By CONOR NICHOLL
2022 marked the first year of KSHSAA sanctioned six-man football. Twelve of the 26 teams did not play a full six-man schedule last season. Throughout the year, seven teams emerged as the clear-cut top group: Cunningham, Ashland, Bird City-Cheylin, Tescott, Northern Valley, Waverly and Wetmore.
Of those seven, four had played six-man previously: Cunningham, Ashland, Northern Valley, Cheylin. In 2021, Cunningham, Ashland, and NV finished 2-3-4 respectively in the six-man Wild West standings. Cheylin was second at state in ’19 and won 2020.
Cheylin coach Chris Walden talked with coaches both before and during the season about the shift to six-man.
“It’s just a hard transition from eight-man to six-man, and I know a lot of teams think it’s going to be easy,” Walden said. “Oh, we will have 18, 20 kids out, we will have depth, we will be able to do this and that,’ but six-man football is hard, and defensively, I think is the hardest part with everybody being eligible for a pass and everybody being able to be creative, and almost umlimited options on offense, the defensive-sided of the game is almost impossible.”
Cunningham coach Lance McGuire has similar thoughts about defense. Even the center is eligible to catch the ball, and multiple squads deploy the center as a consistent option.
“Everybody being eligible,” McGuire said. “You can’t just discount half the team over there and worry about that, premium on tackling. In eight and 11-man, it feels like there is always an extra layer, and in six-man, you look up, and you are like, ‘Uh oh, because it’s 1-on-1, and there’s like three acres of grass around them, and it’s scary on defense.’”
In 2021, Cunningham went 9-1 and finished second to Natoma. The Wildcats led six-man with 17.2 points allowed a contest. Cunningham, ranked No. 1 all this season, returned all but one player for 2022.
While many teams have struggled to play defense, Cunningham is on an historic run. The Wildcats have allowed just 6.6 points per game, which would be a Kansas record since six-man resumed play in 2016, per SIK research and the KPreps database.
In 2017, undefeated Pawnee Heights, led by elite standout Kade Scott, allowed 12.1 points per game. In 2020, Cheylin permitted 8.6 with Colton McCarty, a multi-season six-man player of the year and currently playing for Bethel College football.
This season, the Wildcats have accomplished the feat with great depth. On Saturday, Cunningham (12-0) will face Ashland (10-1) in the Six-Man state championship game at Dodge City’s Memorial Stadium. Start time is 1 p.m. Cunningham defeated Ashland, 38-30, in Week 1 with a comeback victory.
“What Cunningham has done this year defensively is nothing short of remarkable,” Walden said. “It reminds me a lot of that team of ours from ’20, we allowed 77 points that whole year, and we were very good defensively. Our defense was more impressive than our offense was with Colton McCarty.”
In 10 on-field games since Week 1, the Wildcats have five shutouts. Cunningham has won the last 10 by at least 42 points, including 60-12 in the state semifinals against Waverly.
Cunningham has highly experienced players with seniors Lane Halderson and Trey DeWeese, juniors Luke McGuire and Jack Ruckle, and sophomores Dagim Reed and Trent Schnittker.
Halderson and DeWeese are four-year starters. Halderson, McGuire and Reed are returning first team all-state players at end, LB/DB, and kicker, respectively.
As well, the difference between Cunningham and the rest of the six-man field in scoring defense is significant. Tescott ranks second at 15.8 points permitted. The 9.2 points per game difference between first-place Cunningham and second-place Tescott is bigger than second to seventh.
Waverly is at 17.7, Northern Valley at 19.7, Cheylin finished at 20.7, Wetmore at 21.4 and Ashland at 21.9. Ingalls, which made the state quarterfinals, allowed 33.8 points a game.
The other five squads that finished .500 or better were Peabody-Burns, Deerfield, Natoma, Burrton and Moscow. P-B had the best scoring defense of that group at 24 points allowed a contest. None of the others were better than 32.1.
Cunningham has 20 players out, including several move-ins and players that did not previously come out for football. Among those, sophomore left end Luke Albers is the biggest contributor.
“I did not dream of (the numbers) three years ago, four years ago, five years ago,” McGuire said.
McGuire is a longtime Wildcat coach, including junior high basketball. The Wildcats have three seniors: Halderson, DeWeese and Leo Hageman.
“I can tell you, a couple of them, football is not their favorite thing,” McGuire said of the roster. “But I have had one tell me, I wasn’t terribly excited, but I kind of like this.”
They have helped Cunningham re-start the program and post records of 1-7, 6-2, 9-1 and 12-0 in the last four years. Cunningham did not have a football team from ’15-18 and hadn’t won a contest since 2012.
In practice, McGuire has changed some of his drills throughout the years and focused more on angles and in space than straight on collisions.
Defensively, Ruckle and Snittker start on the line. Halderson, DeWeese and Reed are at linebacker, and McGuire at defensive back. Halderson leads with 60 tackles, while Ruckle has 48 stops and a team-high nine for loss. McGuire (33), DeWeese (31), Reed (31) and Schnittker (22) round out the leaders. Ruckle has six sacks.
Ruckle has made a big jump after 35 tackles, two for loss as a sophomore.
DeWeese has six interceptions, with four apiece from McGuire and Halderson. Cunningham has forced 24 turnovers. Reed is also a great kicker with 33 touchbacks and has forced opponents to long fields. Halderson paced Cunningham in tackles as a junior.
“Getting the sure tackling, because six-man is so spread out, you don’t always get the helper, somebody there quick enough, I think it’s so important and it’s so hard to work on,” coach McGuire said. “Because if you are laying it out in practice, you are probably going to get some rolled up ankles on your best kids, so it is so hard to work on and get better on, but you have to, so you have to get creative in how you do that, that’s the big question for me.”