By CONOR NICHOLL
La Crosse’s Jon Webster is the all-time winningest head football coach and current principal at his alma mater. For many years, Wes Balun was the voice of La Crosse athletics and was a beloved figure in the community. Webster provided access for Balun to view film on the team’s Hudl account.
Hudl has a guideline that someone needs a jersey number to watch film. Webster gave Balun the number zero. Balun passed away in July 2017 at the age of 41. Each year, Webster updates his roster online. Every year, he keeps the 0 to remember Balun.
Balun’s legacy and voice lives on in other ways, too.
After games, Webster heard from parents, grandparents and relatives “over and over and over” about Balun’s broadcasts. Once, Webster received a tape of a game and got to listen.
“Wes had such iconic game calls,” Webster said.
Webster talked to Balun and asked: Can you make a walk-0ut montage for the football team with your calls? Balun said it would be easy if Webster told him which songs to use. La Crosse’s staple song is AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” The seniors choose other songs to go on with Thunderstruck.
Balun mixed music with his calls of great La Crosse moments. Balun started working on the tape during the summer and spent hours making sure the songs blended perfectly together. La Crosse has always liked the montage. Players got to hear their names just before kickoff.
“The thought process behind it is, put it in our kids’ minds all of the great plays they made on that field,” Webster said. “So that they are ready to go make more great plays, make more memories.”
Webster’s favorite line is: “Ordinary kid isn’t going to do that, but we are not talking about ordinary kids. We are talking about La Crosse Leopards.” That line was on the original walk-out. However, La Crosse, Webster and the radio station has lost track of the soundbite. If Webster ever locates the clip, he has a special place for the line.
“That would be the last thing that you would hear before Thunderstruck starts,” Webster said.
Each year, the radio station updates the walk-out music and highlights. La Crosse’s football press box is named after Balun. A plaque hangs in the basketball gym above where he sat. Hill City coach Travis Desbien, which faced La Crosse in the state quarterfinals last season, instantly named the Leopards as having a great home field scene.
“The environment there that they have at La Crosse, the tradition, the entrance, the everything there at La Crosse was really, really neat, and would make for a really tough place to play,” Desbien said.
The entrance has helped La Crosse statistically have one of Kansas’ best home field advantages. During the last three months, SIK looked at every home game played in the 2021 football season from the KPreps database.
Plus, Massey Ratings, run by longtime nationally known statistician Kenneth Massey, has provided a home field advantage ranking for every 11-man Kansas team from ’19-21. The ranking incorporates opponent, score and strength of schedule.
Since the start of the 2019 season, La Crosse is 19-11 overall, including 13-4 at home. The Leopards have won 76.5 percent of home games and 46.2 percent of road games. The difference is 30.3 percent, the third-largest home/road split among Eight-Man, Division I teams, per SIK research.
Webster said some of the split comes from challenging road games. But the home venue certainly helps. La Crosse ranks 12th in home winning percentage among Division I squads in that stretch.
Along with Balun’s inspired words, La Crosse has incorporated other pregame celebrations. For the season opener last year, La Crosse borrowed Victoria’s idea of having motorcycles out front when the players entered the field. The motorcycles reeved as the Leopards came on. La Crosse has had fire trucks and police cars out before games. Local businesses Miller Trucking and Skillet Trucking have brought trucks.
“I love the way the sound bounces off the buildings, like the high school and the stadium,” Webster said. “And it just echoes in there because it’s super loud. … Making that walk from the locker room to the field special.”
The alumni, many whom have helped the Leopards to a pair of state runner-ups and 22 non-losing seasons in the last 25 years, stand close as the current team comes on the field. The present-day players watched the previous Leopards as youngsters.
“That brotherhood, that family we preach,” Webster said. “I think it makes it real.”
The best home field advantages
This summer, SIK talked with more than a dozen coaches about home field advantage.
Home field advantage can be quantified in two ways: home games won, and home/road winning percentage differential. Generally, the longest home winning streaks belong to the state’s powers.
Of the 41 teams that did not lose a home game last season, 14 made a state final. Because of some scheduling cancellations, five of those 41 played just three games in ’21. The home/road differential can have more to do with atmosphere surrounding the school and venue. At the NFL level, this is commonly attributed to the Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs and Green Bay Packers.
