HESSTON — At this point, you can’t put anything past the Hesston Swathers.
When the Class 3A playoffs started 3 weeks ago, not much mention was made of the Swathers as a favorite.
Hesston first became noticed when it handed defending Class 2-1A state champion Phillipsburg its first loss, ending its 18-game winning streak.
But then the full force of the Swathers’ potential took the state by storm when they defeated No. 1-ranked Hoisington.
Now the Swathers find themselves in Saturday’s 1 p.m. state championship game at Hutchinson against Rossville, which has won the last two state titles.
“With a few big wins late in the year, I absolutely thought they could be (playing for the championship),” Hesston coach Clint Rider said. “Has it hit me yet that they are? That's a different question. I love these guys.”
The Swathers meandered to a 1-3 start, but then caught fire in Week 5 and are now a full-blown inferno with nine straight wins.
“Diligence and simplicity,” Rider said as the keys to the turnaround. “Staying focused on the little things one rep, practice and game at a time. That increased ability to perform has given our players confidence little by little until they believed they could play with anyone. Nobody pointed fingers after we went 1-3 and our seniors have done an incredible job leading this team. We knew we were close and our players just kept believing. I have learned so much from these guys about handling adversity. It's been an amazing ride.”
Hesston’s 35-19 win over Hoisington last Friday was stunning because the Cardinals had crushed everyone in their path. The Swathers took control of the game early and rode the arm and legs of quarterback Zach Esau, who leads a diverse offense that’s nearly 50-50 between the run and pass.
But the defense, at times suspect, is keeping up with its offensive brethren in the postseason.
“Friday was perhaps the most complete game we have played this season,” Rider said. “Our defense set the tone early on with two key stops on their first two drives. Offensively, our first drive could not have gone any better. We went down the field in eight plays with no miscues or incompletions to take the lead. The second drive was much the same. It's a credit to our players knowing and executing the game plan to perfection.”
The Cardinals had been gobbling up big yardage on the ground all season and while they went over 300 rushing, the Swathers came up with some key stops.
“Throughout the game, our defense kept Hoisington from breaking long runs and coming up with a couple huge fourth-down stops,” Rider said. “Offensively, we did not punt once the entire game. We threw a pick late in the first half that didn't come back to haunt us, and were stopped inside the red zone late in the fourth quarter. Esau was on fire all night and kept their defense on its heels with great reads and throws.”
Rossville, which has won 52 of its last 54 games, almost didn’t get the opportunity to go for a 3-peat. It trailed Nemaha Central 22-21 in the fourth quarter, but a 64-yard touchdown run by Jacob Bradshaw saved the Bulldawgs and a pick in the end zone by Wyatt Dyche snuffed out a Nemaha bid to win it in the fourth quarter.
“They are the two-time defending state champs for a reason,” Rider said. “They are a well-oiled machine that has been well coached. In a way, I feel like we are in the same spot they were two years ago having been close for a long time, but could never take the next step. The Bradshaw kid at QB is the real deal. I would liken him to (Garden Plain’s) Nate Pauly. Explosive player. If we want to have a chance, we have to contain him first.”
With the game not far away at Hutchinson’s Gowans Stadium, the Swather faithful will turn out en masse.
“Obviously this is a big thing for any school, but to be in this position for the first time in 24 years is pretty special,” Rider said. “The community is electric and, in typical Hesston fashion, trying to help out in any possible way they can. It's just phenomenal to see our fans and community take such great pride in this run our players have put together.”
In 1992, the Swathers outlasted the Bulldawgs 3-0 in the state title game.
Rider would gladly take the same result on Saturday.
• HESSTON RESULTS •
Garden Plain 33, Hesston 27
Halstead 26, Hesston 24
Hesston 41, Larned 13
Nickerson 36, Hesston 27
Hesston 35, Smoky Valley 0
Hesston 35, Kingman 7
Hesston 49, Hillsboro 20
Hesston 34, Southeast of Saline 26
Hesston 57, Marion 24
Hesston 48, Sterling 8
Hesston 35, Chaparral 20
Hesston 38, Phillipsburg 26
Hesston 35, Hoisington 19
• ROSSVILLE RESULTS •
Rossville 27, Marysville 20
Rossville 41, Rock Creek 26
Rossville 50, Riley County 25
Rossville 28, Wabaunsee 6
Silver Lake 36, Rossville 28
Rossville 56, Burlington 7
Rossville 49, Mission Valley 27
Rossville 63, St. Marys 10
Rossville 42, Council Grove 8
Rossville 41, Perry-LeCompton 14
Rossville 34, Sabetha 28
Rossville 67, Caney 31
Rossville 27, Nemaha Central 22