By CONOR NICHOLL
JC Zahradnik had a couple of discussions once Jordan Moshier wasn’t going to return as Chaparral’s head football coach for the 2021 season.
Zahradnik, a Chaparral alum, former Butler County CC player, and assistant football coach, first talked with his family. He and his wife have four children, the youngest who is two. The Zahradniks, aware of moves that most head coaches have, loves the community and wanted to stay for awhile.
Zahradnik then talked to Jody Iams and Joel Gerber, both former head coaches. Zahradnik, who had never been a head coach, asked the duo to be his coordinators and help him learn. They agreed.
Zahradnik said he was “super fortunate” to have the experienced pair. Gerber runs the offense, Iams the defense. Notably, Iams coached at Claremore Sequoyah (Okla.) for 17 years and won a 2006 state title. Gerber led Chaparral in the early and late ’00s.
In March, Zahradnik took over as head coach. Known for his passion, Zahradnik has started and ended all team activities with the same mantra: work hard and be tough, so “we can become our best selves.” He has upped numbers and developed servant leaders. This summer, Chaparral had 59 players in grades 7-12 perform a collective 338 hours of community service.
Schematically, Zahradnik wanted to change offenses. Moshier and his dad, Scott, were long known for the single wing at several schools, especially Meade. Chaparral posted 4-5 and 2-6 records the last two years. In the final four games of 2020, the Roadrunners tallied two points.
Chaparral took inventory of its personnel and looked at a new offense. The Roadrunners knew it had plenty of skill players and wanted to find an offense where it could spread the ball around.
“We are not really big up front,” Zahradnik said. “And so we are going to have a hard time playing smashmouth football.”
Iams told Chaparral they had to reach out to coach Jared McCoy, who leads Metro Christian Academy in Tulsa. Iams coached against McCoy for many years. McCoy runs a wide-open spread attack with big offensive line splits. Zahradnik said “one of the biggest fear factors” was the line splits that are three to five yards apart.
“There’s no way this is going to work,” Zahradnik said. “But Metro Christian has had tons of success.”
Zahradnik said McCoy has been “phenomenal” to work with. Chaparral went down and spent a few days with him and his staff looking at the offense and watching some practices. McCoy and Gerber talk on the phone every week, including formations and situations.
“We have got to give huge props to Coach McCoy,” Zahradnik said.
Chaparral’s offense involves a lot of short screens and bubble screens. The Roadrunners watch the high-flying offenses in college and NFL and have quickly bought into the new look.
Plus, Chaparral returned a bevy of tall receivers, experienced linemen and added senior quarterback Wyatt Drouhard and junior Aiden Guy, two players not on Chaparral’s roster last year. The change has yielded a surprise 5-0 start behind the high-octane passing attack.
The Roadrunners started the season outside the top-10 in 2A. Now, Chaparral is ranked fourth and has outscored teams, 178-43. As the season crosses halfway, Chaparral is one of several teams that have significantly improved offense or defense. Notably, in Class 1A, Wabaunsee is 4-1 behind a much improved defense and is a victory away from the program’s first winning season since 1997.
Six-man Northern Valley, Eight-Man, Division II Bucklin, Eight-Man, Division I Kinsley, 6A Garden City and 6A Lawrence Free State have all been teams with impressive turnarounds on at least one side of the ball. Northern Valley stands at 4-1 and ranked No. 3 in Six-Man.
Bucklin (5-0) and Kinsley (4-1) are already close to their best seasons since the ‘90s. GC was 3-6 last season, 4-1 this year after it installed the flexbone. Free State had a COVID-19 wrecked winless year in 2020 and currently is 4-1. Pratt is 4-1 and averages 47.8 points a game behind a newly installed single wing.
Zahradnik has even been surprised, and the team has re-calibrated new goals in wide-open 2A West.
