Friday night was my 37th McPherson High School football season opener — with the first one coming while Jimmy Carter was still in office.
That got me to thinking about season openers in the past and where the Bullpups’ stunning 14-7 victory over No. 3 (Class 5A) Salina South ranked.
It’s not even close. This is the biggest opening-night win since I signed on to cover the McPherson sports scene.
Since my once steel-trap memory has faded, and all the games and seasons seemingly run together, I had to check back in the record book.
MHS is now 12-25 in openers I have covered. It didn’t break through until 1985 when it began what would turn out to be a 6-3 season with an 18-0 blanking of Buhler. The Bullpups actually started that year 5-0 before fading the second half of the season.
One of the problems in season openers for the Bullpups has been there were many years where they would be matched with Derby or Hutchinson. That’s back in the days when Tom Young was still patrolling the sidelines at Derby and Randy Dreiling had built the Salthawks into a perennial state champion.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t see any way the Bullpups were going to rise up and knock off the Cougars. In fact, my pick was 35-14, which many people reminded me of after the game. But I wonder how many of those people truly believed MHS was going to win.
No matter what Jace Pavlovich does as Bullpup coach the rest of his career, he’ll always have this game to reflect on, as he’ll certainly savor it until he hangs up the whistle. There’s nothing like that first win as a head coach, especially one so special.
It was a perfect storm of a start for MHS, coming up with turnovers on each of South’s first two offensive plays, both courtesy of Spenser Wine. He picked off a pass on the game’s first play and after the Bullpups scored nine plays later, he recovered a fumble on the Cougars’ first running play. Again, MHS converted with a short touchdown drive.
While it was 14-0, I really didn’t believe it would last. However, when Tyson Stites made a remarkable one-handed interception in the end zone near the end of the first half — a play certainly worthy of an ESPN Sport Center mention — I started to believe.
South had many offensive weapons, but quarterback Jason Yarochowicz was starting his first game and his inexperience showed. While he had a nice arm, it was evident he didn’t want to run the football. The Cougars actually were more effective running the ball with DeAngelo Turner and Sam Carona, as MHS’ secondary negated the state-renowned dynamic receiving duo of Dylan Becker and Jacob Marcotte, who were expected to put up triple digits against an MHS secondary that was missing starting corner Drew Labertew, with Stites filling in admirably. Becker and Marcotte had combined for 84 catches, 1,591 yards and 23 touchdowns last year.
Defensive coordinator Chet Harlin and new secondary coach Treg Fawl certainly deserve kudos. They had their players in the right spots all night and even though South had a huge offensive line, the Bullpups used their quickness to hold the Cougar juggernaut to just 100 yards in the first half and 269 for the game. This is a South offense that figures to normally put up 400 to 500 yards a game once it gets acclimated.
I’ve always said that you want to play what is expected to be a great team right out of the chute. There’s always something about opening-night jitters and even with so many key players back, South made some typical first-game mistakes, as all teams do.
But this was more about what the Bullpups did right than what South did wrong. First-year starting quarterback Casen Hoover managed the game beautifully, with just one malfunction on the night which was no fault of his own as a fumble on the South 4 halted a probable third touchdown in the first half. Two guards were pulling, but then ran into Hoover and the ball came loose.
Running back Noah Jirgens burst on to the scene like a comet. He carried an exhausting 38 times for 223 yards, only once being thrown for a loss as he kept moving forward. Never in my wildest dreams – or probably his, either — did I expect he would gash South for a 200-yard game.
MHS’ offensive line, which Pavlovich maintained throughout the preseason would be a strength, time and again fired out of the starting blocks. They pushed around the Cougars and allowed the Bullpups to melt the clock with time-consuming drives to shorten the game. That will be the plan again this week against defending 4A Division II state champion Andale, which must have a terrific defense as it held Buhler to just 16 points on Friday. The Crusaders probably will put up about 40 or more points on most people, led by Jace Williams and Dillon Engelland.
While it’s just one game, my perception of the season has changed. The Bullpups, despite a scant few starters back, have some outstanding underclassmen who are going to augment the seniors. I posted last week that I predicted a 5-4 season, but I may have set the bar too low. It’s all going to come down to staying healthy and not resting on their laurels.