When Tom Young set out to fill the openings in McPherson High’s 2014 football schedule, he decided to start right at the top.
Rather than schedule a feel-good, overmatched patsy to inflate individual statistics and send cautious expectations soaring, Young chose an alternate path. He wanted to play the best team possible in order to see where his team ranks in the elite pecking order.
He couldn’t have landed a bigger fish.
The Bullpups begin the ninth year of the Young era Thursday night — that’s right, a Thursday night special — when they step up in class to play at Salina South.
Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Salina Stadium, with the pregame show on 96.7 KBBE-FM starting at 6:30. Nick Gosnell will be on the call, with analysis by Steve Sell.
The Cougars are coming off a 10-3 season in which they were a failed 2-point conversion short of winning the Class 5A state championship, losing 27-26 to Blue Valley in the title game. While graduation hits have depleted some of the talent pool, there’s still plenty of horses left in the stable.
“When Mr. (Athletic Director Shane) Backhus was asking me about who we were going to play to fill out our schedule, I just asked him if we could play the best teams that are available,” said Young, who is 65-22 at MHS in eight years and is in his 44th year overall. “I think in the long run it makes you stronger. They were really impressive last year and the year before. We haven’t played them for a couple of years. We’ve had pretty good success against them, but in fairness we haven’t played them when they were at their best like last year and two years ago. They did lose quite a few starters, but they have some really good kids back, including some really big kids up front. They’re going to be very physical.”
MHS and South have not played since 2011 when the Bullpups were a 41-39 winner. The year before, the Bullpups raced to a 50-19 victory. Overall, Young is 4-0 against the Cougars since he’s been at McPherson.
The Bullpups, coming off a 6-5 season and eighth straight playoff appearance, have worked diligently during the preseason as they’re a blue-collar team that goes about its business without much fanfare. Young said sometimes it’s difficult to get a read since it’s a group that practices with grim determination. Yet, he believes it’s ready to go and could pull the first state shocker of the season in the eyes of some, though the Bullpups themselves believe they’re looking at the Cougars straight on.
“I’m anxious,” Young said. “I’m nervous. But I’m always nervous, especially the first game. You just don’t know what to expect. You think your kids are ready, but you’re not quite sure just good they (South) are going to be. There’s a lot of unknowns with this first game.”
The Cougars will be unveiling big-armed quarterback Dalton Wassenberg and tailback Eric McCullough, who are expected to keep their train on track. Reports indicate Wassenberg may be a better thrower than the departed Justin Stonebraker, but doesn’t bring the same intangibles to the table. McCullough is being counted on for a 1,000-yard season and follow in the footsteps of Cody Busby and Mike Jones, both of whom were All-State caliber.
The strength of the Cougars may be in their offensive and defensive lines, where they return the majority of their starters. Watch for defensive tackle Alex Parker, expected to be a wrecking ball after earning numerous honors last year.
“Speed” is the optimum word in Bullpup camp. It starts with quarterback Kyler Kinnamon, coming off a dynamic junior year in which he broke the MHS single-season rushing record with 1,662 yards. His passing yards fell off from his 2012 output, due mainly to a receiving corps that was greener than a plush summer lawn. But Young said that unit has made major strides and he expects the offensive numbers to level out.
The big question mark is at running back. Nathan Nutter has impressed Young with his intensity and he brings nearly 200 pounds to the position. Then there’s Ty Hart, who is dripping with potential, though he’s more valuable on defense. Hart has home-run hitting ability, though, and could combine with Nutter for a solid 1-2 punch.
Young is excited about his defense, which also is predicated on speed. While on the smallish side, he likes the way it runs to the football. Ends Cody Starkel and Cole Hanken are primed for big years and Hart should be among the best linebackers in 4A. If he can develop a dominating mentality to match his physical gifts, he should be a terror.
The secondary was the Bullpups’ weakness last year, but Young is confident that area is improved. Jason Anderson, Spenser Wine, Casey Cheek and Jack Reifschneider are getting the first call and Wassenberg figures to test them early and often. Young is hoping the Bullpups’ pass rush can create some havoc and force some turnovers.
Here’s a tentative starting lineup:
• Offense •
QB — Kyler Kinnamon
FB — Noah Jirgens
TB — Nathan Nutter
C — Derek Hall
G — Jacob Nikkel, Ross Regier
T — Corbin Davis, Michael McKinney
TE — Payton Stephens
WR — Jason Anderson, Luke Williams
• Defense •
E — Cole Hanken, Cody Starkel
T — Levi Vu, Luke Stucky
LB — Ty Hart, Klayton Goering, Collin Baldwin
DB — Jason Anderson, Casey Cheek, Spenser Wine, Jack Reifschneider
P — Kyler Kinnamon
PK — Nathan Nutter