Chaparral opened with a 36-0 win at Wichita Trinity, beat Hutchinson Trinity, 22-14, in Week 2 and earned the marquee home win, 41-21, versus Garden Plain last week. GP has been ranked fifth in 2A most of the fall.
Last year, the Roadrunners tallied 124 points all fall. In 2020, Chaparral threw for 581 yards on 42 percent with five touchdowns against 12 interceptions. The Roadrunners ran the ball 58 percent of the time. Last season, the Owls beat Chaparral, 37-0.
Chaparral’s line includes senior Dalton Blair, junior Eli Gates, junior Carson Gates, and junior Ely Jackson. They allowed one sack against Garden Plain. GP, long known for its defense, sent between four to six Owls each play.
This marked the most points Chaparral has scored against GP in at least the last 18 meetings, per the Kansas Football History database.
“Our junior class and our senior class, our core group there, they really started about January this last year, they really took it upon themselves, of they decided, ‘Hey, we are tired of getting kicked in the teeth,’” Zahradnik said. “And beat up. And they started hitting the weight room hard multiple times a day, three, four times a week, and we turned that into having the most productive, most highly attended summer we’ve had in as long as I’ve been here.”
This season, Drouhard, known for his baseball pitching, came out for football for the first time since eighth grade. He has completed 81 of 128 for passes for 1,208 yards with 17 scores against three interceptions. Chaparral has thrown on 59 percent of plays.
“I have got to be probably the luckiest guy in the world,” Zahradnik said.
Drouhard started to come to weights when summer started. Drouhard also worked with Zahradnik to help mow Chaparral’s baseball field this summer.
A couple weeks into weights, Zahradnik asked Drouhard if he was going to play football this year. Drouhard said he was “thinking about it.” Drouhard stuck around with the football team after weights and mainly played receiver. In mid-July, Drouhard came to Zahradnik and said he would like to play quarterback. Drouhard was one of several Roadrunners to join the program after not playing in 2020.
“At that point in time, we were letting anybody go wherever they wanted to go,” Zahradnik said.
In fall camp, Drouhard and junior Jackson Swartz, the incumbent, were battling for the starting quarterback position. Chaparral considered both signal callers fairly equal. Since early summer, Swartz was highly interested in playing receiver, too.
For Week 1, Chaparral elected to use Drouhard as the starting quarterback. Zahradnik called Drouhard’s season “pretty special.” Chaparral’s offense generally has one read, based on film study and the defense. The ball is out quickly, so the receivers can work in space.
Zahradnik said the team’s run game is essentially quick passes, similar to wide trap/sweep plays. Chaparral is fine with taking the underneath route every play and emphasizes getting five yards each snap.
“He is a phenomenal young man,” Zahradnik said. “That he’s the guy you want at quarterback. First one out to practice, last one to leave. Picks up after everybody, constantly just positive with his teammates and encouraging them, and then on top of all that, he can throw a pretty football.”
Plus Chaparral has three tall receivers in Swartz, junior Jack Francis and senior Kaden Harding. They have been able to catch a number of 50/50 balls. Swartz is 6-4, 150. Francis is 5-7, 145. He is a returning second team all-league defensive back and the Roadrunners’ most decorated player entering 2021. Harding is 6-3, 160.
Swartz has 19 carries for 463 yards and four touchdowns. Francis paces with 12 catches for 169 yards and three scores. Harding has 16 catches for 219 yards and five TDs. Senior tight end Alex Pfaff stands 6-4, 205 and has seven catches for 73 yards. Rushing-wise, Guy has 30 carries for 171 yards and two scores. Junior Austin Clark has 31 carries for 300 yards and four TDs.
Guy returns after he grew up in Chaparral, moved to Medicine Lodge and then came back. Zahradnik called Guy “a huge bonus.” Guy plays inside linebacker on defense, which helped some personnel move down to defensive line. Chaparral has accumulated depth and tries to have three players for every two positions. Guy leads Chaparral with 45 tackles. Blair and Jackson pace with 8.5 tackles for loss. Francis has already picked off four passes, including three versus Garden Plain.
