McPherson High’s football team has now made the state playoffs nine years in a row under coach Tom Young, but this may be his most unlikely qualifier.
And, without question, this has been Young’s best coaching job.
He arrived at MHS in 2006 and his first team — after losing its first two games — rebounded to end the Bullpups’ playoff drought at 18 years. While they narrowly lost in the first round to Salina Central, the Bullpups acquired a taste for postseason play that has developed like a fine wine.
Y0ung has been blessed to be at MHS during a time that the school has been in an incredible “up” cycle in quality athletes for a school this size. He’s been fortunate to have an amazing array of skill players, which has translated into exciting and must-see football.
But make no mistake. The Bullpups’ success wouldn’t be possible without Young’s steady hand and organizational skills, along with a loyal and dedicated assistant coaching group that has had few changes in his nine years. And the SPS program that he brought here has benefitted all sports, not just football.
If you ranked Young’s teams in terms of talent from 1 to 9, with 1 being the best, quite honestly this team is probably No. 7 or 8. That’s not intended to be a knock on this year’s team, but instead a testament to the quality of players that have come through the program. It’s also a team that has been ravaged by injuries, yet cobbles together whatever pieces are available that particular week and responds with a competitive effort.
This year’s team entered the year with question marks abounding. The running back situation was somewhat muddled at the start, but first Nathan Nutter and secondly Ty Hart have solidified the position. They now make up a dandy 1-2 tandem as when one gets tired, the other steps in.
There were also question marks in the offensive line. The Bullpups didn’t seem to have any of those nasty road grader types with attitude, the last two being Garrett Larson and Collin French. It was a group of good, intelligent kids and they didn’t have a lot of size.
There were also questions about the secondary, which last year struggled mightily against the pass.
All of that made this year a crapshoot. MHS opened the year getting whacked pretty good by Salina South and Andale, teams that could win a state championship or come pretty close. Even the first two wins, Augusta and Rose Hill, didn’t exactly give me confidence that this team was going to the playoffs, much less having a winning record.
But starting with the El Dorado game, everything began to click. The Wildcats didn’t offer much resistance, nor did Winfield, which played without three of its best players due to suspensions.
That set up district play. A road game against undefeated Abilene was a struggle, but the Bullpups came away with a 17-6 victory. Still, I didn’t see a playoff team on the field.
But then came one of the biggest, if not the biggest, regular-season wins in Young’s tenure. The Bullpups survived a 44-42 shootout from defending state champion and arch-rival Buhler, which was a game-changer. All facets of the Bullpup team were improving.
The victory over Buhler came with a price, the loss of three-year starting quarterback Kyler Kinnamon. Cody Starkel, while talented, had never started a varsity game at quarterback and going up against a team like 7-1 Hays, that had to be weighing heavily on the Bullpups.
But Starkel handled the task with aplomb. He threw for more than 200 yards and displayed a calm demeanor. MHS turned it over only once and received huge offensive games from Hart and receivers Payton Stephens and Chris Stoppel. The line blocked great and the defense made stops when it had to against a high-potent Hays offense led by Kansas State commit Alex Delton.
What that game showed, though, was that one player can not beat a team, no matter how good the player is. Delton was great, but didn’t get a lot of help and the Indians have to be seething that they’re going to be staying home with a 7-2 record and with the knowledge they’re better than more than half of the 16 qualifiers.
I have no idea how far the Bullpups can go because they continue to defy the odds. I’d like to think they can get by Mulvane rather handily, which more than likely would set up a match with longtime power Topeka Hayden here next week. To be honest, Buhler probably has an easier side of the bracket than the Bullpups, though the trip to Ulysses will be no picnic though the opponent could be. The Tigers have a good record, but haven’t played nearly the caliber of teams as the Crusaders. A Buhler win and it would get either Augusta or Andover Central, a pair of 5-4 teams that are probably just glad to be in the playoffs.
If all goes according to plan, we could be looking at MHS-Buhler II, which would be played Nov. 21 in Buhler.