The Seahawks’ Qwest Field sits in a bowl that keeps the noise level in the stadium, similar to Arrowhead Stadium. Denver has the elevation, and GB has the cold of Lambeau Field. From ’17-22, the Packers have the best home record in the NFL, followed by the Chiefs. From 2010-22, NFL teams won 55.6 percent of its games, according to various sites.
That’s nearly the same for Kansas high school football. In 2021, home teams went 861-686 (55.7 percent), per SIK research. Class 6A teams won 56.5 percent of home games, 5A was at 52.9 and 4A at 52.3.
Class 3A was 58.1, 2A with 61.1, and 1A at 55.2. Eight-Man, Division I was 57.0, and Eight-Man, Division II was 52.8. Six-man, which had just 14 teams last season, won 51.9 percent of home games.
Longest current home winning streaks:
Andale 59 (last home loss 41-27 to Wichita Collegiate on Aug. 31, 2012, 3-time defending 3A champs)
Little River 19 (has not lost a home game in four-year Kevin Ayers era)
Rossville 18 (2-time defending 2A champs)
Olpe 13 (2-time defending 1A champs)
Mill Valley 11 (3-time defending 5A champs)
Meade, Axtell, Wichita Collegiate, Wellsville 8 (Meade, Axtell defending 8-man champs)
Blue Valley Northwest, Cunningham 7
Andover Central, Girard, Chapman, Canton-Galva 6
Top-12 11-Teams in Home Field Advantage (Massey Ratings 2019-21; involves W-L record and quality of opponent)
Wichita Northwest 2.25
Wichita East 2.21
Topeka Hayden 2.18
Silver Lake 2.16
SE Saline 2.15
“A lot of credit to our community”
There are categories that Kansas high school home venues fall into. First, certain squads have a unique tradition, such as La Crosse’s montage, Wichita Collegiate’s Spartan statue and pregame speech, and the bridge that Wellington players walk across. Victoria has the longtime tradition of Harleys reeving before the players run onto the field.
Some stadiums have quirks. Washington County is 11-15 since the start of ’19, though 7-6 at home. The 36.9 percent differential between home and road is the biggest of Eight-Man, Division I teams.
“The walk from the Washington County visitor’s locker room to the field is like three-quarters of a mile,” Webster said. “It is a jaunt. That one sticks out, because it is just so far away.”
Norton has iconic Travis Field with the home stands built into a hill. Smith Center has famous Hubbard Stadium and the massive Redmen logo atop the bleachers. Derby’s stadium would rival many big-time Texas high schools.
Southeast of Saline is long recognized as having a true home field advantage with an excellent atmosphere and geographical setup. SES is located just outside of Gypsum, population 419. Nearly the entire student body travels from the county or outlaying towns.
Longtime coach Mitch Gebhardt’s four boys have all played or currently playing Trojan football. The Gebhardts live three miles away from the school in the country. Gebhardt told SIK that SES’ success comes in part to the “very committed” families that drive every day for all aspects, including school, sports and summer weights.
SES ranks in the top-10 percentile of home field advantage among 11-man teams since ’19, per Massey Ratings.
“Playing at our place is great,” Gebhardt said. “Our fans are outstanding. Our fans travel with us. There’s been games several times that we have gone to that we have more fans than the team we are playing at their home. Our fans make it electric at our place, and at Southeast, (we) like football, and that’s a good place for a person to coach, because of that. But I would say it’s very electric there. People are excited to come and watch our kids play, and I would rather play at our place than anywhere else.”
Crowd support plays a key role. Every small-school coach SIK spoke with noted the town support they receive. Little River is 32-6 since coach Kevin Ayers took over as head coach and 19-0 at home. LR has the third-best home/road differential of any Division I team in that span.
“When someone comes to Little River, we hope that they in the back of their mind are thinking, ‘Aw man, they are going to hit hard, they are going to play hard,’ they are going to be disciplined,’” Ayers said. “You want there to be that stigma I guess that comes with your home field that when people walk into our stadium, that they are going to play a really good football team, and there are other teams out there when I feel when I walk into their stadium, I know we better have it strapped on because this team is always prepared, plays extremely hard.”
