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La Crosse continues strong run

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

La Crosse High School senior Marshall Jay believes just three percent of high school athletes have an opportunity to play in a state championship game. Jay and the rest of the Leopard senior class had two chances. In 2011, the Leopards lost a heartbreaker, 20-14, in overtime to Centralia.

On Saturday, the rematch yielded a 61-0 Leopard loss for the 2-1A title at Lewis Field Stadium. It marked the first shutout in classification history and the highest margin in Kansas 11-man state game annals. Centralia, the No. 1 ranked team all season in the statewide media poll, finished 13-0 with one of the great small school seasons in state history. The Panthers outscored teams 660-67 for the season and 472-6 in the first half, including 29-0 on Saturday.

La Crosse tied a school record for wins at 12-1, and continued one of Kansas' more remarkable current runs.

"It wasn't a bad season," said Jay, the only Leopard to start on both title squads. "It didn't end up how we wanted it to, but you can't be mad at it. We still made it to the state championship game. Not very many people get to do that twice."

The Leopards went runner-up, sub-state, runner-up the last three seasons, the best three-year run at a tradition-laden school.

The senior class, paced by Jay, running back Lucas Moeder, safety Taylor Yohe and linemen Jake Reifschneider, Cody Lee and Kody Burns, set a school record for wins with a 45-4 mark. La Crosse has won 36 straight regular season contests, the state's longest current run. The Leopards will bring back quarterback Jack Garcia, wideout/returner Andrew Jay and lineman Sheldon Schmidt, plus three freshmen who started Saturday.

Garcia was fifth among Kansas juniors in passing yards (2,041) and first among 11-man juniors in touchdown passes (31). Jay led the state in return yards, while Schmidt is one of Kansas' best linemen, but didn't play after Week 4 because of a knee injury. Centralia, which is 3-1 in state games in the last five years, loses a big senior class and will bump to Class 3A next season.

"There is a lot to be proud of, and we have got a good nucleus coming back," fifth-year Leopard coach Jon Webster said. "We've just got to decide that we are going to get better, instead of just sulking and pouting about what happened."

Webster, 52-7 as La Crosse's head coach, has led the Leopards to four straight double-digit win seasons. Just five other teams have accomplished the standard in the last four years: Class 5A Bishop Carroll, Class 3A Silver Lake and Scott City, Class 2-1A Meade and eight-man's Baileyville-B&B.

Just eight squads -- those six, Centralia and Class 3A Sedgwick -- have won at least 10 in the last three seasons. La Crosse and Sedgwick are the only ones who haven't won a title, though Sedgwick has yet to make it past the quarterfinals, according to preppowerindex.com.

The consistency is built through nearly two decades of quality coaching with Bill Keeley, Ryan Cornelsen and now Webster, a Leopard alumnus who has also won two state track and field titles. While some coaches keep their kids late and work with assistants all weekend, Webster has a different schedule.

On Saturday, the players come in at 9 a.m. and stay for about 90 minutes. Then, the coaches stay for another couple of hours. Sunday is a day off for the assistants: Chris Delimont, Andrew Schroter and Heath Owens. Webster said he has never heard Delimont's wife complain about too much time away. Throughout the week and at night, the coaches will watch film when they have time.

"Keeps us fresh, not so burnt out when the season ends," Webster said last week. "Sunday is your day."

During the season, Webster tries to conclude by 6:30 p.m. and have all the kids out of the locker room by 7:15. However, Webster said the kids "hate" leaving the locker room after practice.

"How do you throw kids out who are just up here having fun?" Webster said. "It's a unique problem and a special thing."

"We just have a great relationship with him and everybody else on the team," Yohe added. "We are just a tight family here. I think that's what really separates us from a lot of the other teams."

In a rarity, Webster helps coach all three sports as assistant boys' basketball coach and head track coach.

"I see some of those kids more than their parents see their kids during the school year," Webster said. "It is something that we really get to bond together, and you have a special relationship, and every year at the end of the season, it's hard."

The former players often come back to cheer on the team. Multiple Leopard greats were on the sidelines throughout the playoffs. Last week, Tayler Stull, former starting quarterback, Shrine Bowler and current starting safety for Bethany College, came by school and practice Tuesday.

"At the end of the football season, it's difficult because of the way our seasons have finished," Webster said. "I always know I've always got basketball and track. Basketball is a little more difficult, and then track when track rolls around, it's hard to say goodbye to those kids that you spend so much time with."

Webster, who went 7-3 in his first season, remembered having four freshmen on the field at times. This season was different.

"We weren't very good that year," Webster said. "Our freshman have done a good job of just improving every week."

Clayton Herdman started at strong safety all season and finished with 37 tackles. Justin Bond and Jasey Woods each played on the line.

"Clayton's just been real solid for us all year," Webster said. "At times he's shows signs of being a really great football player."

On Saturday, though, La Crosse had no answer for an historically great team. Centralia picked off five passes, including several on outstanding plays. Centralia put six in the box to stop the run and five deep. Normally, that allows the Leopards to pick and choose what they want to do, but not against Centralia. The Panthers' experienced defensive backs played off the ball to guard against the deep pass.

"They were just so athletic that they were just able to cover the whole field," Webster said.