Don’t tell McPherson High football coach Jace Pavlovich that last Friday’s season-ending game with Hays wasn’t important to his program in moving forward.
With no state playoff berth on the line, the Bullpups and Indians played for pride, but for MHS it was the difference between a winning and a losing season.
With the last-minute 31-24 victory, the Bullpups finished 5-4 and extended the school-record streak for consecutive winning seasons to 10.
It was a season of highs (the 14-7 victory over Salina South was the topper) as well as lows (the last-minute loss to Augusta and the district-opening loss to Abilene 26-17 after leading 17-7). But the up-and-down season ended on an “up” and will give what was a young team plenty of confidence heading into the offseason, one that also will be fueled by missing the postseason for the first time in 10 years.
A 5-4 record is what I had the Bullpups slotted for at the start of the season, though I didn’t pick them to win against Salina South but I did forecast a victory over Augusta, a game in which they were missing several key players.
Injuries, to be honest, probably kept this team out of the playoffs. The Bullpups lost lockdown corner and top receiver Spenser Wine for the final five games, not to mention he was a terrific punt returner. Noah Jirgens, Klayton Goering, Britton Bate, Karsten Hardeman, Jack Reifschneider, Luke Stucky, Casey Cheek and Drew Labertew also missed some time.
What that allowed was for a much-heralded sophomore class to be pressed into duty out of necessity and they responded brilliantly. In the Augusta game, at one time there were seven of them on the field defensively when the higher-ups were going down with various hurts. There’s no substitute for experience and by playing such important minutes, that will only make them better next year.
At times it was an offensive struggle, as the first three games produced only 11 points an outing. Then came the soft underbelly of the schedule as MHS started to pile up the points, and even in the three district games the offense was as good as it’s been all year.
Casen Hoover made it through the year unscathed and it basically was his sophomore year even though he’s a junior. He only played in two games his sophomore year before breaking his leg and he was somewhat tentative the first half of the season. But he grew in confidence and started to make more plays with his legs during the second half. He also had a 300-yard passing game against Buhler, a team that could very well be playing for a state championship at the end of this month.
I’m sure Pavlovich would have liked to have found some time for Labertew to get some snaps, but Hoover was an iron man.
The Bullpups hung their hat on their running game. Jirgens was on a 1,500-yard pace after three weeks, but his season basically was over after Game 5. He didn’t play the next two games, limped to one carry against Buhler and only carried a handful of times in his finale because of a bad ankle.
Austen Hunt stepped in and produced a string of nice performances to stamp himself as a top contender for next year’s feature back. Finally, Pavlovich turned to Goering the final two weeks and he was tremendous, which made Bullpup fans dream about what could have been had he not been injured against Andale and had to miss some time.
Pavlovich still wants to get a look at Tyson Stites next year at running back as he believes he has a big future as does Michael Mendez. With Hunt, Stites and Andrew Powell, who had a really good game against Winfield in his one chance to perform, the running game is in good shape, but a replacement must be found for blocking back and short-yardage specialist Taylor Kynsaton.
MHS is well fortified at receiver. Reifschneider, Jeff Reed, Mikey Saverino, Gunnar Reiss, Caleb Spaich and Brock Malm give Pavlovich the most depth there’s been at that position in a long time. Thomas Diggs came on strong at tight end and should be even more of a weapon next year.
Stucky, Derek Hall and Jake Nikkel will be hard to replace in the offensive line. Bate, Dylan Baldwin and Jared Ruth should be a top-notch trio, and Clayton Gerbrandt could move in for Hall at center. There’s one spot that’s open and that will be a focus in the preseason. This year’s line really made the running game go, which allowed MHS to control the clock, especially in the Hays game where it clicked off 81 plays.
Next year’s defense could be special if a front four can be developed. Stucky, Hardeman and Kaleb Jost had great years, with only Wyatt Seidl coming back. At times he was a pass-rushing terror and has great speed for an edge rusher.
Bate headlines the linebacking corps and tackling machine Jayse Alexander figures to augment him, with Kollin Goering perhaps replacing his brother. He played some in the Augusta game and if he develops like his brother, he’ll be a good one.
The secondary will be a strength. Reifscheneider will be as good as it gets with Stites not too far behind. Labertew and Luke Koehn also started in the 4-2-5 alignment, with Cheek the only player having to be replaced. Ben Nikkel could move in and I wouldn’t be surprised if Saverino turns up somewhere as he’s a high-motor guy.
Stites and Spaich will be back to handle the kicking duties and they hope to improve on what were somewhat inconsistent seasons. However, Stites and Reifschneider were dynamite in the return game and MHS figures to be better than most of their opponents next year in that area.
As far as this year’s freshmen moving up to help next year, there are several players who should get on the field and make contributions, though I’m not sure there will be any that will make quite the impact of this year’s special group. A lot depends, though, on how hard these youngsters work in the weight room and develop physically. There are at least five I can see being special players before they’re through.
The Bullpups lose Buhler out of the district (though the teams play in Week 1) and Wamego comes in, which will be a huge plus as it’s not near the caliber. Abilene and Hays remain, with the Cowboys having to replace a talented class of seniors while the Indians didn’t have good numbers this year, but will feature the talented Hunter Brown at quarterback.
MHS loses Salina South, but picks up 4A power Maize South. Four of the first five games will be at home, with three of the final four on the road.
Hopefully, the Bullpups can avoid the injury bug. If healthy, I believe this can be a Top 5 team in 4A Division I. Pavlovich admits he learned a lot in his first year of overseeing the entire program and he has a veteran, well-versed staff that will feel more comfortable next year.