By CONOR NICHOLL for Sports in Kansas
Sports In Kansas continues its in-depth classification breakdown. Next up: Six-Man Football. Bird City-Cheylin is the defending champion. Cheylin, Cunningham and Ashland all contenders – each with a strong group of sophomores and juniors.
Six-man football giving towns an opportunity to play and flourish; likely to add more teams in upcoming cycle
Marc Cowles led the Weskan football team for 13 years. Weskan, situated just a few miles from the Colorado border, is annually one of Kansas’ smallest enrollments. Weskan, with just 33 students, was not going to field a varsity team entering 2014. Out of necessity, the Coyotes went to six-man football. It marked Kansas’ first six-man program since ’03.
“A lot of these western Kansas schools – it’s going to become more popular,” Cowles told me for a KPreps.com story in 2014.
In ’15, Cowles became NC’s head football coach, a position he currently holds. He remains in contact with multiple northwest Kansas coaches he faced at Weskan. In late July, Cowles thought about the continued six-man growth. Even with COVID-19 wreaking havoc on scheduling last fall, 14 six-man squads played between four and nine games.
Kansas six-man football has given teams and towns an opportunity to re-start football – and allowed programs to enjoy the best seasons in school history with state titles and runner-ups. Multiple people have had a big role in six-man’s growth, including current Weskan coach Brett Clow and Rexford-Golden Plains’ Travis Smith.
“A lot of my friends are the ones that really took over and ran with it,” Cowles said.
Because of six-man, Rozel-Pawnee Heights re-started its own football team in ’16 after a six-year hiatus/co-op with nearby Larned. PH earned six-man state runner-up to Weskan in ’16 in the inaugural Wild West Bowl. The Tigers captured the state crown in ’17.
In ’19, Cunningham joined six-man and had its own program for the first time in five years. Helped by locals, Cunningham’s football field went through significant changes, including new bleachers, press box and scoreboard. Weskan was scheduled to play at Cunningham on Oct. 4, 2019, a 282-mile one-way trip.
Cowles and Clow talked. Ness City was a good neutral site for the game. Clow saw Cunningham had just one other home contest. He knew how much Friday night football meant in Cunningham. Clow was OK to make the trip.
Clow said “No, I want Cunningham to have a Friday night, and I want them to have an opportunity to have football in their town again,” Cowles recalled.
Weskan’s long trip experience is often the case in six-man. Weskan won the game as Cunningham posted zero on-field victories in ’19. Last year, the Wildcats were one of Kansas’ top surprises with a 6-2 mark, the program’s best record since ‘08. Cunningham returns several key players this season.
“We have talked about that game being one of the best atmospheres we have got to play in, and it’s been really cool to see Cunningham football really take off since that point,” Clow said.
Neutral site games have happened, and a key matchup in 2021, Ashland versus Cheylin, will be in Deerfield this fall.
Plus, six-man has had an official summer all-star game, held in June at Bethel College.
“We all understand that travel is going to be a part of it,” Clow said this month. “So it has definitely been reciprocated back to us. I think one more note about six-man is just how cool it has been to start our own all-star game. It has kind of been an open door for coaches to come and stay for the week, and so that week has been good for all of us to spend time together, get to know each other beyond just coaching, and get to know kids from other schools. And I think it has really brought the entire six-man group closer together.”
Last season, Cheylin, the favorite all year, posted a dominant 9-0 record with an experienced group that included back Colton McCarty and linebacker Andrew Schields. McCarty, one of the state’s most well-known players regardless of class, set the national career six-man total yards per game record, according to SIK research. Cheylin defeated Moscow, 46-0, for the title in Dodge City. In ’19, Moscow beat Cheylin in the championship.
It marked Cheylin’s first athletic state title in any sport in school history, a moment that reverberated through the communities of Bird City and McDonald near the Colorado and Nebraska borders.
For months, Cheylin’s main photo on its school web site was a jubilation photo from the field. As of Aug. 12, the top story on its web site is “Cougars Bring Home First State Championship in School History.” In the five years of six-man, the titles have gone to Weskan, Pawnee Heights, Weskan, Moscow and Cheylin.
