By CONOR NICHOLL
The overall theme entering the 2021 Kansas football championship games dealt with the seven returning titlists: 6A Derby, 5A Mill Valley, 4A St. James, 3A Andale, 2A Rossville, 1A Olpe and Eight-Man, Division I Little River.
Derby, Andale, Rossville, Olpe and LR all had winning streaks of at least 17 games. Plus, Mill Valley was 18-1 in its last 19 contests. It marked the most ever defending state champions that had qualified for a final the following year, per SIK research and notes from Kansas historian Brett Marshall.
That storyline was part of the framework of Saturday’s eight championship games. Class 3A Andale, 2A Rossville, and 1A Olpe all extended its winning streaks with wins by relatively large margins. Both 2A Beloit and 1A Inman had key players out, especially at running back.
Mill Valley and St. James captured close title games.
The other three champions, 6A Blue Valley Northwest, Eight-Man, Division I Meade, and Eight-Man, Division II Axtell, all had at least a plus-six win jump from last fall. BVNW ended Derby’s three-year run of 6A titles. Axtell beat Wheatland-Grinnell in a highly rare rematch from the regular season.
Meade set a bevy of school records and historical footnotes en route to ending Little River’s 20-game winning streak. While many players had standout performances in the titles, none matched the fall of Meade sophomore wide receiver/defensive back Brock Keith.
He was a key member of Meade’s cross country team that won the 1A title earlier this fall, the Buffs’ second straight state cross country title. Keith had missed his freshman football season with a collarbone. He had a big fall for Meade football, including a long receiving touchdown, two interceptions and a huge goal line pass breakup. Keith told SIK he set a goal as a youngster to win a state football title.
Meade first-year head coach Bryan Luetters has Keith in business classes. Keith has told him he wants Meade to win in boys’ basketball, too. Meade went 18-5 last winter, and Keith was the team’s third-leading scorer.
Overall, the defending champions went 5-2 in titles.
The East held a 6-2 edge against the West with wins by Blue Valley Northwest, Mill Valley, St. James, Rossville, Olpe and Axtell. The Eastern Kansas League again dominated with BVNW and SJA giving the EKL two more titles. MV had been in the EKL until this year.
As well, Axtell’s title gave the Twin Valley League 10 of the past 14 titles in Eight-Man, Division II.
From 1970-2020, defending state champions that had reached a final the following year won just over 75 percent (89-27) in those title games. The best year, and the one only comparable to this fall, came in 2002. That year, six champions (Olathe North, Salina Central, Wellsville, Conway Springs, Pittsburg Colgan and Hanston) all won another championship.
From ’18-20, defending champions that reached a final the following year went a combined 8-0, including titles from Sabetha, Smith Center, Hanover, Derby, Bishop Miege and Mill Valley.
The worst such years for defending champs in title games the next year came in 1994 with an 0-3 record. That included a loss from Lawrence after five straight state title game victories. In 2009, defending titlists wen 1-3, including a Smith Center overtime loss to Centralia that ended the Redmen’s state record 79-game winning streak.
This year did not set a record for most wins or losses from the defending state titlists, but still sent reverberations through the Kansas football landscape, especially in 6A.
Blue Valley Northwest defeated Derby, 41-21. Coach Clint Rider’s turnaround with BVNW is well-publicized, but the Huskies have simply had one of the quickest jumps in state history. Northwest, which had never won a state title, was 2-7, 0-9, 2-7 and 5-2 the last four seasons before 12-1 this fall. The Huskies, long known for basketball, had its highly experienced core group, many who had started since their sophomore year: quarterback Mikey Pauley, running back Grant Stubblefield and lineman Gabe Peterson.
Derby has won six state titles under coach Brandon Clark, all since 2013. The Panthers were 5-1 in the last six championships with only a last-second loss to Blue Valley North in 2017 when it featured Graham Mertz, currently the Wisconsin starter. Derby is now 7-6 all-time in state finals. Three of the losses have come by a combined 19 points.
This time, Northwest went up 28-0. Mikey Pauley, who set school passing records, had an all-time great game with 32 rushes for 157 yards. He completed 15 of 21 passes for 186 yards.
Derby running back Dylan Edwards, who cleared 3,200 all-purpose yards this year, delivered 28 rushes for 191 yards. However, Derby went 0 of 6 passing.
The Huskies tallied 2 sacks, 10 TFL, and held Derby to 1 of 7 on 3rd down and 1 of 4 on 4th down conversions.
Mill Valley beat Maize, 28-14. MV, considered a slight favorite entering the contest, won its third consecutive state title and moved to 5-0 in championship games under coach Joel Applebee. For the second time in Applebee’s tenure, MV had to replace more than 75 percent of its starters and still won the state crown the next year. Mill Valley finished 12-1 and moved to 103-35 under Applebee. MV had one all-time quarterfinal appearance before Applebee took over the program.
Mill Valley led 7-0 after the first quarter and 14-0 at halftime. The Jaguars outrushed Maize, 248-151. Maize finished a collective 8 of 21 on third/fourth down. Eagle standout junior quarterback Avery Johnson, who holds nearly 20 Power 5 offers, completed 19 of 36 passes for 248 yards and a score. He rushed 17 times for 71 yards and a score.
Mill Valley running back Reice Kennedy, in his second year of playing high school football and first as a starter, enjoyed another huge game with 27 carries for 223 yards and a score. Hayden Jay completed 11 of 15 passes for 172 yards and two TDs. MV’s depth again showed up.
