Football in Kansas: Round of 16 Darkhorses paced by Hays High, Andover, Norwich, Hoxie


Fourth-year Hays High football coach Tony Crough has always had acute knowledge of statistical records, historical milestones and the Indians’ place in Class 5A West. For the last several years, Crough has discussed Hays High accomplishing school history.

In 2019, Hays High defeated Goddard-Eisenhower in a Week 9 bracket game and finished 4-6. Last year, HHS finished 5-3 and lost in Week 9 to Maize South at home. Last week, the Indians beat Goddard-Eisenhower, 19-13, when Jaren Kanak, battling a hamstring injury, scored from a yard out in the final seconds at Fort Hays’ Lewis Field Stadium.

“We weren’t going to deny him that right,” Crough said. “If he pulls his hamstring, he pulls his hamstring. There’s not going to be a next week anyways. And so, we wanted to give him that chance, and yeah, you could see it man, he was determined.”

Hays High improved to 7-2, the fourth straight year the Indians have improved their victory total.

“That was just a weight room, get nasty, get tough play right there,” Kanak said. “And we just got it in there.”

Crough is aware that, since 1923, the Indians have had nine squads that have played at least 10 games. On Friday, Hays High travels to Andover (7-2) in a Class 5A West Round of 16 contest. Andover ranks second in 5A in scoring defense with 104 points allowed, one behind Kapaun Mt. Carmel. Class 5A West might be the most parity-driven of any classification.

From 1991-2020, Hays High has won eight games once, in 2011.

“The top-10 or 11 or 12 ball teams on this side, who knows?,” Crough said. “I mean, it’s a crap shoot.”

A win for either squad gives historical ramifications for both programs. A win bumps Andover in the state quarterfinals for the second time since ’01. HHS last made the quarterfinals in ’95. Only two Indian squads have ever reached past the quarterfinals. The 1984 and ’93 squads made the semifinals. Those teams played 11 contests.

“Nobody has played 12,” Crough said. “And so that’s a goal for our kids.”

Hays High and Andover highlight this year’s SIK Round of 16 playoff darkhorses. Last season, SIK noted 2A Beloit as a darkhorse. Beloit eventually reached the state semifinals as a sub-.500 team.  

The Round of 16 features 128 squads left in Kansas from Class 6A to Eight-Man, Division II. Forty of those squads are ranked. Several others, including 6A Olathe North, 4A’s McPherson and Mulvane, Eight-Man, Division I’s Hill City and WaKeeney-Trego, and Division II’s Wheatland-Grinnell and Hanover have been ranked at points this year.

Outside of those squads, SIK lists at least one darkhorse candidate for each classification, a group that includes 2A Thomas More Prep-Marian and Eight-Man, Division II Norwich.

“It has been a lot with our class,” Hays High senior lineman Gavin Nutting said. “Coach Crough has been my coach my whole starting four years, and I am going to be his first four-year class. So we feel like we owe him a lot. He has turned this program around, and we feel like we owe him a state championship, or at least to take him as far as we can.”


Both Hays High and Eisenhower had fought injuries. HHS missed several kicks, and Eisenhower dropped touchdown passes and had a bad snap on fourth-and-goal.

“That’s playoff football,” Crough said. “When both teams are scrapping, there’s going to be mistakes. And it’s not always going to be pretty. If we want to win some bigger games, it’s probably going to have to get prettier, but that’s playoff football. Two teams are trying to advance.”

Kanak, the state’s top recruit and Clemson commit, is bothered by a hamstring and had one carry in the first half. At halftime, Kanak told the coaches “I can go.” He wanted the ball to secure the win in a close game. Crough said it was “time to turn him loose.”

He took snaps from sophomore center Henry Fitzthum, who had played little. Crough said Fitzthum delivered a strong performance. Nutting is a four-year starter and has helped Fitzthum.

