Football 2012: Three years in, Ness City a favorite in eight-man
Published on -8/30/2012, 10:50 AM
By CONOR NICHOLL
1"They couldn't wait," he said. "They were just so excited to be there. I had come from Ark City. Driving home, I had a lot of time to think and thought who was paying attention. It was really neat because I remember the kids all sitting there just all smiles."
That first fall, Bamberger took over a program in its initial season of eight-man after several years of forming an 11-man team in a cooperative agreement with Dighton. Paced by a strong group of then-sophomores, Ness City played well down the stretch, picked up a program-changing, comeback overtime victory versus Montezuma-South Gray in Week 8, made the playoffs and finished 5-5.
Last year, the Eagles had several key injuries but finished 8-2. This fall, Ness City has nine seniors, and still has the same drive Bamberger viewed on that first day.
"They really haven't missed a beat since," Bamberger said. "It's been really neat to look back and think of that first meeting."
Ness City is expected to have 28 players, more depth than most eight-man teams -- and many Eagle 11-man squads from the past. Ness City has produced several collegiate football players, notably Alex Kuhlman, an All-American safety at Pittsburg State University.
But the Eagles haven't won a playoff game since a 9-2 season in 1998. Ness City has lost five straight in the postseason.
Senior running back/linebacker Dalton Gantz, the team's top tackler (94 stops) and rusher (900 yards), had two older brothers that played for Ness City. Gantz recalled the 2003 Ness City team that had just 16 players for 11-man football. That squad lost to Johnson-Stanton County in the first round of the postseason.
"From my experience watching them play, I don't think they had the depth that 11-man teams should have," Gantz said.
Gantz and senior running back/linebacker/returner Garrett Flax lead a talented group that first believed they could compete for a high school state championship in eighth grade.
"It's been a crazy ride," Gantz said.
That fall, the junior high team opened against perennial powerhouse Macksville and Gantz said the squad was "so, so nervous" before the contest. The team eventually finished with an undefeated season.
"Then we ended up putting like 35 points in the first quarter and we probably played two quarters (because of the mercy rule) every game the rest of the season," Gantz said. "That really set the expectations higher."
"We all knew that if we stuck together and got in the weight room and worked hard, we could do something," Flax added.
In 2009, Ness City had its last co-op season with Dighton, an arrangement that produced multiple struggling seasons and one playoff game, a blowout loss to St. Francis in 2005. In 2010, Ness City and Dighton formed their own teams and the Eagles hired Bamberger.
Bamberger played for Kevin Ayers, one of the state's top coaches, at Jetmore. Ayers, now at Sharon Springs, has won three state championships and never has produced a losing record in his career. Bamberger calls Ayers a father figure and said the two speak often about football, family and life. Chris' wife, Lacey, also from Jetmore, tells her husband he sounds like Ayers. Bamberger runs his practices similar to Ayers.
"He was right up there with my brother and my dad as far as influential people in my life, and I tell you what, he continues to help me to this day," Bamberger said.
While Ayers quickly became a head coach, Bamberger believed he would be an assistant coach for awhile. At Kansas State, Bamberger talked with Ness City superintendent Randall Jansonius, formerly Jetmore's superintendent when Bamberger played. The two had an informal conversation and discussed possible openings. At the time, Ness City didn't have the positions Bamberger wanted.
When Bamberger graduated from KSU, one of his best friends was teaching and coach at Ark City. Even though the football program has historically struggled, Bamberger enjoyed coaching there. In the spring of 2010, Jansonius called Bamberger. The positions Bamberger wanted were open. Bamberger came out to Ness City knowing little about the town. He was "really hesitant" about taking a head coaching position one year out of college.
"I didn't know if I could cut it and didn't know if I was cut out for it," Bamberger said. "It doesn't hurt coming into a group of kids that I have had for these past three years. Top to bottom, they have been a lot of help for a rookie coach, too, so I think that, coupled with a great community backing and obviously a very understanding wife, it's been a pretty smooth transition."
Bamberger impressed his players from the start. Flax, Gantz and VonLehe all smiled and laughed when they thought of meeting Bamberger.
"He was a fairly large guy," VonLehe said. "He was kind of intimidating, because you didn't think that you wanted to make him mad."
"That first meeting that we had with coach, we were all trying to act as big and tough as we could," Flax said. "He still had that full beard back then."
Bamberger is clean-shaved now, but still is known for his strength and athleticism. Gantz said their coach normally lifts for another hour after the football players are done. Bamberger immediately connected with the Eagles -- "he is pretty easy to get along with," VonLehe said -- and has transformed Ness City into an elite team.
"He really set the tone," Gantz said. "He knew our program hadn't been up to par as it should have been. He knew that it was his job to turn this around and get the ball rolling, and obviously that's what he has done. That's why the expectations are so high this year."