Before the season, the general consensus around the state was that McPherson High’s playoff streak of eight years in a row would finally come to an end.
The Bullpups were housed in a district that included defending Class 4A champion Buhler, which was chockfull of returning starters including the potential No. 1 junior in the state, and a Hays team that was dropping down from Class 5A and featured arguably the state’s No. 1 senior recruit.
Some thought the Bullpups had a sliver of hope of perhaps earning a No. 2 finish and first-round road game.
But when this amazing three-week gauntlet ended here Friday night, it was the Bullpups who stood tall and proud with the district championship plaque as they outscored Hays 42-35 for the right to be home next Friday against Mulvane.
The Bullpups completed a 3-0 run against teams that had a combined 17-1 record entering district play.
For MHS’ Tom Young, it’s moments like these that keeps him coaching. His team opened the season being bruised by Salina South and Andale, potential state champions in Class 5A and 4A Division II, respectively. Since then, despite a rash of injuries and a lineup that was cobbled together almost weekly, the Bullpups have reeled off seven straight wins, including the improbable sweep of Buhler and Hays. Buhler advances on with the Bullpups, but the 7-2 Indians are putting the pads away until 2015. Abilene, the forgotten fourth team in the district, finished 0-3 after entering 6-0.
“Our kids just keep getting better every week,” said Young, whose team would have had to go to Ulysses had they finished as the No. 2 finisher. “They knew with our injury situation that they were going to have to play a great game and they really came through.”
A pall was cast over practice this week when it was learned that career total offense leader and three-year starting quarterback Kyler Kinnamon was going to miss the game with a mild shoulder separation. With backup Casen Hoover out nearly all year with a broken leg, Young turned to tight end-defensive end Cody Starkel.
Making his first varsity start at quarterback, the cucumber-cool Starkel led an MHS offense that tenderized Hays’ defense for 433 yards, including 209 passing. Payton Stephens caught six for 100 yards and one score, while Chris Stoppel snatched three, but they were good for 103 yards.
“He’s been a really good quarterback in his high school career,” Young said, as Starkel was a successful JV quarterback at one time. “He just hasn’t had the opportunity to get in there. I think had he been playing all year and starting, he’d be even more impressive. He can really throw the ball. He has a really strong arm and can throw very accurate.”
Hays dared Starkel to throw at the outset, loading the box with up to nine defenders. But once Starkel began to burn the defense, that opened up the running game.
And that meant Ty Hart, who was a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred, as he high-stepped to 177 yards on an exhaustive 35 carries. He reached the Land of Six four times and also had a crucial interception. He said he knew he had to step up with Kinnamon out and delivered the best performance of his career.
“I didn’t realize it was that many carries,” Young said. “We needed it. They stacked everything up real tight and forced us into the throwing situation, although pass-wise it was difficult because they blitz so much.”
The Bullpups were down 14-0 early as the wondrous Alex Delton ran for a score and threw for another. MHS was able to answer twice in the second quarter on a Collin Baldwin plunge and the first of Hart’s four scores to knot the game at the half.
But after MHS pounded down the field on the first possession of the second half, capped by a Hart 22-yard gallop, the Bullpups grabbed the game by the throat. That score keyed a 28-7 Bullpup run, with Hart scoring two more times and Stephens grabbing a 19-yarder as the lead swelled to 42-21.
Hays, though, made it Nervous Nellie time, as Delton threw a TD pass to make it 42-27, then the Indians recovered an onside kick and went right down the field to score again to make it 42-35 as it tacked on a deuce.
The final nail, however, was a Baldwin pick of Delton and the Bullpups ran out the clock.
Delton, who has committed to Kansas State, had a tremendous game with 174 yards on 25 carries and two scores, while throwing for 182 and three more scores. But MHS sacked him seven times as the pressure caused him to break containment and freelance.
“He makes things happen,” Young said. “He scrambles around and sometimes he takes off and runs. He’s so fast and elusive and other times he scrambles from one side of the field to the other. It’s hard to stay on those receivers that long.”
MHS and Mulvane were both in Division III last year, but the Wildcats are now in Division IV. They no longer have star running back Michael Mason, who was a handful to defend last year.
• STATISTICS •
• MHS Listed First •
First Downs — 19, 12. Rushes-Yards — 52-224; 31-208. Passing — 10-18-1-209; 6-14-2-182. Punts-Avg. — 3-30.7; 3-41.7. Fumbles-Lost — 1-1; 1-1. Penalties-Yards — 4-35; 4-49.
• INDIVIDUAL LEADERS •
• Rushing •
MHS — Hart 35-177, Nutter 8-34, Starkel 4-11, Baldwin 3-6.
Hays — Delton 25-174, Dryden 1-30, Blackmon 1-2, Rule 1-1, Maddux 1-1, Kreutzer 2-0.
• Passing •
MHS — Starkel 10-18-1-209.
Hays — Delton 6-14-2-182.
• Receiving •
MHS — Stephens 6-100, Stoppel 3-103, Williams 1-6.
Hays — Kreutzer 2-69, Dryden 2-61, Maddux 1-43, Blackmon 1-9.