There’s probably been more talented McPherson High football teams in the past 11 years than the 2016 Bullpups, but there may not be one that played any harder than this edition.
That’s what I take most out of this highly successful season, which resulted in an 8-3 record with two of the losses to Maize South and the other to Buhler — which meet Friday in the Class 4A Division I state semifinals.
I have to say the final record did not surprise me. The Bullpups experienced a difficult 2015 by not making the playoffs for the first time in 10 years, yet they endured growing pains that proved to be beneficial for this season.
I honestly believed catching Buhler in the first game of the season with MHS being the more experienced team would result in a Bullpup victory. I had the Maize South game marked down as a loss, but then I thought they would run the table the rest of the regular season for an 8-1 record.
After seeing Maize South in Week 2, I thought the Bullpups would win the rematch, given the advances they had made on offense to go along with the rock-steady defense.
Give the Mavericks credit, though. They also made great improvements, especially offensively. They did little to move the ball in the first game with the Bullpups, but they made better use of their personnel in the rematch.
Friday’s 35-27 loss to me will go down as one of those “what if?” games. What if the Mavericks hadn’t run the fake punt to keep a drive alive in the third quarter, which totally turned the game around? Give much credit to Maize South coach Brent Pfeifer for having the courage to make the call. Had it failed, MHS would have had the ball at midfield and perhaps taken the game by the throat.
Nevertheless, this was a Bullpup team that squeezed out about everything it could since it was undersized against most of the teams it played and at times injuries occurred to key players.
It had an intriguing dynamic. The offense was senior-dominated, the defense junior-dominated. No question what the strength of the team is going to be next year.
Casen Hoover emerged as a tremendous quarterback and replacing him next year is a top priority, though there will be at least two quality candidates in Drew Labertew and Kyler Hoppes. Hoover’s running late in the year was a boon to the offense as teams couldn’t concentrate on whichever running back MHS had in the game.
He also had a terrific year passing the ball, with Jack Reifschneider and Jeff Reed one of the best 1-2 combos around and Thomas Diggs made some important catches at tight end. Mikey Saverino, the other receiver, didn’t see many balls thrown his way, but his blocking didn’t go unnoticed. Gabe Hoover had some bright moments and will be the No. 1 receiver going into next season.
The Bullpups had an embarrassment of riches at running back. Tyson Stites, Jace Kinnamon, Andrew Powell and Honestee Whittker all had at least one 100-yard game. Kinnamon emerged late in the season as a blaster. Stites and Powell were plagued by injuries, but were solid when given their opportunities. Whittker stepped in at Rose Hill when everybody else was hurt and delivered big time with a 103-yard game.
All of those players return next year. And don’t forget the expected feature back for the Bullpups going into the season, Austen Hunt, didn’t even play after being lost for the year over the summer. If he comes back 100 percent, the possibilities are limitless as coach Jace Pavlovich said he could see the team running some three-back sets next year, much like Salina South used to do.
The offensive line was the area of the team that made the most progress. The all-senior quintet of Clayton Gerbrandt, Britton Bate, Jared Ruth, Dylan Baldwin and Raine Reitsma became a cohesive unit. It was one of the smaller offensive lines in recent memory, but their heart couldn’t be questioned.
The Bullpups’ success next year will depend on their replacements as all other areas should be top-shelf. Pavlovich will be working hard on developing a new line over the summer and getting into the weight room for the candidates is a must.
The MHS defense will go down as one of the best in school history.
The unit really came together when Michael Mendez was moved to the nose. Listed, perhaps generously, at 178 pounds, he created havoc.
Bookending him were Caleb Spaich and Wyatt Seidl, two of the best ends in 4A D-I. Their toughness and aggressiveness were evident every game. Replacing Spaich will be difficult as he made marked improvement. Seidl will be getting a lot of looks from recruiters next year and should have a big senior season.
Jayse Alexander, Kollin Goering, Luke Koehn and Bate were warriors in the middle. Bate played nearly every snap and never complained. Alexander and Goering are going to be All-State candidates next year as their ability to run and hit is outstanding. Koehn will be sorely missed as he was a steady presence.
The secondary wasn’t tested that often as most of the teams the Bullpups played ran the ball. Labertew emerged as another future “all” player, while Ben Nikkel and Gunnar Reiss made huge improvement as juniors. The other spot was occupied by Reifschneider, but Stites also saw a lot of time there.
Casen Hoover was rock-solid as a punter as he became a quick-kick master. After a disastrous half season in the place-kicking department, Labertew was given a chance and it was a stroke of genius. Of course he’ll go down in MHS history for his game-winning field goal in the playoff game against Andale. Reifschneieder was one of the best returners in the state and that job could go to Gabe Hoover.
MHS’ JV and freshmen teams were solid. The only negative is that the program’s numbers are probably a bit low as there weren’t many freshmen and sophomores out. There were some sophomores who didn’t go out this year that maybe will change their minds and want to be a part of the success next year.
Also moving up is an eighth-grade team that lost only to the two Derby schools. What’s most exciting about that group is that there seems to be several linemen-type of players. Say you what will, a football team is only as good as its offensive and defensive lines, evident by the two losses to Maize South as that was the Mavericks’ strength.
McPherson High football looks to be in good shape for the coming years and given the number of underclassmen who played key roles this year, 2017 could be something special.