Receivers Kendrick Jones and Jared Napoli, the only two returning offensive starters, combined for four catches for 71 yards and two TDs. Three other players combined for seven catches.
Mill Valley finished with a better scoring defense than 2020 when it had multiple senior first team all-state players. Mill Valley graduated 18 players from its 2020 team and still went 12-1 in 5A. Joel Applebee has the best program in Kansas rolling. Huge s/o to Maize for getting to their first ever state title game and making history. What a job Coach Guzman has done in building Maize into a consistent contender on the West the last few seasons.
In a game considered a tossup, St. James Academy beat Andover Central, 28-21. AC moved to 0-3 all-time in state championship games. SJA finished 9-4, AC was 11-2 and broke/tied several school marks. St. James became the first team in Kansas history to open 0-4 and win nine straight.
Then, St. James trailed 14-0 before Tiave Watts tallied back-to-back touchdowns. Watts, featured last week by SIK, was quietly the Thunder’s biggest surprise this season. SJA quarterback Jackson House threw for 248 yards. Tyler Claiborne, the team’s leader, recorded six catches for 112 yards and a score. SJA broke a 21-21 game with a one-yard fourth quarter run from House.
Andover Central, known for its defense, line play, QB Kai Kunz and RB Ashton Barkdull, showed itself as a true contender. Class 4A title games have often been lopsided in recent history, and this was the best one in years. Barkdull completed a great career with 122 rushing yards and two scores.
Andale rolled over Frontenac, 53-0. The Indians are 13-0, 12-0 and 13-0 in the last three falls. Andale’s 38-game winning streak is now in the top-eight all-time in state history. Among teams that are not 8-Man or played football in 2-1A, the Indians are currently tied for second for longest streak with 6A Olathe North.
Andale won every game by at least 21 points. The Indians, with more than 80 players, used their incredible depth to win three straight titles.
Frontenac (10-3) had its second runner-up finish with coach Mark Smith and moved to 1-7 all-time in state title games. The Raiders have generally fallen to all-time great teams. Frontenac took second in ’69, ’81, ’87, ’92, ’00 and ’17.
Andale held Frontenac to six rushing yards. Gage Prosser rushed 10 times for 164 yards for the Indians, and Riley Marx was among those with another standout performance.
In 1981, Frontenac lost to Victoria, the first of the Knights’ seven state championships and a team Victoria honored this fall. In ’87, the Raiders fell to a great Stockton squad that won four titles and two seconds between ’86-95. The 1992 team also lost to Stockton. In 2000, undefeated Collegiate beat Frontenac. In ’17, Holcomb was the favorite versus the Raiders.
Still, Frontenac entered this year with high expectations, especially on defense, and has sizable improvements from last year. DE Landon Dean (Oklahoma State commit), QB/DE Collin McCartney, Cruz Blaif (OL/DL), Justice Compton (LB/RB), RB/DB Mario Menghini were among those with big years.
Rossville defeated a depleted Beloit squad, 35-12. Rossville has won five titles under coach Derick Hammes and 26 straight games. Torrey Horak, the reigning 2A Player of the Year, had missed part of the season with injury. At state, he threw three touchdown passes and rushed for one. Rossville finished 13-0, and Beloit was 9-4. The Trojans had high expectations all year and posted a four-win improvement from 2020’s state semifinal team.
Olpe pulled away from Inman, 35-6. Olpe has won 25 straight contests, including byes/forfeit wins. The Eagles have three state titles under coach Chris Schmidt. Inman completed the best season in school annals with a 12-1 mark. Ted Skalsky, the reigning 1A Defensive Player of the Year, had a critical open field tackle at the one-yard line.
Olpe held Inman under 50 rushing yards. Olpe has allowed a remarkable 59 points total in the last two years. Inman’s touchdown was the lone first half TD the Eagles permitted this year.
Eight-Man, Division I
Meade beat Little River, 22-14. Meade catapulted from 4-3 to 13-0. The Buffs moved to 5-0 all-time in state games and won its first at the eight-man level. Huge credit to coach Luetters and the athletic, experienced squad. Four-year starting lineman Cullen Lumry led the front that won the line of scrimmage in the first half. Torren Haynes rushed and passed for a score on Meade’s first two offensive plays. Korben Clawson, who cleared 1,900 rushing yards, had a rushing score.
Meade set a school record for single season wins. Its plus-nine win improvement from 2020 is tied for the best by an eight-man school in the last 15 years. Luetters became the first eight-man head coach to win a title in his inaugural season since Victoria’s Doug Oberle in 2006.
Brayden Norris deflected LR’s fourth down pass in the final minute to seal the win. No points were scored in the second half. The Redskins had several key injuries and players banged up. Meade and Axtell were the lone two teams ranked outside of the preseason top-five to win a title.
Eight-Man, Division II
Axtell beat Wheatland-Grinnell, 44-18. Axtell was a 7-3 team last year. The Eagles (13-0) have zero seniors in key roles. However, Axtell has incredible talent. Isaac Detweiler finished with more than 400 yards of total offense in statistically one of the best five performances in eight-man title game history. Freshmen Brandon Schmelzle and Eli Broxterman continued their huge seasons with momentum-changing TDs and at least one interception on defense.
W-G had a chance to make it a one-score game early in the fourth quarter and showed big growth from its Week 1 loss to Axtell. The Thunderhawks went 11-2 for the best season in school annals. Axtell brings everyone back for 2022 and will be heavily favored.