By CONOR NICHOLL
HAYS – Hays High 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior Bryce Salmans is well-known for his rare combination of athleticism and strength. Salmans picked up the work ethic from former Indian greats, including Gaven Haselhorst, Gavin Meyers and especially Jaren Kanak, three HHS players who signed to Power 5 schools.
Salmans is a key three-year varsity player and earned first team all-conference tight end and second team all-state non-senior in 2021. He primarily served as a blocker at tight end/H-back for an Indian rushing attack that set multiple school marks. Kanak rushed for a team record 1,615 yards. Salmans delivered 10 catches for 176 yards and three scores.
He has benched 355 pounds, 510 squat, 315 clean with 4.63 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Salmans has cleared 33 inches in the vertical. This season, Salmans helped junior Malik Bah enjoy a breakout season. Bah, hurt on the first play from scrimmage in Week 9, has scored 22 total touchdowns and rushed for 1,344 yards.
“There’s not a lot of glory to that position,” coach Tony Crough said. “But if you watch (Salmans) every snap, he wins his job almost every snap.”
This year, Salmans is a rare two-way 5A player. Hays High elected to start him on defense. He has led the Western Athletic Conference with 12 tackles for loss and has recorded five sacks. Salmans and defensive tackle Carson Spray are among a select few Indian seniors that played before this season.
“Bryce is one of the best football players in the state, pound-for-pound, I mean, I would like to see a better one as far as he can do anything,” Crough said. “He’s one of the strongest guys out there. He’s not overly huge, but he is big, and he can run with anybody, and he is physical, so man, you have got a guy like Bryce, he is going to help you win games.”
Last week, Bah remained out with injury in the Round of 16 home game against Valley Center. Backup running back Brock Summers tweaked his knee in practice and was out for VC. Salmans and senior Ben Pfeifer moved to the backfield with quarterback Kyreese Groen.
“Malik is the best running back in 5A,” Salmans said. “Well, a lot of people think. Just filled in his spot, and just get the W.”
Hornet coach Scott L’Ecuyer had seen Salmans on film and called him a “specimen” and “tough to tackle.” Entering the game, Salmans had five carries for 18 yards. He has offers from MIAA’s Missouri Southern, along with Dodge City and Independence Community Colleges and NAIA’s Bethel and Benedictine.
“It’s fun to watch a kid,” L’Ecyer said. “Sometimes when you are watching film, you watch a kid and you are enjoying watching him, and you have got to remember, ‘Hey, we are scouting tonight, we have got to get back to work.’ But he’s an athletic kid, special kid.”
On a cold night, Hays High recognized its youth flag and tackle football teams before the Valley Center game, a celebration that 5A three-time defending state champion Mill Valley often does. Kids ran onto the field along Salmans and his Indian teammates.
“They saw a program, they saw what has been built here over the last five years, and they looked out there, and said, ‘Hey, that’s something I can be a part of someday, whatever my role is, whatever my capacity is, I can be a part of that,’” Crough said.
Salmans delivered 16 carries for 120 yards and two scores. He recorded a key tackle for loss and had two quarterback hurries. Salmans had a pair of third-quarter TD runs in a 28-6 victory at Fort Hays’ Lewis Field Stadium. For the first time in school history, Hays High won a home game after Week 9.
“I just knew I had to push through, to keep going for the team,” Salmans said. “And it’s playoffs, man, it’s my senior year, I have got to do everything I can to help this team.”
The Indians, ranked No. 3 in 5A, moved to 9-1, tied the school record for single season victories and moved into the quarterfinals. Before last season’s 8-3 record and quarterfinal run, HHS had not made the final eight since 1995. The Indians, with its breakout senior class, will play an 11th game for the fourth time in school history, per veteran broadcaster Dustin Armbruster.
On Friday, Hays High faces Salina Central (8-2) at 7 p.m. at Lewis Field Stadium. A win gives HHS its first 10-win season in school annals.
“It’s playoff football,” L’Ecuyer said. “Anything can happen. I think the biggest thing that’s going to help Hays is they run the ball. You have got to run the ball in November to win.”
After the VC victory, Crough, a father of three children with longtime family ties to the Hays community, stood in the near empty Lewis Field Stadium press box.
The only times Hays High has made the semifinals came in 1984 and a 9-2 season in 1993.
Hays High is looking to significantly up attendance for Friday’s game. There’s a free chili/hotdog feed from 5:45-6:45 inside Lewis Field Stadium. The first 200 students and all veterans get in free.
“I want Hays to open their eyes and see what these kids saw tonight with the youth,” Crough said.
