The realization finally hit with about 3 minutes to go Friday that McPherson High was going to miss the state football playoffs for the first time in 10 seasons.
Undefeated and No. 2-ranked Buhler had just scored to take a two-touchdown lead over the Bullpups, whose backs were against the wall after losing their district opener to undefeated and No. 5-ranked Abilene.
Yet, the Bullpups kept battling, trying to get that one last score to close the gap to single digits. Finally, they had to relent and tip their helmets to the better team.
So there it is, a glorious nine-year playoff run for the Bullpups is over. It took two undefeated teams ranked in the Top 5 to pull it off and I would imagine Abilene coach Steve Simpson and Buhler coach Steve Warner would concede the Bullpups certainly belong in the 16-team 4A Division I playoffs that will include a few pretenders.
For example, my alma mater Independence is already in and it edged Winfield to advance after routing winless (and bitter arch-rival) Coffeyville in the district opener. McPherson, on the other hand, blew out Winfield 61-0 and had running clock in the second half, while my beloved Bulldogs were a 21-14 winner over the Vikings. It will be interesting to see how Indy fares against Augusta in the game for the district title this week and I have a feeling it will not fare well.
MHS will still have plenty to play for on Friday. A victory gives it a 10th straight winning season, extending a school record. A 5-4 record (which I predicted in this very space at the start of the season) sounds a whole lot better than 4-5. You go into the offseason on a positive note and the players feeling better about themselves.
The Bullpups certainly gave Abilene and Buhler all they wanted. They were up on Abilene 17-7 and two huge plays — a touchdown on the last play of the half on a broken play and a kickoff return for a touchdown to start the second half — flipped the game in Abilene’s favor. It didn’t help MHS that it was missing five starters, but the Bullpups have done a great job this year of playing short-handed since they’ve had so much experience doing it.
MHS, though, was about as healthy as it’s been in a long time for the Buhler game as Luke Stucky, Luke Koehn, Casey Cheek and Noah Jirgens returned, though Jirgens only logged a single carry since Klayton Goering was running the ball so well. Goering had his most extensive action of the year at running back and responded with 19 carries for 72 yards. You just wonder had he been healthy all year what kind of numbers he would have put up.
It’s interesting about the running back situation because at the start of the year that was perhaps a trouble spot. Jirgens was sensational for five games, but an ankle injury has reduced him to little more than a spectator. Austen Hunt then came in and dazzled before Goering was the choice on Friday and he showed tremendous potential. And remember, Tyson Stites has barely been used there and he has exciting possibilities, while Andrew Powell had glitzy numbers in his only action against Winfield. MHS turned a weakness into a strength as the season went along.
The Bullpup defense, which has been the team’s backbone much of the year, simply gave away too much size and speed to a Buhler team that I still believe will make the state championship game against Miege, though Warner had to be disturbed to see his secondary torched for 314 passing yards in the second half by Casen Hoover, who had not even thrown for 200 yards in a game this season.
That game should boost Hoover’s confidence going into next year and he’ll have his two top receivers back in Jack Reifschneider and Jeff Reed, who have emerged once expected top threat Spenser Wine was lost for the year. And don't forget Mikey Saverino and Thomas Diggs return as well as MHS will be as good at anybody at receiver.
Reifschneider has developed into MHS’ most versatile player. He has been tremendous defensively and gives the offense its most dangerous threat. In addition, he’s been a dynamic return man, has as Stites.
Remember, before the Bullpups set sail on this magnificent run, it had endured a playoff drought of 18 years. Tom Young got the Bullpups into the playoffs in his first year in 2006 after the last appearance had been in 1988, a team led by All-Stater Dwayne Chandler, who rushed for 1,536 yards that year.
Given the young players on this team and with Buhler not in the district next year having been replaced by Wamego, just expect this to be a hiccup and the Bullpups will be back in playoff mix next year.