After Garden Plain, a milestone win for the program, Zahradnik believed Chaparral still have a higher ceiling in wide-open 2A West. Chaparral is currently the highest ranked team on the West side, a group that includes Hoisington, Beloit, Garden Plain, Kingman, Cimarron and Thomas More Prep-Marian. The Roadrunners posted nine-win seasons in ’14 and ’16 under former coach Justin Burke, though the program has not made it past the quarterfinals since ’89.
“A lot of guys Friday night found out that they could go a lot harder than they thought they could go,” Zahradnik said. “…Just the excitement and enthusiasm that those boys are getting to experience because of what they’ve done in the dark while nobody is watching, I am just happy.”
Wabaunsee enters with high expectations, a win away from school history behind improved defense that has one senior starter
Wabaunsee coach Jess Rutledge talked with his returning 2021 players as soon as last year ended. Rutledge didn’t want to shy away from what this fall could yield. Wabaunsee has had some quality football teams in the past but has not posted a winning record since 1997.
Last year, Wabaunsee finished 4-6 and won a Week 9 bracket game, the school’s first playoff win in 37 years. In Rutledge’s eyes, the Chargers started to see the hard work started to pay off.
Wabaunsee returned senior Cade Oliver, the program’s record holder in all passing categories. Plus, Tate Deever recorded 75 tackles as a freshman, and Maverick Havenstein delivered 72 stops. Zach Frank, Eli Oliver and Brayden Meseke all returned after they each picked off two passes.
“There’s no reason dancing around it,” he said. “Like hey, expectations will be high, and we have to do everything we can as athletes and as coaches to continue to push ourselves, so when this season is ultimately done, we can look back and be very proud of what we accomplished. But we have to put in the work, we have to stay focused and we have to continue to get better every single day.”
In basketball, Rutledge is an assistant coach. Many of the key football players play basketball. The Chargers opened 1-10, and then made a surprise Class 2A state runner-up finish to Hillsboro in an eight-point loss. Afterward, Rutledge told Wabaunsee that hoisting a state championship trophy was “a realistic expectation.”
As well, Rutledge had his usual postseason look at himself. Also the team’s defensive coordinator, Rutledge makes a list at the end of each year. He focuses on what didn’t work and how could he fix it.
“Last year, I just tried to overcomplicate things too much,” Rutledge said.
Rutledge talked to around 15 coaches from around the state to gather ideas and improve.
“What I kept hearing was don’t try to force the scheme onto your kids,” Rutledge said. “Especially at the high school level, install a scheme that’s flexible and that will fit not only with your players, but like what you are going to see opposition-wise week to week. Like the fewer moving pieces, the better.”
Wabaunsee has run a 4-3 defense and focused on basic core principles: staying assignment sound, read keys, doing your job and trusting the other 10 players. The Chargers switched to a 4-3 last year and stayed with the defense this season. Wabaunsee started multiple freshmen on defense in 2020.
“More rules and read keys as opposed to every week, everybody has this call,” Rutledge said. “…Get in our defense, know your read keys, know your assignments and do your job, and they have responded amazingly to that. I am very proud of the way that we have played defensively thus far.”
Wabaunsee, a 1A KPreps Potential Breakout Team in the preseason, has produced a 4-1 start. The Chargers opened with a 28-0 road win versus Mission Valley, the program’s first Week 1 win since 2005. Then, Wabaunsee beat Uniontown 17-6 on the road. After a 10-6 home loss to Troy, Wabaunsee beat Jackson Heights, 22-8, on the road. JH defeated Troy by 23 points in Week 5. Last week, the Chargers beat Valley Heights, 28-12.
This week, Wabaunsee has a key home district game versus Jefferson County North (3-2, 2-1), followed by winless Horton and then another big game versus Centralia, currently ranked No. 5 in 1A. District 2 has five teams with winning records, four will make the playoffs.
