship plaque.
“It’s special, it’s definitely something I am not going to forget,” he said.
Neither will Ellis County. Various Facebook and Twitter feeds congratulated the teams. While Victoria is used to being in this position, TMP and Hays High are not.
The Monarchs have long been known for success in other sports, especially basketball, where the program has had three head coaches in the last 61 years: Al Billinger, Joe Hertel, and Bill Meagher. Before ’19, TMP had two winning football seasons in the previous 18 years.
For TMP, Kade Harris and the current junior group enjoyed great success in junior high football. His dad, Jay, had come from the Ransom/Ness City area. Harris, TMP’s FFA teacher, led the junior high squad. Jay was going to be a varsity assistant for the ’19 season. But David Bowen resigned in May ’19 and took a job in eastern Kansas. Jay became the head varsity coach.
TMP finished 3-6 and collectively dropped to 16-56 in the previous eight years. However, the Monarchs allowed 26.6 points per game, its best scoring defense in 16 seasons.
TMP has enjoyed solid skill players, though has long struggled with developing linemen. Since ’14, TMP has had six first team all-Mid-Continent League players: two quarterbacks, two wide receivers, a defensive back and kicker.
Last season, the Monarchs broke through with key wins against Plainville (10-7) and Cimarron (15-12), the latter which clinched the district title. Freshmen Kendall Walker and Kolton Hagans started up front.
“It’s kind of neat,” coach Harris told SIK in 2020. “This is a group of guys that I coached through junior high and now high school, and just some things that we started working on four years ago, and five years ago. That work has just kept building to this moment, and the freshmen that come in and play, I have all the expectations that they are going to be able to play, and they do. They take care of business. They are more than freshmen right now, that’s for sure.”
But TMP lost 55-14 at home to Beloit in Week 9. The Monarchs put the score all around its facility and weight room as a reminder for ’21. Coach Harris referenced the score multiple times in interviews during the fall.
“Just motivation for them to go out and make it a different season this year,” coach Harris said to SIK.
TMP had an experienced core paced by Kade Harris, RB Bryce Seib and WR/K Jace Wentling, a four-sport varsity player, state long jump champion and Neosho County CC baseball commit. Plus, a dominant defense includes Harris, Seib, Wentling, Hagans, Walker, Griffin Schumacher, along with seniors Lance Lang and Michael Hess and junior Michael Hale.
The Monarchs have averaged 32.5 points per game and permitted 10.8 a contest. It’s the best scoring offense for the program in more than 25 years. TMP has its top scoring defense since 9.8 points allowed since 1988, according to the Kansas Football History database.
The Monarchs are ranked fourth in 2A scoring defense, one spot behind Kingman.
“They are locked in right now, want this season bad,” coach Harris said.
TMP delivered four straight shutouts, a first in more than 50 years for the program. The first one came against Plainville, an eventual 6-4 squad that was ranked top-5 in 1A part of the year. Seib noted that Hagans and Walker “have picked it up and carried our defense” as defensive tackles.
“It really showed that we are actually made of something this year,” Seib said of the Plainville victory. “Like last year, people kind of thought we were a fake team, didn’t play any competition. But it really showed what we are made of.”
Harris was bothered by an ankle injury. Before the Oct. 8 game against Southwestern Heights, Harris barely practiced. He never carried the ball, though threw for 241 yards in a 41-0 victory.
“We are a lot better team with him out here, so just hope that he is recovered,” Seib said after the SW game.
In Week 9, TMP had a pair of pick-sixes early in a 42-18 win versus Minneapolis, the first playoff victory in 19 years. Last week, Harris returned to form with 13 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown. The Monarchs opened with a long touchdown drive. Harris returned a momentum-changing kick return for a score in the first half. Walker and Hagans bottled up Hoisington up front.
“Their first score was nothing really hurt because we answered it,” coach Harris said.
The current Hays High seniors were split into two youth teams. One of the youth squads had six players who are still together: Karson Russell, Meyers, Kanak, Gavin Nutting and cousins Jordan and Dalton Dale. That youth team won more than 90 percent of its contests. More than 10 of the current seniors played together at Hays Middle School, where the squad had great success.
Then, the core group entered high school in the first season under Tony Crough. He has long labeled HHS a “sleeping giant.” Hays High has enjoyed some nice years, including 8-2 and 7-3 under coach Ryan Cornelsen in ’11 and ’12. Those ended with playoff losses to Hutchinson and Bishop Carroll, squads that won the state championship.