Golden Plains, despite several talented teams, never won a playoff game in its KSHSAA era. GP is the most consistent six-man program with a cumulative 32-15 record the last five seasons and finishes of third, fourth, second, third and third. Golden Plains was 5-3 last fall and should be another contender.
Before ’16, the only football state title appearance for those six squads was a 1978 crown for Moscow. This season, six-man will again have a North and South division. Top-four will make the playoffs with the Wild West Bowl scheduled for Oct. 30.
Six-man football is still non-KSHSAA affiliated since it does not have the required 24 teams. Football re-classifying occurs in early October, and several schools could again move down to six-man. Multiple sources have indicated Peabody-Burns and Centre-Lost Springs as two squads in the strong mix to move to six-man.
“It’s right on the cusp of being a KSHSAA thing,” Cowles said. “…There’s a bunch of schools that would play if it was KSHSAA sanctioned.”
Defending champion Bird City-Cheylin headlines North with talented sophomores
This fall, Cheylin is again the North favorite, though Natoma is expected to be quite strong. The South is likely paced by Cunningham and Ashland.
Last season, Cheylin had its two highly touted freshman, Logan McCarty and Pablo Bermudez. At state, Logan completed 21 of 26 passes for 320 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed for 47 yards and three TDs. Bermudez picked off eight passes, including one versus Moscow.
Twelve of Cheylin’s 14 players are either freshmen or sophomores. Most of the sophomores have game experience for coach Chris Walden, a Cheylin alum and 18-1 in the past two falls. Cheylin by far led six-man in scoring defense at 8.6 points allowed a game. Moscow was second at 19.8. Ashland (4-1) was first in offense at 60.6 points a contest, and Cheylin was second at 57.9.
The offense will have McCarty at quarterback, sophomore center Connor McPherson, sophomore wide receiver Brady Ketzner, senior wide receiver Dylan Ketzner, Bermudez at running back and junior fullback John Serrano.
Overall, McCarty completed 41 of 53 passes for 772 yards with 13 scores against zero interceptions. He led the Cougars with 69 tackles, 16 more than any teammate. Bermudez delivered 49 tackles with eight interceptions, seven passes defended and a pair of fumble recoveries.
“He’s just got kind of a natural flow for sitting back at a safety or cornerback spot, and flowing to the ball,” Walden told me last fall regarding Bermudez. “He does a good job reading the quarterback’s eyes, and he hears ‘Ball,’ he finds it, breaks on it quick, and he’s a fast kid. He does a really good job at that.”
McCarty and Bermudez are the defensive backs, and Serrano at middle linebacker. Dylan Ketzner will be at defensive end. Brady Ketzner and McPherson will be at defensive end, and McPherson and sophomore Eduardo Baca will man the nose guards.
Walden and Cunningham coach Lance McGuire shared 2020 classification coach of the year honors. Walden looks for some freshmen to step up as the fall progresses. Cheylin is home against rival Golden Plains in Week 1 and gets the key cross-over divisional game versus Ashland in Week 3.
“Looking forward to another exciting year, I think we should be competitive in all of our games, and hopefully we can surprise a few of the older teams in our area that are probably looking to take advantage of our youth,” Walden said.
Key players back for Golden Plains, Weskan, Natoma, along with returning all-state picks
Longtime Golden Plains coach Travis Smith returns senior Roberto Loya at running back/defensive back after an honorable mention all-state year. Loya finished with 90 carries for 847 yards and nine touchdowns. He passed for 133 yards and four scores and caught 10 receptions for 115 yards and two TDs. Senior WR/DE Jovanny Infante recorded 56 tackles and two fumble recoveries. He missed parts of several games with a pulled hamstring.
“Will have a major impact offensively if he can stay healthy,” Smith said.
Senior OL/DL Ashton Schlitz missed the last two games because of a concussion.
“Was a major reason our run game was so effective last year,” Smith said. “When healthy is a major force on both sides of the ball.”
Senior Ethan Shea delivered 50 tackles and a pair of interceptions. GP was fourth in six-man offense with 43.5 points a game, though permitted 43.9. Weskan (1-5) returns Dalton Mackley and senior OL/DL Lane Purvis, a three-year starter.
