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Cornelsen takes over a dynasty in Hutch

By BRAD HALLIER

Special to The Hays Daily News

HUTCHINSON -- Seventeen years ago, some football coaches questioned why Randy Dreiling would want to coach at Hutchinson High.

One of the worst teams in the state at the time, Hutchinson was viewed as a place a coach could not win. For good reason. The Salthawks were mired in a 26-game losing streak and didn't win a district game during the 1990s.

Dreiling, who came to Hutchinson as a Salina South assistant, showed you could win at Hutchinson. He built one of the greatest dynasties in Kansas history by winning seven state championships from 2004-2011, and he took the Salthawks to the playoffs 13 times in his 17 seasons.

Dreiling resigned last month to become the coach at St. Thomas Aquinas in Overland Park.

Tuesday, Ryan Cornelsen said he was certain some of his peers were questioning his decision to become the next Salthawks' coach, but for vastly different reasons.

"Honestly, I think a lot of people in my profession think I'm crazy for following someone that successful," said Cornelsen, who has spent the last five years reviving what was a mediocre Hays program. "But I'm confident in the way I do things. I know we'll play a tough schedule, one of the toughest schedules around, but I'm confident.

"I looked at a lot of things, but first and foremost, Hutch is a place where football is extremely important and successful. In Kansas, it's been at the top. Your goal as a coach is to get to the highest level and stay there, and Hutch has been there for quite a while."

Cornelsen has a solid resume. He coached La Crosse from 2003-2008 and helped build the Leopards into a Class 2-1A state power. In his six seasons in La Crosse, Cornelsen went 53-13.

Cornelsen spent the next five years in Hays. The Indians went to the 5A playoffs in 2011 and 2012 -- their first playoff berths since 1995 -- and Cornelsen's worst record in those five years was 6-3. He went 35-12 at Hays, and he has coached the boys track team to four straight state titles.

"I'll be honest -- I'm extremely proud of what we accomplished," said Cornelsen, who will also be on the Salthawks' track coaching staff. "These kids had an incredible work ethic. Football is important to them. This, no doubt, was the most difficult decision I've had to make in my career. Hays is such a great place to live. It's a tough place to leave, but I feel the opportunity and challenge in Hutch was what was best for my family and my career."

The seed for Cornelsen's hiring might have been planted during that 2011 season. Hays won a district championship and played host to Hutchinson in the first round. While the Salthawks ended up winning the state championship that year, they had their closest playoff game that night, beating Hays 27-21.

Just two years before, Hutchinson smashed Hays 56-0 in Cornelsen's first season. The year before Cornelsen took over at Hays, the Indians lost 69-0 to Hutchinson.

"We played them a couple of times, and it was a night-and-day difference from the first time we played them," Hutchinson athletic director Eric Armstrong said. "It was a completely different ball game. I remember how hard those kids played, and I didn't remember seeing that the first time we played them."

Coaching is in Cornelsen's blood. His father Gary -- who will be on staff at Hutchinson -- was the architect of the Liberal dynasty that featured appearances in the 5A title game every year from 1991-1997. Liberal won titles in 1992, 1995, 1995 and 1997.

Hutchinson Community College football coach Rion Rhoades, like Armstrong, is from Liberal. Rhoades was a senior on the 1992 team.

"The funny thing is, when I took the job here and started recruiting at LaCrosse, I was blown away with the similarities Ryan and his dad have," Rhoades said. "Everything, from the way they walked to the way they talked. I think Ryan's a winner. He's seen how to be a successful high school coach since he was a kid. He strikes a good balance of being a players' coach and running a tight ship."

Cornelsen said he met with the Hays players on Tuesday morning to tell them he was moving to Hutchinson. He said he expects to coach Hays' track team again this spring.

Cornelsen also said he expected to meet with the Hutchinson players today and begin to lay the groundwork for next season.

"I'm not going to go there and try to reinvent the wheel," Cornelsen said. "That said, things will be done in a different way. They've been so successful with the flexbone, and our scheme in Hays was similar in the approach, concept and reads. It'll be done in a different way, and we'll be a little more balanced."

What all this means in terms of wins and losses remains to be seen. Hutchinson will have a strong senior class next season, and the district is tweaked with Wichita Northwest replacing Maize. Games against Garden City and Dodge City remain, and those are teams Cornelsen knows well from coaching in Hays.

While it's going to be next to impossible for Cornelsen - or anyone at any school - to replicate Dreiling's success, Rhoades said nobody should dismiss Cornelsen.

"I think it is possible for someone to be as successful, as long as everyone is open with a new way of doing things," Rhoades said. "This is a new chapter of Salthawk football, and I'm excited about it. My boys are in sixth and seventh grade, and I'm excited for them to be a part of a great program."