Last season, the Indians finished undefeated in WAC play and went 5-3 with a Week 9 bracket play loss to Maize South.
This summer, the broad themes for Hays High were: high-level elite players in Kanak and Meyers, along with running back Roy Moroni. Kanak, the state’s top recruit, has committed to Clemson. Meyers has had Power 5 offers. Moroni has significant NAIA interest. Kanak switched to quarterback after Dylan Dreiling elected to focus on baseball. Kanak went from not getting the ball enough to having the ball virtually every play.
Kanak, despite fighting a significant hamstring injury, has rushed for more than 1,400 yards in the zone-read offense. Moroni has seen time all four years and has remained healthy after he missed Week 1. He has cleared 950 rushing yards. Meyers, the Indians’ all-time leading tackler, paces the WAC in stops. Nutting is a four-year starter on the line.
“It’s great with Jaren being able to pull that ball, it gives us a whole other running back basically, because if they are sending five, six guys where we can’t block them all, Jaren reads,” Nutting told SIK.
However, two key questions dealt with defense and depth. Gaven Haselhorst, the state leader in tackles for loss, graduated and signed for Kansas State. HHS had big strides to fourth in 5A scoring defense at 16 points per game.
After a key Week 1 home win versus Wichita East, Crough and Meyers believed Hays High could again have a top-five defense. That’s occurred with veteran coordinator Layton Hickel. Last season, HHS’ opponents scored 26.7 points per game when not playing the Indians. Hays High held teams 10.7 points under its scoring average, per SIK research.
This year, HHS has played a harder schedule. The Indians have allowed 19.4 points per game. Those opponents have averaged 30.2 points a contest against the No. 10 strength of schedule in 32-team 5A, according to Prep Power Index.
Hays High has limited squads to 10.8 points under its scoring average, slightly better than last season. Crough has said the defense is full of hard-nosed, “lunch-pail type” players.
“He’s just stellar,” Crough said of Hickel. “He always has a great plan.”
HHS had zero victories versus teams that finished with winning records last season. This year, HHS has five: Wichita East, Dodge City, Maize South, Eisenhower and Andover. The Indians’ depth and ability to overcome injuries is similar with consistent 5A powers.
Hays High held off Maize South, 47-43, in Week 7 and played without Remy Stull, the team leader in interceptions, for a good chunk of the contest. In Week 9, Kanak rushed one time in the first half. When the game was close, Kanak fought through the hamstring and scored a TD in the final minute for a 19-13 win versus Eisenhower.
“I attribute that to just the work we put in the offseason and the weight room especially, and just wanted it more than they did,” Kanak said.
The Indians played with a highly inexperienced center with sophomore Henry Fitzthum. Russell has battled through. Hays High had a revamped offensive line versus Andover with Russell starting at left tackle, junior Derrik Riggs at left guard, Fitzthum at center, Nutting at right guard, and senior Parker Billinger at right tackle.
The defense has continued to make plays. Senior defensive end Iden Baalman is one of Kansas’ biggest surprises. He has led the WAC in tackles for loss. Carson Spray is a multiple-year starter.
“He was awesome on the JV last year,” Crough said of Baalman. “He was one of those kids that you could watch progress.”
Versus Andover, Dalton Dale had a key tackle on fourth down, and senior Wyatt Crain recorded a TD-saving stop. Baalman and Dale – whom Crough has called a “ball magnet,” – helped force and recover a fumble.
Starting wide receiver Jordan Dale, the reigning WAC Offensive Player of the Year, moved over to defense and had substantial snaps at cornerback. Stull, hurt the majority of ’20, has consistently been a ball hawk. He blocked a kick versus Eisenhower and disrupted a missed 25-yard field goal early versus Andover.
Kanak played some defense, too. Hays High has tallied less than 20 points in back-to-back weeks, but won both games, the first time that’s occurred since 1999.
Victoria sophomores Seth Schwien and Thaddeus Wohler are cousins.
“It’s incredible, let me tell you,” Wohler said. “Ever since he has been playing as a freshman, me and him, we have had a bond since we were little, little kids. We have loved each other. We stick up for each other. We are there for each other 24/7, no matter what. It’s fun. We have a bond that really no one else has, I feel like. That gives us an advantage.”
