By CONOR NICHOLL
KENSINGTON – Thunder Ridge head football coach Joel Struckhoff is one of the most well-known players in Kansas eight-man football history. A Shrine Bowler, Struckhoff still holds several Kansas career records, including rushing yards, touchdowns and points scored. He led TR to an undefeated state title as a senior.
In four years as head coach at his alma mater, Struckhoff has delivered a 30-10 record and had Reece Struckhoff, an Eight-Man, Division II Defensive Player of the Year and 2,000-yard rusher. Coach Struckhoff has coached against multiple seminal players.
Struckhoff, though, offers singular praise for Axtell junior quarterback Isaac Detweiler, whom he labels “extremely, extremely smart.”
“Probably one of the smartest, if not the smartest kid I have ever seen in eight-man football,” Struckhoff told SIK on Friday. “Not super fast. Not super quick, but just knows when to make the right cuts, knows when to make the right throws, and just really runs their offense so efficiently.”
On Friday, Axtell won at Thunder Ridge, 46-0, in the Eight-Man, Division II state semifinal. Axtell is ranked No. 1, TR second. Both teams were 11-0. It marked the only one of the 16 semifinal matchups that featured a pair of undefeated squads. Generally, the matchup was considered a toss-up entering the contest. The game was called midway through the fourth quarter because of the 45-point mercy rule.
On a night that yielded multiple wild matchups and margins of three, eight, one, five, 12 and 14 points across the state, Axtell delivered the lone shutout and highest margin of victory. TR had drives that reached the Eagle nine, five and one, though never scored. Standout Longhorn junior quarterback Dylan Bice went out with an ankle injury early in the second quarter, but Axtell had built a 24-0 lead by that point.
While Detweiler has been among Kansas’ top players since he was a freshman and is a back-to-back first team all-state pick, Axtell’s dynamic freshman duo of first cousins Brandon Schmelzle and Eli Broxterman and the Eagles’ impressive front have also helped pace the team to a 12-0 start.
“We have been wanting for this moment all of our lives, since junior high, since we were little,” Schmelzle said.
Axtell, which finished as state runner-up in 2019 to Osborne, is looking for its first undefeated season since 1993, its last state title. Thunder Ridge believed they had the edge up front, an opinion shared by others, too. However, Axtell highly impressed with sophomore center Grant Buessing, sophomore guard Sawyer Deters (6-1, 240) and junior Owen Strathman (6-4).
“Guys up front were big, and they were a handful up there,” Buessing said. “I mean, it was really tough up there. I think just blocking all around.”
Axtell scored on its first two offensive plays on option to the left side that yielded 56 and 35 TD runs from the speedy Schmelzle. Overall, Detweiler finished seven of eight for 133 yards and three scores. He rushed 19 times for 119 yards. Defensively, Schmelzle and Detweiler both picked off passes.
Overall, Schmelzle finished with seven offensive touches for 143 yards and four TDs and led with nine tackles.
“They are the key,” Isaac Detweiler said of the line. “All big plays are made because of them.”
Axtell starts zero seniors on offense. The Eagles encapsulate one-half of two major themes from the semifinal results.
“We come out with a lot of intensity,” eighth-year Axtell coach Eric Detweiler said. “We knew that they were probably going to be the most physical team that we have seen all year, and we have heard all week about how they were going to kind of march it down our throat, and we took a little (note) to that where we wanted to match that intensity and see what we could do. We knew that they were a great team and hats off to those guys. They have got some big physical kids, but I can’t be more proud of the way our kids played.”
Next Saturday, Axtell faces Wheatland-Grinnell (11-1) in the state championship game at Newton’s Fischer Field. In preseason, W-G was ranked fifth in Division II, Axtell sixth.
“I saw we had potential with all the media and everybody else under looking us, that just gave us extra motivation to work harder in the summer, so we could come out and perform,” Isaac Detweiler said.
W-G has never made a state title either has consolidated schools or previously when Wheatland and Grinnell were separate schools. In Week 1, W-G lost, 62-16, at Axtell and since ran off 11 straight wins.
That included a 42-30 home win versus Victoria on Friday.
Wheatland-Grinnell has a plus-three win improvement from ’20, Axtell plus-four.
Through extensive research from SIK and state historical sites, this is believed to be the first time two teams met up in the regular season and again in the state championship game. The closest is recent history came in 2013 when Hanover and Sharon Springs played a neutral site game in Natoma. SS went on to finish second to Baileyville B&B. Hanover lost to B&B in the state semifinals.
W-G has improved in multiple areas, especially with overall physicality and experience. The Thunderhawks have grown, including front, and with junior Adam Phillips (139 tackles in 2021 after 42 last year).
“Axtell, it was a tough game for them to get thrown into their first varsity action, and the level of play,” coach Jesse Vincent said. “…Throughout the 12 weeks of the season so far, they steadily got better every week, especially run game blocking. They did much better at figuring out their assignments.”
