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Game looms large for HHS

By AUSTIN COLBERT

acolbert@dailynews.net

Hays High School football coach Ryan Cornelsen was never the biggest person as a player, and his team embodies this by often being outsized on the field. Most of the time Cornelsen and the Indians have found a way to overcome the size disadvantage, but Friday's 7 p.m. game at Salina South looks to be a much larger obstacle than usual.

"Salina South will be an extreme challenge. It's probably the most we've ever been outsized since I've been at Hays -- since I've been coaching," Cornelsen said. "They are huge everywhere, not just on the line, but every position. So we are really going to have to make sure we attack and get in there and fight if we want to have a chance."

Salina South (5-2) is ranked No. 4 in Class 5A in the statewide media poll, and was ranked No. 1 after a season opening 41-35 win at then No. 1 Derby. Class 6A Derby has not lost since and is back at No. 1 in the state, all classifications included.

The Cougars followed their win over Derby with back-to-back losses to Class 6A Maize and Class 5A Blue Valley, both teams ranked in the top five in its respective class. Salina South is on a four-game winning streak, including a 48-10 win over perennial state power Hutchinson and last week's Class 5A, District 7 opener over Salina Central, 55-27.

Hays High (6-1) is coming off a 47-14 district-opening win over Great Bend, and the winner of Friday's contest between Hays High and Salina South will be a step closer to punching its ticket to the postseason.

The key to the contest will be right where Hays High looks to be most outsized -- on the offensive and defensive lines.

"We got to find a way to establish traps because their defensive line is second to none," Cornelsen said. "They are extremely good and can really stuff the run. I've yet to see a team truly run the ball on them."

The Salina South offense revolves around senior running back Mike Jones, who has rushed for 972 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, including a season-best 295 yards and 6 touchdowns against Salina Central last week.

Jones ran for a career-high 411 yards last season against Great Bend, part of the 1,781 yards and 17 touchdowns he had on the season.

Stopping Jones will be about controlling the line for Hays High, despite the size disadvantage. The Indians have struggled blocking much of the season, but over the last two games against Dodge City and Great Bend, they have seen improvement.

"We are a lot better than we were a month ago," junior tight end and defensive end Brady Werth said. "I think it's just because we went harder in practice and focused harder. Just been working on it and clicking. We know how each other works and we work together now to make blocks."

Last season, Salina South "manhandled" the Indians in a 35-6 Cougar win. Key to making sure this doesn't happen again is being explosive off the line and staying low on blocks.

Just as important is the play of the tight ends and fullbacks for Hays High, who have big roles as blockers in the Indians' offense. Werth and senior fullback Ty Whittington are centerpieces of the Indians' running game, which needs to be effective on Friday in order to keep the Salina South offense off the field.

"Our tight end's got to be a dominant player every week," Cornelsen said. "I thought Ty Whittington probably had his best game against Great Bend, blocking. And I think it probably showed with some of the holes we created. The offensive line got the push and Ty got the seal."

Hays High enters every game with the idea of having a balanced attack, especially with junior quarterback Alex Delton healthy and back under center after missing two games earlier this season. But last week against Great Bend the Indians did not attempt a pass in the second half because of how effective the run game was.

If they can find that same success, the Indians feel they should be able to control the clock and keep Jones and the powerful Cougar offense on the sideline. For this to happen, Hays High is going to have to win the battle up front despite being the smaller team.

"We are usually outsized and usually we stay low and fire off the ball. Usually all the big guys want to stand up tall and try to watch the play. We just have to get into them and fire off the ball right away," senior lineman Kenny Rounkles said.

"I love when it's just two smash mouth football teams, just running the ball at each other. It's who fires off the ball better, who plays harder, and who wants to win more."