Wohler lives in Victoria, and Schwien lives a few miles outside of Hays. Wohler comes from a big family, and his mother has a day care. Schwien, a defensive end/tight end, said the pair has “that backyard chemistry.”
“When I was two years old to when I was 14, I was always at his house everyday after school tossing the pigskin already,” Schwien said. “Definitely, getting ready for these big moments like that. … Being able to see him grow throughout the years, it was definitely like a heart-warming moment knowing I was there from the start.”
“That’s my brother right there, brother from another mother,” Wohler added.
Last season, Schwien saw probably the most playing time of any freshman since Oberle took over as head coach in 2006. Wohler has played quarterback since peewee football. In the summer, Oberle noted Wohler’s ability and mentioned the sophomore would receive some time under center. Schoenrock, who received picked up an Ottawa University offer, won a playoff game as a starting quarterback his freshman year and put up big years the last two falls.
“Grant, great leader on the team,” Wohler said.
Schoenrock, though, hurt his hand in a 42-40 loss to WaKeeney-Trego in Week 3. Oberle said Schoenrock was struggling with snaps and throwing the ball. Five weeks later, Victoria made the change and put Wohler at quarterback. Schoenrock played some spot time in the backfield. Then, veteran fullback Nate Windholz suffered injury and is out. Schoenrock took over at fullback.
Wohler has also dealt with right (throwing) hand issues. His hand was wrapped Friday. On one play late in the game, Wohler tackled Keiondre Smith with his left arm to protect his right hand.
“I am in a decent amount of pain. I mean, I broke my hand last year. Was out for most of the season, came back against Wheatland-Grinnell (in the state quarterfinals),” Wohler said. “Ever since then, it’s been banged up. It gets hit, hurts a little bit, but I push through it, and I have my guys with me. So they push me through it. I help them through it. We are all a big family here. I am hoping it’s just hurt. If it’s broken, I am still going to play. I am not going to stop playing with these guys. I am not going to give up on them now.”
Overall, Wohler finished with 57 yards of offense and a passing score. Schwien had a huge game with a receiving TD, and two fumble recoveries, including one off a kickoff that caromed right off a Caldwell player.
“Baseball taught me how to slide, so just kind of slid and got it,” Schwien said.
Caldwell’s Smith is on the short list for Eight-Man, Division II Offensive Player of the Year. He has more than 4,000 yards of total offense in the last two falls. Smith enjoyed a remarkable game with 12 of 21 passing for 312 yards and four TDs. He rushed 27 times for 83 yards and a TD. Caldwell outgained Victoria, 493-328. It marked the most points Victoria permitted in a win since a 68-56 road district win versus Beloit St. John’s/Tipton in Week 6 of 2014.
“We watched four game films on him, and he played lights out,” Oberle said. “But I was very pleased with how our guys responded. We got beat up a little bit, we were throwing some guys on the field in different spots, and they responded.”
Last season, Oberle called Werth “134 pounds of fury” to SIK. Werth consistently plays much bigger than his size and is one of eight-man’s most electrifying athletes. He finished with 24 carries for 181 yards and three scores, and returned a kickoff 64 yards. That broke a 36-36 tie after Caldwell had tallied 22 straight points.
“It’s a treat, and it’s an adventure,” Schoenrock said of his teammate. “You never know what’s going to happen with him.”
With 3:28 left in the third quarter, Wohler rolled out to his right and found Werth on a line drive nine-yard TD pass. That Victoria gave a 50-44 lead.
“He wasn’t supposed to be there, and that just says a lot about him, because he is going to play every play from snap to whistle,” Oberle said. “He plays hard. He is undersized. He’s a very confident young man. I don’t know if he knows how much he weighs, and I don’t think he cares, but Carson does a lot of good things for us. He’s a momentum changer for us on both sides of the ball, and he continues to play hard. He’s a fun kid to watch.”
The teams exchanged scores before Caldwell’s final drive. Victoria ran its NASCAR defense, a look the players enjoy. Victoria tries to have more speed in the look.
“We try to get as athletic as possible,” Oberle said.
With 37 seconds left on fourth down, Schwein chased Smith down the left and forced a wobbly incomplete pass. That elicited a wild Victoria celebration. Later as the postgame crowd thinned to just a few people, Oberle and a reporter’s conversation turned to the TMP game. Victoria had started an hour earlier than Hays High and TMP. Final result wasn’t yet known. A few minutes later, the scores were confirmed.
Ellis County went 3-0.