Only Andale, which hasn’t lost a home game in 10 years and has the state’s longest overall winning streak at 39 contests, has a longer current home winning streak in Kansas. Ayers is the only coach in Kansas history to win eight-man state titles at three schools: Jetmore, Sharon Springs and LR.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to our community, our crowd, our school, I think Little River has a great atmosphere to play in,” Ayers said. “And I think our boys feed off of that, which when you come in excited and the crowd is into it and excited, you are going to play at a higher emotional level, which makes you play at a much higher level.”
Sixteen of those teams that were undefeated at home in ’21 came at the eight-man or six-man level, including Canton-Galva, currently ranked second in Eight-Man, Division II. There were four 6A schools that didn’t lose at home: Junction City, Blue Valley Northwest, Derby and Lawrence.
Derby had its 46-game home winning streak end in Week 1 to Manhattan.
“People around the track, we get horns honking, we get motors reeving up,” C-G coach Shelby Hoppes said. “You just (get) very unique environments at the small school level, and I think that’s something that even big school high-classification kids, I think they should witness that or experience that one time, that small-school level just uniqueness of a Friday night and all the people that come out and support, and just the different way that communities find to support their kids, I think that’s a really cool deal at our level.”
Family atmospheres, “Titan Jacks” and smoke bombs
At the 5/6A level, Mill Valley (8-0 at home in ’21) is recognized for its excellent home field atmosphere. MV has a robust youth program, which also plays at Jaguar Stadium. In late fall camp, every youth team and the high school squad go through a full team stretch at Jaguar Stadium. The three-time defending 5A champion Jaguars were the lone 5A team to not lose a home game last year.
“One thing that we took a lot of pride in, and that was one of the things we wanted to establish right away, in western Shawnee, there is not really a downtown area,” MV coach Joel Applebee said. “But our school is really the center of the community, and so we wanted to make Friday nights the place to be was Jaguar Stadium. Our community really bought into that.”
Many schools share a stadium. Class 5A Hays High and 2A Thomas More Prep-Marian both play at Fort Hays State. HHS was 4-1 at home, TMP 5-1 in ‘21. Goddard and Salina have a similar arrangement. Andover and Andover Central shared the same field until 2020. The Wichita schools share fields, as does the Kansas City area.
St. James Academy, the back-to-back 4A state champions, does not have a home field.
“It would be awesome, I would absolutely love to have a home game at St. James, someday we will,” SJA coach Tom Radke said.
In Week 1, SJA was the designated home team against Blue Valley Northwest. The game was at Bishop Miege. In Week 3, SJA is the home team against Bishop Miege. The game is at Aquinas.
Radke said St. James focuses on “go do our brand.” No matter where the Thunder is playing, they look to show up at 5:30 p.m. and go through its routine. Since the start of 2019, SJA is 22-14 overall. The Thunder is 9-5 (64 percent) as the designated home team, and 13-9 (59 percent) as the road/neutral team.
“Honestly, it doesn’t matter to us anymore,” Radke said. “We used to get hung up on it when I first started. … But now, our crowd is going to follow us wherever we go, and Miege and Aquinas have been really good to us in the past for letting us play on their fields even though we are rivals. But we have got good relationships between the schools there.”
Several smaller schools are co-operative agreements, such as Argonia-Attica. A-A is top-15 among Division I teams in home/road differential since the start of ’19. The Titans are 11-3 at home since 2019. Newly formed South Sumner Co. will have two home games in Caldwell and South Haven.
A-A co-coach Luke Greenwood said the Titans try to keep the pregame as similar as possible for each site. The team tries to arrive at 5:15 p.m. They change, stretch in the gym, and do some walk-throughs before sending the quarterbacks and specialists to warm up. Once completed, they meet the rest of the squad at the practice field and complete warmups there.
“Then the boys pair up and walk out to the goal post where we break it down and run out for our “Titan Jacks,” Greenwood told SIK. “Each group of seniors tweaks it to match their style. One year the boys carried sledge hammers and pounded a 45-lb plate. Another year they ran out carrying ATA Titan flags. Last year they popped red and black smoke bombs and ran out with flags. We give the seniors some freedom when it comes to the taking of the field part, but the pregame has remained relatively the same over the 10 years.
“We have definitely benefited from having two schools, two towns and two communities worth of support,” Greenwood added. “It does make for some pretty good home crowds and helps to fire up the team. The years we have made the playoffs we usually have some pretty good support on the road as well.”