Mackley, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound junior, plays wide receiver/utility/defensive back/kick and punt return. In five games, he recorded 47 receptions for 753 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Mackley delivered 38 carries for 275 yards and four scores, along with three passing touchdowns. He, Natoma senior running back Kayden Martinez and Natoma senior Derek George are the lone first team all-state players back. Natoma finished 3-2 and gave Cheylin its closest game in a 52-12 win.
Natoma junior defensive end Javon Letsch was honorable mention all-state defensive end. All three Tiger all-state players were at least 190 pounds last fall. Natoma has new coach Robert Cox, formerly at Deerfield.
Northern Valley finished 2-5 in its first year of six-man football. NV senior Clay Preston, Fowler senior defensive end Charlie Littlewood and Cunningham junior defensive end Lane Halderson were honorable mention all-state selections.
Ashland coach excited for upcoming talent; Bluejays with No. 1 6-Man Offense in 2020
Ashland is 18-5 since it switched to six-man football, including 4-1 last fall in a season that featured a pair of cancelled games. Coach Ben Fox, an Ashland graduate, is highly excited about his personnel for this season – and the next several falls.
Ashland had two freshmen at quarterback last year and both delivered a quarterback rating over 112.
Landen McPhail completed 11 of 21 passes for 205 yards with four touchdowns against zero interceptions. Britt Grigsby threw 28 of 53 for 440 yards for nine scores against one interception. Grigsby will be the primary quarterback and throw the drop-back passes and play action.
McPhail rushed 33 times for 399 yards and seven scores, while sophomore Kale Harris delivered 21 rushes for 233 yards and five TDs. Junior Nathan Lynn had 19 carries for 166 yards and five scores.
Lathan McPhail, a freshman this season, will get some quarterback reps as the game allows.
Harris is coming off an ACL injury that he suffered in a 41-32 road win versus Moscow on Sept. 25.
“He was playing like our best player like last year as a freshman,” Fox said.
Fox said Landen McPhail (WR/RB/LB) “was playing like a stud last season.”
“We asked a lot of him after Kale went down,” Fox said.
Junior Jose Amaya (G/TE/DE) has some speed and will make an impact on both sides. Sophomore Gus Hink is expected to play center. Sophomore Trae Vera (OG/TE) has been a top summer attendance the last two years.
Nathan Lynn has impressed on the defensive line. Senior Andrew Endicott has played on the line the last couple of years. Ashland is expected to stay in six-man football. The Bluejays get premier matchups in Weeks 3 and 4 with back-to-back games versus Cheylin and Moscow.
Cunningham returns plenty after big improvement
Cunningham enjoyed its six-win improvement last year. Coach Lance McGuire is in his 16th year at Cunningham and 27th in coaching. The Wildcats bring back nine players, including senior Isaiah Reed, juniors Lane Halderson and Trey DeWeese, and sophomores Luke McGuire and Jack Ruckle.
Cunningham returns its top passer in DeWeese and leading receiver with Halderson. Luke McGuire is the No. 2 rusher and receiver. Cunningham returns five of its top-six in all defensive categories. Cunningham is home against Ashland in Week 5 and at Moscow in Week 6.
DeWeese delivered 42 tackles and 15 assists with three interceptions. He completed 84 of 129 passes for 937 yards with 16 touchdowns against three interceptions.
Halderson recorded 57 tackles with 18 assists, along with two interceptions, three fumble recoveries, a scoop-and-score fumble recovery and an onside kick recovery. He caught 39 passes for 478 yards with seven touchdowns.
Luke McGuire finished with 39 tackles and 23 assists, along with four interceptions, including a pick-six. He caused two interceptions and a fumble.
McGuire delivered 62 rushes for 448 yards and nine scores. He caught 20 passes for 164 yards with three scores.
Other key players include: junior end Caleb Panek, junior RB/LB Leo Hageman, sophomore RB/LB Jack Ruckle, and sophomore ends Scott Wyatt and Carlos Hurtado.
2020 Six-Man Offensive Leaders Per Game (all 14 teams)
Golden Plains 43.5
Northern Valley 31.9
Pawnee Heights 21.6
Greeley County 59.3
2020 Six-Man Defensive Leaders Per Game (all 14 teams)
Golden Plains 43.9
Northern Valley 44.9
Pawnee Heights 54.0
Greeley County 59.3