Football in Kansas: Navigating a high-expectation season through early losses, injuries and staying grateful en route to a title game

Coach Joel Applebee, 5-0 in title games, has strove to keep his teams grateful for each day, rather than solely focus on the big picture of state. (Photo by Todd and Lori Habiger)


Navigating a season with high expectations

Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee is 5-0 in state championship games, including the last three 5A titles. Applebee is in his 13th season with the Jaguars. He has more state titles without a defeat than any coach in Kansas history, per Kansas historian Brett Marshall.

Applebee completely re-set the standard for MV. Before his tenure, Mill Valley had won more than six games in a season twice in school history.

On Saturday, Mill Valley (11-1) will play Maize (12-0) for the Class 5A state championship game at Pittsburg State University. In the preseason, MV was ranked first, and Maize second. They have flip-flopped rankings entering Saturday in a virtual pick-‘em contest. MV’s expectation is to always compete for championships.

“This year was no different, and I think our kids understand that,” Applebee said. “One of the big things we’ve seen out of junior football program, those expectations are made earlier and earlier now with the coaches that are bought into what we want to do. But we don’t want to look at it as pressure.”

Once an administrator asked Applebee: What would you feel like if you guys lost a state championship? Applebee has long focused on his Jaguars enjoying each day, practice and weight room session – and enjoying achievements, not just a state title.

“I was like, ‘Well, obviously we are going to be down and upset a little bit, because we lost the game, but in the end we are going to celebrate that season like crazy,” Applebee said. “I mean, why wouldn’t you? You get second, you are going to celebrate it. Obviously, the goal is to get first, but you have to celebrate things, because these kids work too hard. They have to work. They work way too hard not to celebrate it.”

Applebee’s approach is one of multiple navigational tactics, tools and motivators used by the 18 remaining state championship qualifiers from Kansas’ nine classes: six-man to 6A.

Twelve No. 1 or No. 2 teams in the KPreps preseason poll reached a state final, the most in at least five years. Eight-Man, Division II Thunder Ridge was preseason No. 3, though was the West favorite. Since summer, coach Joel Struckhoff had a goal to qualify for the state title. On Monday, Struckhoff said it “feels amazing” to qualify his alma mater for the championship.

“Just a lot of things throughout this year,” Struckhoff said. “That good senior leadership that we have, a lot of those guys being starters from their freshman year on, and just finally getting to the final game for them.”

Take away 6A where Manhattan and Gardner-Edgerton were both unranked (non-top-five), then 13 of the 16 state participants were top-three in the preseason.

In 4A, Bishop Miege was preseason No. 2, and Wamego was not ranked. For 3A, Andale was ranked first, Holton second. In 2A, Nemaha Central was ranked second and Kingman fifth. In 1A, St. Marys was preseason No. 1, and Inman fifth.

In Eight-Man, Division I, Little River was preseason first, Leoti-Wichita County second. For Division II, Axtell was ranked first, Thunder Ridge third. For Six-Man, Cunningham and Ashland have been No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

Many of the No. 1/No. 2 schools have never won a state title or not earned one in many years. Maize’s only state appearance came last fall. St. Marys and Inman are a combined 0-4 all-time in finals. WC and Cunningham were state runner-ups last season and a collective 0-3 in state titles. Ashland has not captured a title since 1980.

“Honestly, it’s stressing,” Ashland coach Ben Fox said. “I have stressing these last couple weeks pretty hard, and I am really stressing this week, but it’s fun, that’s what we do it for, and makes life exciting.”

Particularly, Mill Valley, Maize, Thunder Ridge, and Little River are highly senior-laden.

SIK looks at how four teams: Little River, Thunder Ridge, Cunningham and Mill Valley navigated a high expectation season – and qualified for the state championship.

Coach Ayers’ Saturday morning film sessions

Little River coach Kevin Ayers follows the same film breakdown regimen each week. It’s helped lead the Redskins to three consecutive state title games. (Photo by Erin Wohletz, Little River Yearbook).

Little River is first and second in Eight-Man, Division I the last two years. Coach Kevin Ayers has 201 career victories. LR was the consensus preseason No. 1 team in August and returned all its skill players.

Ayers had to replace its three all-state offensive line starters. Ayers is fond of saying he likes putting the puzzle pieces together for his team. Among other changes, Little River switched Andrew Smith from cornerback to defensive end.

In Week 1, Little River lost, 66-36, to rival Canton-Galva, ranked second in Eight-Man, Division II all season. Since then, LR has rolled off 11 straight victories and allowed just 106 points.

For years, Ayers has followed the same schedule. Even he gets home late from a Friday game, Ayers is normally in his chair by 7 a.m. on Saturday. He has a little TV tray set up next to his chair and has a particular notebook. Ayers has a breakdown sheet and starts to watch the film.

At 8 a.m., Ayers turns on ESPN GameDay for some background noise. Ayers likes to watch the entire high school film first “to get a feel.”

First, Ayers jots down any idea that comes to his head: offense, defense, or special teams. He watches the film once. Then, he goes back and starts marking alignments and defensive formations against LR’s offensive formations. Ayers continues and begins to look at “their athletes and matchups against your athletes, how you want to block things.”

In addition to being the head coach, Ayers serves as Little River’s offensive coordinator. Chad Lafferty is the Redskins’ defensive coordinator. Ayers can focus a little more on the offense. Ayers tries to complete all his film Saturday to put his mind at ease.

Then, the coaches meet Sundays after church. As the season progresses, the coaches’ meeting is longer.

LR had a significant injury when senior lineman/linebacker Toby Jesseph, a team leader, went down in the state quarterfinals. Senior Grant Stephens has moved from defensive end to linebacker because of injury. He leads Kansas in sacks and tackles for loss.