3A: “Mr. Collegiate” – Wichita Collegiate’s Spartan statue
Wichita Collegiate head football coach Troy Black’s voice wavered and cracked when he discussed Patrick and Bunny Hill’s impact at WCS.
“It’s kind of tough,” Black said. “Getting a little emotional talking about it. They are a special family.”
Bunny Hill worked at Wichita Collegiate from 1972 to 2014 and served in every division. Hill is a legend in the Collegiate community and was honored with a brick at the Plaza of Heroines at Wichita State University. Her Collegiate positions included Head of the Middle School and Dean of Students. Bunny and Pat had three children, a daughter, Katie and two sons, Hamilton and Harrison, both former Collegiate standouts. Pat was a diehard Collegiate supporter.
“The biggest fan,” Black said. “Like Pat Hill was Mr. Collegiate. He wrote our school fight song. He came to every practice. Obviously was at every game. But he was also at every function Collegiate-wise, whether it was a play, a music performance.”
Pat Hill, who passed away in 2019, helped create the Collegiate football environment with former head football coach Mike Gehrer. Hill deeply emphasized the Spartan tradition.
Collegiate talks about the history of the Spartans, a culture in ancient Greece that centered on loyalty, military service, duty, discipline and endurance. The well-known movie “300” depicts 300 Spartans against the mighty Persian army. Pat often explained the Spartan heritage to the Collegiate kids.
Gehrer came up with the idea of honoring Hill through a large Spartan statue near the Collegiate football field. Gehrer gained financial support, especially with the former students that were around Katie, Hamilton and Harrison’s ages.
“We use that a lot in our deal,” Black said. “Because we don’t have big numbers. We don’t have Andale numbers. I think we are at 50 guys right now, so it is a big part of our heritage.”
The muscular statue, built atop rocks, holds a shield. It has the words written that Hill used to depict the Spartans.
The ceremony happened before the ’21 season started. Collegiate has not lost a home game since. Overall, the Spartans have won eight straight home contests. Collegiate is right on 13th Street in Wichita, a main urban road. The football field is clearly visible from the road.
“We do take pride in playing here, and we like playing here,” Black said. “And I just think the environment started with coach Gehrer, and we have done all we can to maintain it. … I would like to think that’s why we have been successful.”
Since the start of 2019, Collegiate is 25-8. That includes a 14-2 mark at home. The only two losses are against Andale, which has won 39 straight games, by far the state’s longest current run.
“We have always kind of made it a big deal to play football here,” Black said. “We have loud music, and we try to make it as much as their music as possible, which is really hard anymore in today’s world. But we play the music loud, we have all sorts of activities going on.”
The home field advantage improved with the new statue.
Collegiate goes out for normal pregame warmups before heading over to the locker room.
The drumline takes Collegiate from the locker room to the field. The team marches down the road that goes through the Collegiate campus by the tennis courts. Then, WCS goes to the statue.
Around 15 minutes before kickoff, a different senior each week climbs up on the rock and gives a speech at the Spartan statue.
“It was cool, because as the season went along, more and more people started realizing what we were doing,” Black said. “And then more and more parents and people would stay and hang out to hear that, so that’s become a really cool little deal.”
Then, Collegiate marches over to field for pre-game introductions and the national anthem.
“Even though we are in the city, we are a small community,” Black said. “Yes, we are in Wichita, but our school community is very tight. We do have great crowds. We have a lot of people come out. We may not have as many people as small towns, but the people that come are very vested into what is going on. We have got a great drumline, a great band. Our cheerleaders are awesome. It’s just a great overall environment, and people get excited about it. Our parents do a good job of tailgating and booster club does a good job of promoting things.”
Last year, Collegiate faced Mulvane in the first home game on Sept 3. The statue was dedicated the day prior. The Spartans won 24-14. Mulvane eventually finished 8-3. The statue is lit up at night, a symbol for the Hill family, the Collegiate community and home field advantage.
“It’s a really cool representation of what we try to get our kids to understand, hey, this is who we are, this is what we are,” Black said. “This is why the Spartans were special back in the day. The work ethic and all that. And not just in sports. In the classroom and everything that we ask our kids to do. They got to do a lot, and they have got to kind of take on that grit, that motto of the Spartan.”