Football Bullpups exceeded expectations

By Steve Sell
November 10, 2014

High school football teams more often than not are remembered for how they finished the season rather than how they got to that point.

In McPherson High’s case, we should warmly embrace its body of work rather than the end result.

Unfortunately since we're still somewhat in the heat of the moment, Bullpup fans may choose to dwell more on its underachieving postseason game rather than the overachieving regular season that put it in the playoffs in the first place. MHS finished with a splendid 7-3 record, its ninth straight winning season, and won the Division III championship in a year it was picked to finish second or third by most so-called experts.

It’s been well documented how I thought the Bullpups would fare this season. I believed they would bookend two losses at the start of the season with two at the end, while winning five straight games in the middle to finish 5-4. I thought they would, for the first time since Tom Young has been at the helm, spend the playoffs in the role of spectator.

Sure enough, the Bullpups lost their first two games to potential state champions Salina South and Andale and looked shaky defensively in both. They were able to even their record with so-so wins over Augusta and Rose Hill, but neither game inspired thoughts of grandeur. In fact after MHS squeaked past Rose Hill 8-7, I quietly was telling people I had revised my prediction to 4-5.

Easy wins over outmanned El Dorado and suspension-depleted Winfield followed, but still the Bullpups were thought to be the longest of long shots in their district, which at the time housed four teams with a combined record of 21-3, with MHS accounting for two of the defeats.

MHS opened with a gritty road win at Abilene, a 17-6 defensive battle, and the team displayed a toughness I wasn’t sure existed.

That meant at least the Bullpups had a puncher’s chance to make the playoffs. They had the 1-2 combo of Buhler and Hays to contend with, though both games were at home against teams ranked in the Top 5 of 4A Division I.

They responded with two of the most glorious victories in Young’s Bullpup career. The wildly entertaining 44-42 victory over Buhler has to rank in the Top 5 of his personal favorites since the Crusaders were loaded with players who returned from a Class 4A state championship team. Kyler Kinnamon put on a show for the ages with a hand in all six MHS touchdowns, including a pick-six.

However, his attempted tackle on Crusader superstar Jace Williams in the game’s closing seconds resulted in a mild shoulder separation, keeping him on the sidelines for the rest of the season.

In stepped Cody Starkel, who responded with one of the best pinch-hitting performances I’ve seen in my nearly 40 years of covering prep sports. In his first-ever varsity start at quarterback, he expertly delivered a virtuoso effort as MHS got past Hays, 42-35.

The mental and physical toll those games extracted from the Bullpups was monumental. Not to make excuses, but games like those — probably the best postseason run of any team in Kansas — wore MHS out. It was evident early in the Mulvane game the Bullpups were running on fumes. They didn’t have the same pep in their step or crispness in their execution.

I was surprised that MHS had so much trouble running the ball against the Wildcats after putting up huge numbers the several weeks before. That resulted in Starkel having to throw the ball 31 times, which is out of Bullpup character. Still it appeared as though MHS was going to escape, only to see Mulvane hit on a couple of big pass plays to set up the winning touchdown in the closing seconds.

This loss for Young had to rank as one of his all-time disappointments. It’s not quite in the class though of the Holton loss from 2012, the Kapaun loss of 2011 or the Emporia loss of 2010. It seems like when the Bullpups have exited from the playoffs, they’ve done so in heartbreaking fashion.

The Bullpups will be hit hard by graduation. They started eight seniors on defense Friday, including six of their front seven. The offensive skill positions will be stripped and the question of who is going to run the ball next year is more critical than at any time in Young’s tenure. The Bullpups have had a royal flush of running backs the last nine years and hopefully somebody is going to develop into the featured bell cow.

Moving up, however, is a two-loss junior varsity team and a freshman team that has lost just one game in two years. My concern is numbers, as I find it hard to believe a school McPherson’s size doesn’t have more players in its system than it does. Even as good as this year’s ninth-grade team was, it saw more than 20 players lopped off the roster from the year before when it boasted more than 50. Schools like Buhler and Andale, which don’t have the enrollment of MHS, get far more players out.

But it still comes down to putting the best 11 on the field. 

Offensively, the Bullpups will welcome back starters Derek Hall and Jake Nikkel in the line while Michael McKinney, Corben Davis and Ross Regier depart. Luke Stucky and Kaleb Jost both made starts at tight end, but from there it’s pretty bare. There will be a lot of new names in the trenches.

It’s hard to imagine the Bullpups not being directed by Kinnamon, who started for three years and leaves MHS as its career leader in total offense. 

Casen Hoover, who broke his leg in the season's infant stages, will probably get the first look at quarterback, pushed by sophomores-to-be Drew Labertew and Mason Alexander. Running back is really a concern, with Noah Jirgens the leader at this point. Mikey Saverino showed some real toughness in the JV games and might be the player who really steps up. And it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Andrew Powell, Austen Hunt or Wyatt Seidl will be thrown into action as sophomores. All will be bigger, stronger and faster next year.

The receiving corps will be enhanced by the return of Spenser Wine, who played only two games before his season ended with shoulder surgery. With his size, he would have been a perfect complement to 6-4 Payton Stephens, the Manhattan transfer who emerged as a star in his one and only year. Had he not been plagued by injuries throughout the year, who knows what kind of numbers he would have put up as he was ailed at several points during the season.

Caleb Spaich should be a nice complement to Wine next year given his size, and Kolby Reed and Brock Malm will figure in the wideout package. MHS should be in good shape in that area. 

Defensively, the quick-and-active front three of Starkel, Levi Vu and Cole Hanken will be wiped off the starting board. Klayton Goering is going to feel like he's surrounded by strangers at linebackers as Ty Hart, Collin Baldwin, Nathan Nutter and Coleman George depart.

Casey Cheek and Jack Reifschneider return in the secondary, but Luke Williams and Jason Anderson must be replaced on the corners.

But Stucky, who missed some time with injuries including the final two games, started several games and Jost played a lot of defensive end. Wine and Hoover are like returning starters in the secondary as Wine played corner and Hoover safety before they were hurt. A player I expect to step in and flourish is linebacker Britton Bate, who was a special teams maven.

Look for a big infusion of youth on this side of the ball. The Bullpup defense will be learning on the fly and may encounter some growing pains.

As far as Division III, Buhler will be the overwhelming favorite as it has many starters back — including All-Staters Jace Williams and Dillon Engelland — and moves up JV and freshmen teams that defeated MHS. Augusta is the team that could make some noise after a huge turnaround season, while I don’t look for much from Winfield, El Dorado and Rose Hill.

Two of the three district games will be on the road, with trips to Buhler and Hays. Abilene will be here next year.

It’s way too early to predict a record for next year. The Bullpups’ offseason weight program turns boys into men and the advancement some players make from one season to the next is truly remarkable. With Young and a rock-solid assistant coaching staff at the helm, I have total confidence McPherson High football will again be competitive and provide its fans with a lot of excitement next year.