“It’s a lot of having to remind him that it’s mental,” Nutting said. “Me and him made a small mental error together on one of our passing protections, and then we called it again later that game, and I was just like, ‘Hey, it’s the same play. We’ve got to get it this time.’ And he got it, and we ended up completing a pass that time, which was the difference and got us a first down.”

Kanak finished with 12 carries for 88 yards with all but three attempts coming in the fourth quarter. Hays High did not complete a pass on the final drive. Kanak had a huge 28-yard run on 3rd-and-11. On the next play, senior running back Roy Moroni went for 21 yards.

“Hamstring is kind of a tedious injury,” Kanak said. “So we have kind of just been playing it by ear, but this could have been the last game of the season, so just kind of had to tough it out, and get in there and do what we had to do. … “I got adrenaline, so I will say I feel fine.”

Overall, Kanak paces the Western Athletic Conference with 1,224 rushing yards.

“Even though his not full speed looks a little bit faster than everybody else, so he wanted the ball, and so we gave to him,” Crough said.

Moroni, with significant NAIA interest, is second with 913 rushing yards. Malik Bah has rushed for 530 yards. Kanak, in his first year as the starting quarterback, has completed 51 percent of his passes for 866 yards with 12 scores against six interceptions, per HHS broadcaster/WAC statistician Dustin Armbruster. Senior Gavin Meyers, HHS’ all-time leading tackler, paces the league with 100 tackles.

Andover has permitted 104 points, one behind Kapaun Mt. Carmel for the 5A lead. Andover won more than five games for the first time since a 6-4 mark in 2016, Crough’s lone season leading the Trojans. Before then, Andover last won seven games in a 7-2 season in ’14.

Andover has been incredibly dominating on defense again. The Trojans have allowed 163 yards per game and 2.5 rushing yards a carry. Andover has allowed just four rushing touchdowns. The Trojans have also scored four non-offensive TDs. Notably, standout Chandler Goodnight and Matt Rudy have pick-sixes. Overall, Andover’s passing defense has held teams to 84 of 213 passing for 847 yards with eight scores against 13 INTs, per Hudl statistics/SIK research. Max Middleton has cleared 1,000 rushing yards.


Norwich, Eight-Man, Division II: Next to the 5A matchup, Norwich might be Kansas’ biggest darkhorse. The Eagles have not made the quarterfinals since 2008. Norwich faces league rival South Barber. In Week 2 of 2020 and this year, the Eagles have beaten SB by two points.

Norwich went 4-5 and allowed 42.2 points a game. This year, the Eagles are 5-2 and allowed just 22.3 points a contest. Norwich has battled some turmoil, tragedy when the season started, has missed games because of COVID-19 and dealt with injuries. Last week, Norwich played for the first time in three weeks with a 38-12 road win versus Sylvan-Lucas.

While sophomore quarterback Tray Schroeder has had a big year, Norwich has several excellent players, including senior ends Chance Hilger and Jace Gosch. This season, Hilger has 53 tackles, seven TFLs and two sacks, according to Hudl boxscores/SIK research.

Gosch has 40 tackles. Offensively, he combined for more than 300 yards of offense in key games versus Caldwell and Sylvan-Lucas. Judson Hibbs has quietly delivered a superb statistical season. He has double-digit TFLs and/or sacks in four games. Dax Rosenhagen and Braden Voyles have posted several big games. Rosenhagen had three TFLs in Sylvan-Lucas. Voyles has had a 15-tackle game.

Norwich is in the bottom half of the Eight-Man, Division II West bracket. In the other game, Bucklin travels to Wheatland-Grinnell. If Bucklin wins, it’s the Red Aces most victories since before 1996. A victory gives W-G its most wins in school history.


Class 6A: Olathe Northwest (6-3) faces Olathe North (7-2) for the second time this year. North won 35-13 in the first matchup this season. NW has its much-improved defense that has permitted 20.8 points a game. Last year, Northwest permitted 20.4 points a contest. Two seasons ago, it was 40.7 points allowed a contest.

