Now the real season begins.
McPherson High’s football team begins its quest for a ninth straight state playoff berth on Friday when district play commences in Abilene.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Join Nick Gosnell for the pre-game show at 6:30 on 96.7 KBBE-FM and then he’ll be joined on the game call by Steve Sell.
The Bullpups are in the strange position of being the No. 4 seed in the four-team field despite a 4-2 record. Abilene comes in undefeated at 6-0, while Hays (6-0) and Buhler (5-1) meet in Buhler in perhaps the most-anticipated game in Kansas this week.
Through a quirk in the schedule, the Bullpups and Cowboys are meeting in Abilene for a second straight year. Last year the teams sped up and down the grass surface for 104 points and 1,001 yards as the Bullpups outscored the Cowboys, 58-46.
The Bullpups have played a top-heavy schedule, with their losses to a pair of potential state champions in Salina South (5A) and Andale (4A Division II). Their four wins are against teams with losing records.
Meanwhile, Abilene hasn’t played a team higher than 4A Division I, with their wins coming against lower-level teams. Its best win came against Wamego.
The Bullpups are coming off lopsided wins against the soft underbelly of their schedule, 46-7 over El Dorado and 40-0 over Winfield. However, those games gave the Bullpups much-needed confidence after a shaky 2-2 start.
“We’ve had a couple of pretty good games,” MHS coach Tom Young said. “We’ve executed pretty well on both sides of the ball. I think we’re ready to go. We’ve certainly got some big challenges ahead of us, three really good teams. I don’t think they did us any favors (with the district schedule).”
Abilene has a 1-2 punch with quarterback Harley Hazlett and running back Tanner Hoekman, who burned the MHS defense last year with several big runs.
“Their skill people are really good,” Young said. “Their tailback (Hoekman) hurt us really bad last year. He’s runs very hard. Their quarterback does a good job and they have pretty good speed. They have some tall receivers to throw to, so they are pretty effective with that. They also block and tackle well. They’re pretty fundamentally sound.”
The Bullpups will again not be at full strength. This week they welcome back starting running back Nathan Nutter from a concussion after missing two games, but lose starting fullback-linebacker Collin Baldwin to a concussion. Nutter will see time with Ty Hart in the backfield and spell Hart at linebacker. Nutter was leading the team in rushing early in the season, but Hart has done an admirable job in his absence with six TDs the last two weeks, flashing big-time potential with some powerful running.
Of course, the Bullpup pinwheel is still quarterback Kyler Kinnamon, who has three straight 100-yard rushing games and has been re-creating the magic of last year when he broke the school’s single-season rushing record. Last week, though, he threw the ball much better with 14 completions in 20 tries. Payton Stephens has emerged as his favorite target since moving from tight end to a wide out.
Young is expecting a better effort from his defense than last year against Abilene. The Bullpups have played well since their switch to a 3-4, with Young noting that the scheme better fits his team’s personnel.
Young said he will not venture a guess on the Buhler-Hays winner. MHS hosts both of those teams the final two weeks, with Buhler here next Friday and Hays the following week to wrap up the regular season. The Buhler game is for the AVCTL Division III title as both teams are 4-0 in league play, but in the eyes of MHS the district win would be far more important.
While a loss to Abilene wouldn’t eliminate the Bullpups from a state berth, there’s little doubt it would be a serious blow.
• AVCTL STANDINGS •
Buhler, 4-0 (5-1)
McPherson, 4-0 (4-2)
Winfield, 2-2 (2-4)
Rose Hill, 2-3 (2-4)
Augusta, 1-3 (2-4)
El Dorado, 0-5 (1-5)
• FRIDAY’S GAMES •
McPherson at Abilene
Hays at Buhler
Augusta at Winfield
El Dorado at Circle
Rose Hill at Wellington