Especially in the signature win against Jackson Heights, the Chargers really focused on corralling JH’s key players. Wabaunsee beat JH for the first time since ’16, and VH the first time since ’15. Rutledge continued to ask the players “How are you going to respond to adversity?” after the Troy loss. Wabaunsee fell down 8-0 early to Jackson Heights.
“I was just incredibly impressed with their resolve and the fight that our guys had for the other three quarters to come out of that game with a win,” Rutledge said.
Overall, Wabaunsee allowed 33.1 points a game in 2020, including 31 a contest in first five games. Thus far, the Chargers have allowed 7.2 points per contest, fifth-best in 1A, per Prep Power Index.
“That rep, what’s right in front of you,” Rutledge said. “That’s your focal point, and then when we get to Friday, no different. One play at a time, one series at a time, quarter, half.”
Just one senior starts on defense. Most of the Chargers have played together since third grade on. The current sophomores went 5-2 in eighth grade with close losses to Riley County and Silver Lake.
Wabaunsee has five total seniors, four who started when Rutledge took over as head coach in 2018.
“This was always the group that had a lot of potential,” Rutledge said. “And they are definitely showcasing that right now, offense and defense and special teams. I mean, I don’t know if there’s a single sophomore that doesn’t play for us, so it’s a good class. But honestly, we have four really solid classes.”
This year, Deever, the middle linebacker, paces the defense with 61 tackles. Havenstein is one of Kansas’ most productive defensive tackles with 53 stops, six for loss. Known for his intelligence and quiet demeanor, Havenstein, around 5-9, 220, recently earned induction into the National Honor Society. He plays low and is very strong and physical.
“He’s a kid that you tell him one time to do something, and he does it,” Rutledge said.
Junior Bryton Reves has 54 tackles, and junior Lanson Parry has 30. Senior Aiden Boeckman has 30 tackles.
Rutledge, a Mission Valley graduate, significantly credited his squad and said he’s been “unbelievably proud” of the Chargers. Clark and Eli Oliver have each picked off two passes. Overall, Wabaunsee already has 32 tackles for loss. The Chargers finished with 33.5 TFLs all last year.
The defensive ends are Parry and 6-4 junior Ryan Schutter. Parry is a second-year starter, Schutter first. Havenstein has been a two and a half year starter after he took over midway through his freshman season. He and sophomore Alex Beggs start at defensive tackle. Beggs started the majority of the ’20 games.
Deever, a sophomore, also started the whole season as a freshman. Frank, a sophomore outside linebacker, started about half the year in 2020. Reves switched from the secondary to outside linebacker, a more natural position.
“He’s not the biggest player on the team,” Rutledge said of Reves. “But man he can sure stick some people.”
Eli Oliver (6-2, 155) is a returning cornerback. Eli, Cade and Abby Oliver are all siblings. Abby, a former SIK 2A Basketball Player of the Year, has started 21 games the last two seasons for Washburn basketball.
“There’s not many 1A schools that are going to have a 6-2 corner,” Rutledge said. “So I feel like that gives us a really big advantage.”
Sophomore Wyatt Wurtz, who Rutledge said has played “really, really well” starts at the other cornerback and serves as the backup quarterback. Cade Oliver was dinged Week 2 and is mainly just playing offense. Meseke has rotated through free safety and cornerback this year. Junior Logan Clark (6-1, 170) returns at strong safety.
“It’s exciting to see a lot of talent spread out through those four grades,” Rutledge said. “Gives us a lot of more options than what we’ve had in the past.”
Other top offensive and/or defensive turnarounds across the state
Garden City, profiled on SIK last week, is 4-1 with its change to the flexbone. GC has averaged 28.8 points a game after 17.4 a contest last year. Running back Colin Kleysteuber paces with 76 carries for 377 yards and six scores. Senior Kaden Whitehurst has anchored the line.