The North game was actually much closer than the final score. North led 21-13 after the third quarter. Overall, North was just plus-41 in total yards. Northwest ran 15 more plays. Ryan Kawaoka rushed 24 times for 88 yards. Defensive lineman Jayden Oquendo, with FCS offers, continued his big year with seven tackles, two TFLs.

Class 4A: Paola is 6-3 and has dealt with injuries/COVID to its two best backs: Jovanni Blackie and Caden Rhamy. However, both players are now back for the tradition-laden Panthers. Paola has won four in a row since an overtime loss to Wamego. Paola gets KC Piper, who they beat 24-19 on Oct. 8. Paola is the darkhorse in 4A East, which is more closely packed this year. Eudora (5-4) is a team with losses many are not talking about. They knocked off a very solid previously unbeaten Spring Hill team two weeks ago. Sean Hayden and the Cardinals take on Atchison this week in which they will be favored in

Class 3A: All season, SIK has tracked Rock Creek. RC (6-3) has a challenging matchup with Topeka Hayden (8-1), but the winner could be the 3A East representative, however it is a loaded path to get there with the likes of Holton and the teams that await in Southeast Kansas. Rock Creek has its bevy of receivers, including Daegan Vinduska and Yanci Spiller. Quarterback Dalton Whitworth has thrown for a school record 2,333 yards. Plus, RC has a great coach in Shane Sieben. Many of the 3A East contenders are run-heavy, defensive squads. Rock Creek brings a different style. Hayden has not been ranked all season, though has averaged 36 points a contest. This is the first all-time matchup between the pair, per Kansas Football History database. Parsons (7-2) under Jeff Schibi is also a very dangerous team to keep an eye on as they take on unbeaten Girard (9-0). Parsons knocked off Prairie View last week after losing to them by multiple touchdowns in week three. The Vikings are young but they’ve been so impressive over the last five weeks. Girard itself may be a bit of a darkhorse as it had a losing season a year ago and now unbeaten at 9-0 for the first time in 22 years.

Class 2A: St. Marys (5-3) on the East, Beloit (6-3) and Thomas More Prep-Marian (7-2) in West. St. Marys has received plenty of attention for its close losses and 0-3 start to open the year before five straight wins. That included a 29-28 loss to Silver Lake in Week 2. Those teams match up again. Beloit started slowly and fell out of rankings. However, the experienced group, paced by QB Owen Eilert, RB Benson Berndt and its great offensive line, is 5-1 in the last six games with just a 7-6 loss to Hoisington. TMP is at Hoisington. The Monarchs have won its first playoff game since ’02. Quarterback Kade Harris is healthier, and the Monarchs have weapons on the outside with Jace Wentling and Andrew Schwartz, plus its much improved defensive line. TMP has four shutouts this season. Hillsboro (8-1) we also consider a darkhorse but has a very tough opponent in Chaparral. Nobody seems to be talking about the Trojans out of the CKL League. They are paced to Matthew Potucek and Jamari Harris. Demetrius Cox has done a great job with this program in 2021 as they dominated competition through districts.

Class 1A: Centralia (6-2) fell out of the rankings after a 45-40 loss to Wabaunsee in Week 8. The Panthers, though, have plenty of playoff runs and could give Olpe the biggest challenge on the East side.

Eight-Man, Division I: A lot of possibilities, but Hoxie (6-3) is the pick. The Indians missed standout Derek Johnson on defense this year and dealt with a key early injury. Last week, Hoxie won, 66-58, at Wichita County. In Week 1, Hoxie lost, 56-6, to Wichita County. This week, Hoxie is at Hill City. A month ago, HC defeated Hoxie, 61-40, for the district title. At least one coach has called Hoxie senior quarterback Ashton Dowell perhaps the most accurate passer in Division I. He has completed 115 of 194 passes for 1,779 yards for 28 scores against five interceptions.

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