Crough wanted the town to look at Hays High’s student section, band, cheerleaders, scoreboard and press box operators – everyone associated with an Indian game. Hays High has long enjoyed excellent broadcast and streaming through Armbruster and Eagle Communications. However, Crough asked for more fans at the stadium for the historic matchup versus Salina Central. (Bethany Bowman has video interviews on SIK’s platforms with SC this week).
“This is a flat-out production out here, that if people see this, and be a part of it, they are going to be addicted,” Crough said. “We just have got to get them here, and so I want to challenge the city of Hays to get there. I know it’s easy to watch it on live stream. People are watching. We know that. There’s 4,000 people watching every week, and about half of them are right here in Hays. Well let’s get them all here.”
Based on preseason rankings, Hays High is among the state’s top-five biggest surprises. The Indians have scored 39 points a game and allowed 14.9, among 5A’s top defenses. Senior linebackers Evan Lind and Wyatt Waddell, both part of SIK’s midseason all-Underrated Team, have been among many breakout players.
“It’s awesome,” senior safety Connor Dreiling said. “I have known Wyatt since third grade, and he’s always been a worker, and I am just happy to see him finally get his chance. Evan, I have known Evan since sixth grade, he wasn’t always like the most athletic, but he’s just a dog. It’s crazy. I love seeing these guys succeed, best thing ever.”
Massey Ratings is a nationally recognized statistical site.
Massey ranks HHS as the No. 10 team for all classes – the seventh straight season the Indians have improved their Massey rating. Hays High, which has played a similar strength of schedule to the last seven seasons, has the No. 19 offense and No. 13 defense among Kansas 11-man teams. It’s Hays High’s best defense in more than 11 years.
“Let’s appreciate what these kids are doing out here, because they are busting their butt to put a good product out here for the town of Hays,” Crough said. “And we want them to all get here and see it.”
The overall arc of Hays High’s 2022 season is well-known. However, the daily steps, including 5:55 a.m. summer workouts, isn’t.
HHS graduated Top 11 players Kanak (No. 1 all-classes recruit) and Meyers (by far Indians’ all-time leading tackler), among other standouts including Shrine Bowl lineman Gavin Nutting, WR Jordan Dale and RB Roy Moroni.
Those players, along with Haselhorst, helped build the Indian weight program.
“Jaren Kanak,” Salmans said. “He believed in me, and he just worked me. He worked me, and I ended up loving the gym. I fell in love with the gym, and I just kept getting stronger. Gaven Haselhorst, Jaren, Gavin Meyers, even everybody, all the teammates here now, the senior class, we just all push each other. We have all gotten bigger and stronger over the summer.”
Salmans, Lind, Spray, among others started taking off physically after their sophomore year. In the senior meeting, Crough always lets the seniors talk when it’s the team’s last game or elimination game. Lind told the whole team a message.
“I came in and lifted hard, because everyone else did,’” Lind said. “It’s just what we did.”
After 2021, defensive coordinator Layton Hickel became Fort Hays’ defensive line coach. HHS hired Kip Keeley to lead the defense. Keeley was a La Crosse Shrine Bowler and led Chanute to the best scoring defense in 4-6A last fall.
Crough, Hickel and veteran offensive coordinator Cole Cherryholmes had run the summer weight program.
In the prior summers, Hays High had always lifted at 7 a.m. The coaching staff believed a change was needed. However, Hickel had left for Fort Hays, and Keeley wasn’t in Hays yet. This summer, Crough turned the weights over to Cherryholmes, who said Hays High would lift at 5:55 a.m. to 6:45 a.m., four days a week.
“The kids just said, ‘OK, we will be there,’” Crough said. “We just felt like we needed just a little something extra. I mean, it’s tough to be there and lift at 7, but there’s no excuses at 5:55. You have nowhere else to be.”
If a player was late, they had to do an ab workout the entire first session, and then had to lift with the second group at 6:45 a.m.
“It was a pretty harsh punishment, but if you want to make a deep playoff run, this is what you’ve got to do,” Salmans said. “…Really pushed us, and honestly it’s shown.”
A couple of players were late a couple of times. Then, everyone bought in and everyone was there.
The unheralded senior class, many on JV and backup roles in 2021, built the foundation.
“We wanted to see, how could we set them apart from the other groups,” Crough said. “…They don’t really talk much, you could just tell they felt like the little brother, and how can the little brother make his own mark, and we felt like that was something we could do, and it’s probably part of why it’s showed up here.”
In the last 15 years, Hays High has enjoyed multiple standout teams in football, boys’ basketball, girls’ basketball, baseball and softball. However, the Indians have suffered some untimely injuries that derailed potentially historic seasons. Bah, on course for a possible Top 11 all-classes selection, was another Indian star to go down.