Last week, Free State beat Mill Valley, 41-20, which ended MV’s 11-game winning streak. FS has averaged 33.4 points a game after 15.7 a year ago. Quarterback Jet Dineen accounted for 292 yards of total offense.
Wichita Heights is 3-2 and has averaged 39.6 points a contest. Heights brought back all of its top skill players from 2020 and switched to a more spread offense. Junior D.J. Dingle has completed 48 of 78 passes for 859 yards with 11 scores against two interceptions. He has rushed 49 times for 337 yards and four scores.
Junior John Randle, with multiple Division I offers, has 62 carries for 649 yards and seven TDs. Seniors Adrian Patterson and Chase Harris have combined for seven receiving scores. Heights has thrown on 32 percent of snaps, a huge uptick from last year.
Last year, Heights averaged 32.3 points per game in a season that started late because of COVID-19. The Falcons threw the ball on 13.8 percent of snaps in 2020. Dingle has much improved as a passer after he completed 20 of 45 passes for 263 yards with two scores against three interceptions.
Mulvane is 3-2 after one win a season a year ago. The Wildcats averaged 131 points and averaged 26.2 points a game. Behind QB Mason Ellis and WR Hunter Seier, Mulvane has thrown for 916 yards. The defense has allowed 77.4 passing yards a game with three TDs against seven interceptions.
Like Chaparral, Mulvane has benefited greatly from Ellis and Trent Moses. Ellis was hurt nearly all of last season, and Moses, a quality wrestler and golfer, is playing football this season. Mulvane scored 71 points and had five losses by at least 40 points in ’20.
Eight-Man, Division I
Kinsley is 4-1 and has more than halved its scoring defense from last year. Kinsley went 5-4 and permitted 43.8 points a game in 2020. The Coyotes, which has a key game versus La Crosse this week, has permitted 21.8 points a game in 2021.
Kinsley has permitted 4.2 yards per rush. The Coyotes have held opponents to a collective 26 of 80 passing for 334 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions. Six players have combined for 20.5 tackles for loss: senior Tysen Schmitt, senior Alex Garcia, and sophomores Conner Chamberlain, Dylan Haselhorst, Levi Taylor, and Kaden Arensman. Sophomore Cason Lemuz picked off a pass in last week’s key 28-23 comeback win versus Pratt Skyline.
Eight-Man, Division II
Bucklin continues to be one of the top storylines in Kansas under coach Trever Powell. On Friday, Bucklin (5-0, 2-0) plays host to Minneola (3-1, 2-0). Among non-six man players, Minneola has the state’s leading rusher in yards per game in sophomore Eli Lang. He has averaged 251 yards a contest.
Bucklin allowed 40 points a contest last season and has permitted 15.6 a game this year. The Red Aces beat Spearville, 22-6, in Week 1, and Satanta, 26-6, last week. It’s the first time since 2002 that Bucklin has scored under 28 points in two games – and won both.
Bucklin allowed Satanta to 4 of 17 passing for 56 yards with zero touchdowns against two interceptions. Sophomore Drew Ellis had a huge game with 10 tackles, 6.5 for loss. Senior Scott Price had 12 tackles, and sophomore Andrew Bowman delivered 12 stops with 2.5 TFLs. Ellis and sophomore Waylon Dolezal finished with two sacks apiece. Ellis was injured last year.
Bucklin already has 37 tackles for loss, including 9.5 from Ellis, nearly double what it delivered in 10 games in 2020. The Red Aces finished with 20.5 tackles for loss last year.
Bucklin has allowed one passing touchdown all season. In its four closest games, Bucklin’s pass defense has held opponents to a collective 16 of 46 for 186 yards with a TD against five interceptions.
Northern Valley stands at 4-1 and has already doubled its win total from last year’s 2-5 record. NV allowed 44.9 points a game last season. The Huskies have permitted 17.8 points a contest this year.