Plus, standout running back Isaac Mendez had just six carries for six yards in the season opener and wasn’t the kicker. He is up to 1,577 rushing yards, 35 rushing TDs and 26 touchbacks this season. Versus Victoria, senior quarterback Trey Vincent passed for 179 yards. Mendez rushed 24 times for 121 yards and two scores, along with six catches for 89 yards and two TDs. He delivered 19 tackles, while Phillips finished with 13.
Coach Vincent called the playoff run “monumental.” W-G is 1-8, 8-2, 8-3 and 11-1 the last four falls. The latter three are the best football seasons since the schools consolidated in the mid-2000s. W-G lost to Victoria in the state quarterfinals last season.
“The crowd, the environment, it was all special and really neat,” coach Vincent told SIK on Saturday night. “The in-game process, the key in all of that was stopping Victoria’s power run game, and when we were able to slow them down and get the stops, we had some hope.”
The other seven classes follow the distinct trend. Like Axtell and W-G, they have one team that has enjoyed at least a plus-four win improvement from 2020 and/or a squad in the final for a first time.
Class 4A Andover Central, 3A Frontenac, 2A Beloit and Eight-Man, Division I Meade were all KPreps Potential Breakout Teams in August.
In the seven biggest classes, those much improved teams face off against a defending state champion.
In Kansas history, the seven defending champions that qualified for a state title the year after winning a crown are the most all-time.
A look at the matchups, all next Saturday:
Class 6A: Blue Valley Northwest (11-1) versus Derby (11-0) at Emporia State
-Blue Valley Northwest is into the state final for the first time. Under coach Clint Rider, Northwest is 0-9, 2-7, 5-2 and 11-1. Rider took Hesston to a state runner-up in 2016 in 3A before coming to BVNW. Derby has won the last three state titles and enters on a 17-game winning streak. This is the seventh straight year the Panthers have made the title game. Derby beat Lawrence, 62-28. BVNW defeated Blue Valley West for the second time this year, 35-7. BVNW features one of the states best athletes in QB Mikey Pauley as well as RB Grant Stubblefield.
In addition to Axtell’s big night, Derby junior running back Dylan Edwards, probably the state’s best player, delivered 27 carries for 302 yards and four scores. Derby has likely the best offensive line unit in the entire state of Kansas.
Class 5A: Mill Valley (11-1) versus Maize (10-2)
Mill Valley has won two straight 5A titles and is 4-0 all-time in state championships with coach Joel Applebee. Rather incredibly, this is the second time that Applebee and his staff graduated nearly every starter and still made the state final the next year. Maize is into the state finals for the first time. MV beat rival St. Thomas Aquinas, 35-19, the third straight year the Jaguars have beat the Saints in the state semifinals. Maize held off Kapaun Mt. Carmel, 22-21.
SIK’s Bethany Bowman had plenty of video interviews of MV from Friday’s win.
Class 4A: St. James Academy (8-4) versus Andover Central (11-1) at Topeka-Hummer Sports Park
SJA is the defending state champion under HC Tom Radke. Last year, SJA won the title with an 8-4 mark, the lowest winning percentage by a state titlist ever. This season, the Thunder opened 0-4 and have won eight in a row. No team has started 0-4 and won a title. AC, 0-2 all-time in finals, had a plus-four win improvement from 2020.
St. James beat rival Bishop Miege, 42-19, in a rematch of the ’20 state semifinals and Week 8 this season. The Thunder won all three times. Andover Central defeated Buhler, 42-21, the second win against the Crusaders this year. Andover Central has a very talented defense with size and speed. Kai Kunz has had a big year at the QB position for the Jaguars.
SJA junior Jackson House continued his huge year with 20 of 25 passes for 322 yards with four scores against no INTs. Senior Tyler Claiborne delivered 12 catches for 259 yards and three TDs.
Class 3A: Frontenac (10-2) versus Andale (12-0) at Hutchinson Community College
Andale has won 37 straight games, currently tied for the eighth-longest in Kansas annals, per historian Brett Marshall. Frontenac is plus-four win improvement from last year. The Raiders are 1-6 all-time in finals with a runner-up in 2017. Andale has won back-to-back state titles. The Indians held off Southeast of Saline, 37-16.
