MHS-Buhler was a game for the ages

By Steve Sell
November 06, 2017

Maybe the greatest compliment McPherson High football coach Jace Pavlovich received this weekend came from a player on the very team his Bullpups defeated Friday night in the first round of the Class 4A Division I playoffs in stunning fashion.

Jhet Burkhart, a marvelous two-way player for the Buhler Crusaders at fullback and linebacker, texted Pavlovich after his nerves-of-steel gamble in overtime paid off for a 15-14 victory in a classic showdown of rivals who greatly respect each other.

Burkhart congratulated Pavlovich and the Bullpups on a job well done and wished them the best of luck on their game this Friday at Maize South.

Class act. That young man no doubt has a bright future in life.

That Pavlovich gambled and went for two in overtime wasn’t a shocking development given how the game had played out. The Bullpups twice had field goal attempts blocked, including one late in the game that would have given them the lead.

But it was the play call that will forever be remembered as it was the finish to what many on Saturday were calling the greatest in Bullpup history.

Quarterback Kyler Hoppes motioned out to his right, leaving tailback Jace Kinnamon in the “Wildcat” formation. The ball was snapped to Kinnamon, who went to his left as receiver Gabe Hoover was motioning to his right. The handoff was perfect and Hoover took about five steps before lofting a pass into the right corner of the end zone to Hoppes, who had slipped out unnoticed.

That set off perhaps the wildest celebration in MHS history.

Pavlovich said he asked the team what it wanted to do after Drew Labertew’s touchdown drew the Bullpups within 14-13. A PAT kick, if successful, would have tied the game and forced another overtime. The immediate response was to win the game by going for the two-point conversion because that’s what this team has been all year — winners.

The play was called “Jade” and it’s one the Bullpups have practiced the entire season. Credited most for the play was MHS assistant coach Matt Sandbo, who no doubt gleaned his knowledge from his legendary father Gary, former offensive coordinator during the Ted Kessinger halcyon days at Bethany College and he later enjoyed his own head coaching success at Smoky Valley, winning the 3A state title in his very first year in 1988.

At the start of the season, Pavlovich said he asked all his assistant coaches to come up with play ideas for just this occasion. While they time and again worked on the trick plays in practice, there’s really been no need to use them since the last seven games were pure domination.

The play looked so simple as it developed. In fact, the Bullpups made it look easy as their execution was flawless. Hoppes was so wide open that the only fear was the ball getting lost in the lights, but he caught it seamlessly.

Pavlovich admitted had the play not worked, he probably would have been grilled by the local armchair quarterbacks and we media types for running a play that they had never used in a game. But he had such faith in his team and confidence that it could pull it off, it seemed like a natural.

It was the conclusion to a game talked about all around the state on Friday as video of the play went viral minutes after it was over. I’ve heard from people all around the country who lauded Pavlovich for having the resolve to try it, knowing if it blew up the season was over.

But on Saturday he wanted none of the credit. As he said, the players can make coaches look good when they execute what is called and that’s exactly what happened.

It was MHS’ second win this season over Buhler, which returned most of its stars from a team that advanced to the state title game last year. I felt for their kids, just as I have so many times for Bullpup athletes when they have lost in heart-breaking fashion. Buhler has a fabulous team, good enough that it should be playing next Friday. But it’s the system that’s in place this final year and fortunately next year two teams of this ilk won’t have to play in the first round.

I’m sure Pavlovich has received countless texts, emails, calls and other modes of congratulations since the game. As much as MHS enjoyed this victory, it now has to compose itself and get back to work for the Maize South rematch. The Mavericks’ 9-0 victory in Week 2 is the only stain on the Bullpups’ record, a weird game where Maize South didn’t move the ball much except for one drive, with the Mavericks’ defense accounting for two points with a safety.

Both teams figure to be much different this time around, especially MHS on the offensive side. They ran into a stone wall in the first meeting, but the Bullpups are so much better on that side of the ball now that I would be flabbergasted to see them held without a score again.