By CONOR NICHOLL
RUSSELL – Seven years ago, Russell had a fifth-grade team in the Central Kansas Football League. The conference generally consists of multiple Salina area teams. Russell finished 7-0, a highly rare undefeated football squad for the town. The fifth graders defeated the Salina Cardinals for the title. Russell believed the group could enjoy great success as high school seniors.
The group was strong in seventh grade and lost just one game, a close contest, to Southeast of Saline. Many of those SES players are current seniors for a team ranked No. 1 in 2A.
Wyatt Middleton played quarterback in seventh and eighth grade.
“In eighth grade, not everyone went out,” Middleton said.
Russell slipped to two wins.
Until 2022, eighth grade marked the last season of football for Cameron Farmer. The 2019 Russell high school squad featured just 29 players, a very small number for a 3/4A school.
This continued a longtime trend for the Broncos. Russell had long lacked numbers, and even top athletes, including sprint/hurdle state track medalists, either didn’t play football or changed schools. RHS has continually rotated through football coaches, athletic director, principal and superintendent. Dave King, now at Phillipsburg, coached from ’06-12. Since then, Russell has had six head coaches. RHS has new high school principal and superintendent this year.
Entering this fall, Russell had not had a winning season since 2003 or won a state playoff game since 1979. Russell had not hosted a playoff game since ’03 either.
In 2019, Russell had just a couple of freshmen. Middleton moved to running back. Jacob Ney, Brayden Strobel and Charles Krug, freshmen on that squad, saw limited snaps on a one-win team for then-coach Otis Hendryx.
The following season, Russell again captured one victory. Krug elected to run cross country. Jace Peerman, known for his athleticism and jumping ability, came back out for football. Middleton switched to receiver and paced Russell with 16 catches. Peerman caught three passes.
In 2021, Mark Baldwin took over as head coach. Christien Ozores, a former all-state defensive back at Junction City and Fort Hays player, came on staff as the defensive coordinator.
In September of the ’21 season, I received a message from a coach who was familiar with Russell.
In part, it read: “(Ozores) going to be a really good head FB coach in the future.” Ozores helped the Broncos finish 4-5. Russell allowed 24.9 points per game, its best scoring defense since ’10.
Ozores also served on Russell’s basketball and baseball staffs. He quickly built relationships with the players. Ozores convinced boys to come out. In March, Ozores was named head football coach. Ozores changed the offense for ’22 and moved Middleton back to quarterback.
“Our coaching staff, coach O, he really recruited them,” Middleton said. “Like a college player, to come out, and could really help the team out. He’s (spends) countless hours on film. He watches probably 10-15 hours of film every week. Every time we see him, he is watching film.”
By normal attrition, a freshman class nearly always has fewer players when the group becomes seniors. In Russell’s case, that flipped. RHS gained players. After just a few freshmen in ’19, the Broncos currently has 11 seniors, many whom were on the undefeated fifth grade team.
Krug, who eventually came back to football, has offers from Ottawa and Bethel. Strobel has a Bethel offer.
“At the smaller school, you have got to recruit kids in your school,” Ozores said. “You need those kids to come out.”
In the summer, Russell was a KPreps Potential Breakout Team and projected to have a winning record. However, the Broncos have accomplished much more. Last Friday, Russell won the school’s first playoff game in 43 years with a 58-7 running clock home victory versus Cimarron in a Class 2A Week 9 bracket play contest at Shaffer Field.
“We have a lot of really good senior leaders right now,” Ozores said.
Russell was aware of the history before the contest. Once the game ended, the players came onto the field. Ozores, without saying a word, quickly motioned the players and student body to run off the field – and go ring the victory bell just beyond the football field fence. More than 100 players and students went over.
Russell’s only previous postseason victories came in three playoff wins en route to a 1979 state runner-up finish. The Cimarron win marked Russell’s most points since a 64-8 win versus Belleville in the ’09 season opener, per Kansas Football History.
“We don’t want to harp on it too much,” Ozores said. “But I think it is important to say, ‘This hasn’t happened in 43 years, so this is a special moment, you need to handle it like you should handle it.’ It is an exciting time, and this hasn’t happened in a long time. Hosting a playoff game hasn’t happened in a long time either.”
It’s a scene that played out at many schools across Kansas in late October and early November. It’s a scene that hadn’t occurred at Russell in a long time.
Russell improved to 6-3 and has won three straight. That includes a 7-0 win versus Phillipsburg in Week 7 and a big 42-19 road victory versus Norton in Week 8 that clinched the Week 9 home game.
Russell, Norton and Smith Center all beat each other and tied for first place with one loss for the Mid-Continent League title. By winning percentage and head-to-head, Russell clinched the title. Along with Ozores, Russell has a young coaching staff with Luke Keller, Cody Casey, Chris Vankooten and Wyatt Lanning.
“It’s just trust, and just being honest,” Ozores said. “Some coaches at the college level or any level, they might lie to you or whatever, but I think just being honest, and I think the kids see that you work hard, and if you are work hard as a coach, they are going to work hard for you.”
Norton had defeated Russell, 40-0, last year. In a series that started in 1981, Russell was 0-13 against Norton before Week 8. Versus Cimarron, Russell scored three touchdowns on its first six plays and blocked a punt.