Frontenac put together a complete performance in a 32-13 win versus Holton. The Raiders lost, 42-6, to Holton in the playoffs last year. Frontenac has made a state finale in 1A, 2A, 2-1A, Old and New 3A and 4A-II. Raider junior speedster running back Mario Menghini had three touchdowns, including two over 65 yards. the Frontenac defensive line is one of the best in all classes of Kansas led by Okie State commit Landon Dean (6’6″ 250), Cruz Blair (6’1″ 235), Collin McCartney (6’3″ 200) and Lane Franklin (6’3″ 275). Franklin, a center and defensive tackle, was injured in the contest Friday night. The Raiders also feature Justice Compton (FB/LB) who is one of the most physical players in the state, taking second in state wrestling last year. Frontenac also had huge nights from twin brothers Michael and Aaron Doria on Friday that resulted in turnovers for the Holton Wildcats. Longtime DC John Palumbo had a great game plan for the Raiders who have been outstanding on defense this season. Frontenac HC Mark Smith is 0-1 in title games as a HC but is 4-0 as a HS player at Colgan where he never lost a HS football game in four years as part of the SMC 66-game winning streak, which was once a state record.
Longest streaks are Smith Center (79), Pittsburg Colgan (66), Conway Springs (62), Claflin (51), Hanover (43), Northern Valley (41), Olathe North (38), Scandia (37) and Andale (37).
Class 2A: Rossville (12-0) versus Beloit (9-3) at Salina Stadium
Rossville has won 25 straight games and is the defending 2A state champion. The Bulldawgs defeated War on 24 Rival Silver Lake, 36-8. It marked the second time this year Rossville beat SL. Beloit, a surprise semifinalist with a 5-7 mark last fall, has a four-win improvement. Beloit held off Kingman, 22-19. This is Beloit’s sixth appearance all-time in a title game, first since 2013 runner-up. Beloit is 8-1 after a 1-2 start.
Rossville senior Torrey Horak, the reigning 2A Offensive Player of the Year, returned to full-time quarterback duties after he suffered injury. Horak completed 10 of 20 passes for 145 yards. Senior Corey Catron, who had replaced Horak, delivered 21 carries for 167 yards and three TDs. Horak finished with 18 carries for 131 yards and two scores.
Class 1A: Olpe (12-0) versus Inman (12-0) at Fort Hays State University
Defending champion Olpe has won 24 in a row. Inman is into the state championship for the first time. Inman played six sophomores on defense most of the time and came back from a 21-6 deficit to defeat Heart of America rival Sedgwick, 26-21. Inman was 0-12 against Sedgwick since ’04.
This game has highly experienced quarterbacks with Olpe’s Damon Redeker and Inman’s Jace Doerksen and features the frontrunners for 1A Defensive Player of the Year with Olpe’s Ted Skalsky and Inman’s Dawson Mannebach. Olpe beat Centralia, 28-6. Olpe defeated Centralia in the ’20 playoffs. Olpe has allowed just 18 points all season, the fewest by a Kansas 11-man team since Smith Center allowed 20 in 2007.
Eight-Man, Division II: Axtell (12-0) versus Wheatland-Grinnell (11-1) at Newton
Axtell has one all-time title in ’93 and runner-ups in ’85 and ’19. Both quarterbacks are the sons of the head coach. Axtell defensive coordinator Dale Buessing was on the ’93 state title.
“Really, really good ball players for freshmen, and then they have got two sophomore linemen I think that, I mean just really get the job done for young guys,” Struckhoff said. “And it’s just impressive, the team chemistry they have, and how many different players they have that they can get the ball to, and just winning those 1 on 1 situations.”
Eight-Man, Division I: Little River (12-0) versus Meade (12-0) at Newton’s Fischer Field
These two teams were at the same preseason Jamboree in Hutchinson. LR is the defending state champion and beat Canton-Galva, 76-68, in one of the wilder eight-man playoff games ever. LR has won 20 straight games. The Redskins scored 42 points in the fourth quarter.
Little River coach Kevin Ayers is 4-1 all-time in finals. Starting quarterback Rylan Konen went out with an ankle injury in the second half and did not return. Ayers told SIK he hopes Konen plays Saturday. LR is 4-0 in one-score games in ‘21, including a pair of big wins versus Canton-Galva.
Meade has a plus-eight win improvement from last year and has won 14 straight contests. The Buffs held off a big comeback to defeat Hill City, 48-34. The Buffs led 20-6 at halftime and 26-20 after three quarters.
Meade has continued to deliver high-octane offense under first-year head coach Bryan Luetters. The Buffs finished with 527 yards of total offense. Senior Torren Haynes completed 11 of 19 passes for 221 yards and a score. Senior Korben Clawson finished with 22 carries for 265 yards.
Little River and Canton-Galva was the last game that concluded Friday. On Saturday, Ayers told SIK the game was “indescribable.” Konen completed five of seven passes for 129 yards and a score. Braxton Lafferty had another phenomenal game with 27 carries for 206 yards and five scores behind the experienced offensive line of Kaden Shafer, Carter Holloway and Kyle Bruce. C-G led 46-34 entering the fourth quarter.
“It was such a blur,” Ayers said. “Just the amount of scoring. Just two really good offenses executing and defenses struggling to find a way to stop the other team, and so even to recount the score….I was there, I coached the game, it’s hard for me to do because it just happened so fast.”