The film study helped LR improve after the Canton-Galva loss. The coaching staff noted angles that needed improvement, and LR had the wrong blocking scheme against a particular front C-G shown. Ayers said LR’s players noticed “how improvement needed to happen.”

“In the grand scheme of things, it’s made us a lot better,” Ayers said.

Cunningham’s return to prominence

Lance McGuire has coached at Cunningham for more than 15 seasons.

“I don’t have to be in the big game all the time to enjoy coaching I guess, so I get both sides of the coin,” McGuire said.

Plus, McGuire has held multiple other roles, including track, junior high boys’ basketball and head girls’ basketball coach. McGuire has remained a Wildcat stalwart through all the ups and downs of Cunningham football.

“With this team, I think it’s both sides of the coin depending on the week, sometimes there is pressure and sometimes it’s a Ferrari, and just like, ‘We can kind of do what we want this week,’” McGuire said.

In 2008, Cunningham posted an 8-2 mark. Then, the Wildcats had four seasons between two and four victories. Cunningham did not have its own football team from 2015-18. The Wildcats restarted their program and posted 1-7, 6-2, 9-1 and 12-0 (including a bye).

Cunningham has made two state runner-ups, in 1975 and 2021. Outside of boys’ track, the Wildcats have never won an athletic state title.

“The expectation is high,” McGuire said. “I have had some those teams in basketball and football in the past where was the expectation was to stay healthy  and teach them something, and there is no parent issues, because the parents (are) just ‘Thank you for all you do, thank you for all you do, thank you for all you do, and so honestly, sometimes that’s some of the best coaching that I feel like I’ve ever done.”

“This squad, there’s weeks, that I told somebody or texted somebody (last Saturday), I could have probably sat in the stands, and just watched, and they could have called offense, they could have called defense, they probably could have subbed, and life could have probably been fine,” he added.

Thunder Ridge: Line changes up front

In 2011, Joel Struckhoff completed a record-breaking career as Thunder Ridge’s running back. TR went 13-0 and defeated Baileyville B&B in the championship. TR was 2012 state runner-up.

TR was winless in ’16 and won two games in ’17. Then, Struckhoff became head coach. The Longhorns are 5-4, 9-2, 5-4, 11-1 and 11-1. The Longhorns defeated No. 3 Victoria and No. 5 Dighton in the last two weeks.

TR had taken some tough playoff losses, including one-score defeats to Hutchinson Central Christian in ’19 and Axtell in ’20. Last year, the Longhorns had several drives come up empty in the red zone, and TR quarterback Dylan Bice suffered injury.

Dylan Bice, now a senoor, has cleared 4,000 passing and 4,000 rushing yards in his career. He scored on the first play from scrimmage against Dighton to set the tone.

“Just to finally break through in some of these close games, and have things finally go our way if you want to put it that way – or kids just playing better in tight situations maybe from experience from playing in those tight situations earlier in their career helped that,” Struckhoff said. “But man just feels good for those kids to finally get over the hump of some of those tough, physical-fought games.”

Dalton Bice, a key player, hurt his knee and missed the first two games. He was limited and still regaining conditioning in a 48-22 loss to Hill City in Week 3. Bice has been huge since and has 92 tackles with a team-high 16 for loss. Senior guard Hunter Gitchel (6-foot-2, 247) had missed two games. He is back for state. Sophomore Brayden Burge had never played varsity before, though filled in well at guard.

“We really feel that (Burge) can step into that position and play it to a T as well,” Struckhoff said. “So we trust those two guys.”

Mill Valley: Enjoying every day

With all of Mill Valley’s winning, Applebee has noticed a trend.

“One of the biggest things that I have seen with the success though is sometimes people take things for granted,” Applebee said.

Applebee knows the end goal is always in the back of players’ minds. But Mill Valley has significantly focused on each day.

“We talk to our kids quite a bit about how they need the enjoy the process, they need to love practice and just going out there and wanting to get better,” Applebee said.

Mill Valley opened with six straight dominant victories, including 40-0 against Olathe Northwest. ONW eventually earned a 6A state semifinal berth. In Week 7, MV lost, 20-16, to Olathe North. ON had two pick-sixes. Applebee is Mill Valley’s play caller.

“Honestly, all the credit in the world to Olathe North,” Applebee said. “They are a very, very good team, extremely athletic in the secondary. Just did a great job against us. I felt like me personally didn’t really call a great game and obviously any play you play you want to be able to execute. We didn’t execute real well offensively that night. Defense played outstanding that night, probably should have relied on them a little bit more.”

Applebee and Mill Valley, though, continued its success and has ranked as Kansas’ best 11-man defense the last four seasons, per Massey Ratings, a nationally recognized site that includes points allowed and strength of schedule. In five straight wins since the defeat, MV has not allowed a touchdown.

Mill Valley was the favorite against Blue Valley Southwest in the state semifinals.

“We try to keep the focus on how big a game, like last week, we talked about how big a game this is,” Applebee said. “We won’t have a next week if we focus on the next week. We have got to focus on this week and enjoy this and enjoy every single day, every practice, and if we come out on top, we are going to celebrate it. That’s got to take place. And our kids, they understand that.”

BVSW quarterback Dylan Dunn passed for 601 yards in the quarterfinals. MV scored on the game’s first play and won 63-0. Afterward, Mill Valley had a big celebration with the players, coaches, fans and student body. Applebee reminded his players: don’t take this for granted. MV has earned the win and should celebrate.

“Why wouldn’t you?,” Applebee said. “Because if you walk off the field, and only focusing one thing, and that’s winning a state championship, then I think you are in it for the wrong ways.”

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