“We were really mentally prepared all week,” Ozores said. “We didn’t want this to be a letdown after last week’s big win, and I think kids and staff did a really good job of just staying focused, and locked in all week.”
On Friday, Russell travels south to neighboring Barton County and plays Hoisington (7-3) in a highly anticipated Class 2A Round of 16 contest. In the last six years, Hoisington has three final fours and a state runner-up. Russell has not beaten Hoisington since 2002.
Russell has enjoyed across the board improvement in 2022.
“We have been down,” senior receiver Jackson Cross said. “This is my second year of football, and coach O has really changed our culture, and we all want to play for him.”
Last season, RHS completed 41 percent of its passes for 427 yards with four scores against seven interceptions. Middleton again was the top receiver with 13 catches in a multi-purpose role.
In the spring before the ’21 season, Russell was doing a pop fly drill for baseball. Ozores told Cross, “You’ll be doing this in the fall,” referring to catching passes. Cross said, “All right, well, let’s go then.” Helped by Ozores, Cross rejoined football and caught eight passes.
“That’s really what sparked it,” Cross said.
Peerman has always been a high-level athlete. He won 3A state high jump as a sophomore and fifth as a junior. Ozores noted Peerman did a “really good job” in the summer with work ethic. Peerman caught five passes as a junior and wanted to improve.
“My sophomore year, I wasn’t very good,” Peerman said. “And I told myself coach O is the coach, and I wanted to make an improvement, and I wanted to make a statement my senior year, and I believed in coach O, and coach O believed in me, and I am making it happen so far.”
Krug also returned and picked up 54 tackles. In seven games, then-sophomore Roman Hernandez, listed at 6-foot-3, 186 pounds, had 17 tackles, three for loss and a sack.
Each year, Russell coaches, even before Ozores, had asked Farmer to play football. Farmer played for Ozores in baseball and built a relationship in that sport. Ozores had been telling Farmer that he was going to put him on the roster. Farmer said he “didn’t really believe him” at first.
“(He’s) 6-1, 200 pounds, 205, and he flies around, and you are just like, ‘You have got to get those athletes out, and then we have finally got them out,” Ozores said.
Once Ozores took over, he added Farmer to the roster – without Farmer even knowing.
“He was kind of already incentivized to kind of go out,” Ozores said. “And he does a great job being a leader, too.”
Farmer has paced Russell with 81 tackles. For the Cimarron game, Middleton, Ney, Krug and Farmer went out to midfield as captains.
“Just trust your read,” Farmer said. “I mean, at the beginning of the season, I was really up tall, and kind of just nervous out there, so then as the season has gone on, I have gotten more confident, and trusting my reads now, and can move quicker.”
Krug is second with 74 tackles. He’s been a solid specialist with 21 extra points and three field goals, including a long of 36 against Cimarron.
This season, Hernandez has become a near-unblockable force for a defense that has allowed 14.5 points per game. He is a likely first team all-state player and possible 2A Defensive Player of the Year finalist. Hernandez has 56 tackles, 18 for loss, 12 sacks, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
“The biggest thing is that he has put on a lot of weight,” Ozores said. “He’s really worked hard on his technique. He has done a really good job. …I don’t really see anybody that can block him, pass-blocking wise. He’s so long and strong, and does a good job ripping and stacking kids. He’s just a really good athlete.”
In the summer, Russell often went to the football field around 8 or 9 p.m., flipped on the lights and played 7-on-7. Middleton, known for his scrambling ability and his arm, has completed 124 of 211 passes for 1,703 yards with 19 scores against four interceptions.
Ney has delivered 83 carries for 555 yards. Russell has often had the edge with its experienced, athletic receivers. The 6-foot Cross has 42 catches for 538 yards and four scores. Freshman Walker Middleton has 27 catches and been the primary returner. Peerman stands 6-3, 160 and has cleared 6-foot-6 in the high jump. He has 20 catches for 406 yards and 10 scores.
“Everyone is getting in the weight room, making it a must,” Cross said. “And that’s definitely helping, and we are all wanting to lift and get bigger and stronger and faster.”
Strobel, Farmer, Pummell, Ney and Krug, all seniors, have combined for 38 catches.
“Play calling, be able to take shots, run the ball,” Cross said. “Our line is definitely stepping up for sure, love those guys, and being able to get open. We have got a good wide receiver corps.”
Russell has an offensive line that generally starts no seniors. The group has included sophomores Andrew Boettcher and Teagen Pfeifer, along with junior Zach Martinez, Aiden Morrell and Herbie Shumaker. Pfeifer is a solid wrestler with a 21-12 record at 160 pounds his freshman season.
“They are really young, and I don’t think we have started the same line more than two games,” Ozores said. “And so they are doing a really good job. We go junior, sophomore, junior, sophomore, junior right now, and so it’s just a different kid that has to step up. We have a couple seniors that have done a good job, too, on o-line. It’s just whoever is ready, and whoever is playing well is going to start.”
After Russell rang the bell, the players came back on the field. They walked through a line where the coaches congratulated each Bronco and offered encouraging words. One parent who has a senior videotaped the postgame interviews. For longer than most post games at other schools, players, students and townspeople remained on the field, savoring a moment that hadn’t occurred in 43 years.
“Just making history. First time it’s been done in 40-some years, and it’s special to be a part of,” Middleton said.