On the first play after Bah’s injury, Groen, a converted all-league receiver in his first season at quarterback, rushed for a touchdown. HHS won easily against Wichita West, 44-20.
Groen has become a fan favorite among the Indian youth. On Wednesday, Groen was among a couple of Indians who went to elementary schools. One fourth grader who loves football eagerly told parents that Groen had signed an item.
Groen has thrown for 721 yards with 14 scores against three interceptions. He has rushed for 756 yards and nine TDs. This week, Groen picked up a Sterling College offer.
Senior Keamonie Archie caught a key TD pass on the first play of the second quarter. Archie, in his first season ever playing football, has picked up offers and been HHS’ top receiver with 20 catches for 379 yards and eight scores.
“The quarterback ran the ball well,” L’Ecuyer said. “…Definitely not having Bah hurts them, but their depth filled in well.”
In practices before the Valley Center game, Summers was expected to see some carries. Then, he suffered injury.
The coaches asked Salmans, ‘Hey, Bryce do you want the ball?’ Salmans reminded the staff he played running back in the middle school flexbone offense. Crough and the coaches talked to the offensive line throughout the week. The line told Crough “give it to Bryce and give it to Ben.”
“We will make it work,” Crough recalled the line saying. “We will find a way.”
“It was tough at first, but then I realized we have got some dudes, so next man up,” Dreiling added. “It’s always next man up.”
The Indian offensive line opened holes for 304 rushing yards against Valley Center. The front features senior Ashton Putz (5-8, 235), senior Quinton McGuire, center Henry Fitzthum, Will Linenberger, Kaiden Bunger and Derrik Riggs.
“I want to thank my o-line,” Salmans said. “They did a tremendous job today, and they are little dudes that are physical. They are all short – short for o-linemen, but they are physical, and they will get the job done. I just want to thank them. It’s just cool running the ball. I mean, I think I am pretty athletic for my size, so just run, just go.”
The Indian defense has been remarkable throughout the season. Hickel was a terrific coach, and Keeley has stepped into the role. Keeley is known for his calmer personality and ability to teach.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” Salmans said. “..He’s awesome, just overall awesome coach. He’s a good guy. He knows football, he really does.”
Hays High has allowed just 3.4 yards per rush, 6.4 yards per pass and 49 percent completion. VC junior running back Dai’Mont Mucker is top-10 all classes in rushing yards. The Indians held him to 22 carries for 76 yards, and VC to 98 total yards overall. Earlier this season, Valley Center defeated Salina Central behind 544 total yards, including 340 from Mucker.
“We just play for each other,” Dreiling said. “There’s no other defense like it. We all have each other’s backs, one dude goes down, next dude up. Let’s just go, let’s play.”
Waddell has posted 76 tackles, five TFLs, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries. Lind has 51 tackles, seven for loss and a pair of defensive touchdowns. Pfeifer is third with 66 stops, and Spray has 54. Will Cadoret has 10 TFLs.
Defensive back Remy Stull, a team leader with a Division I New Mexico State offer, missed four games. He has four TFLs and controlled the passing game.
“They are big for one, big across the board, and they fly to the football,” L’Ecuyer said. “They play with a lot of energy.”
Dreiling, one of the team’s few returning starters, has picked off four passes, including one against Valley Center. At the WAC all-league meetings, the other coaches complimented Dreiling on his play.
“A committed kid that said I’m going to lead the back end of this defense, and he’s doing it, and he’s our vocal guy back there,” Crough said. “Brings a little swagger, and a little life to the back of the defense.”
Crough has coached in Texas and served as a head coach at Great Bend, Andover and Hays High. Plus, he was the Hutchinson Community College defensive coordinator for one year.
“On some other teams in the past that I have been a part of, there’s guys that don’t really want to – even if that’s their role – they don’t want to do their role if their role is not what they want to do,” Crough said.
At times, senior defensive back Deondre Broom has had ups and downs. Broom most enjoys being a cover corner. Against Valley Center, his job was to set the edge against Mucker.
“Broom, you are so fast, if you just get there, you will turn it back in,” Crough said. “And you will make plays, and then he got in on a couple tackles.”
He delivered two huge plays with a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Valley Center couldn’t get outside. Aaron Weigel corralled the other side. Broom’s play in a new role, coupled with Salmans’ new position led to another historic win for the Indians, a victory that puts Hays High on the cusp of 10 wins Friday.
“Those guys were awesome at it, and that just gave us a chance to bottle up that stud running back,” Crough said.