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Eagles migrating to Newton

By NICK SCHWIEN
nschwien@dailynews.net

NESS CITY — Western Kansas has seen its share of depopulation in recent decades.

Families up and move, seeking larger cities away from the farming communities that have become a staple of the region.

Ness City hasn’t been immune to the trend. On Saturday, the county seat of Ness County will see its population drop significantly — only the residents will be returning.

And the townspeople hope they’re returning to a town boasting their school’s first state football crown.

The Eagles will compete in the school’s first state championship football game Saturday when they play Rock Hills at 3 p.m. in Newton. The winner will be crowned Eight-man Division I champ.

“If you drive through Ness City at 3 p.m. Saturday afternoon, you’re not going to see much,” said Tom Flax, principal at Ness City High School. “Somebody said it might be only the police department in town then. Very few people I’ve talked to have said they won’t be there.”

It’s the first time a boys’ team from Ness City has made it to a state championship game in either football or basketball, the main two sports for boys offered by the Kansas State High School Activities Association.

That makes Saturday’s game that much more special.

“I’m not so sure the focus has been on academics this week,” Flax joked. “But that’s understandable. There’s a lot of excitement, and everyone is in good spirits. The build-up has been building and building. They’re going to class, but I’m not sure how much their attention is on the teacher.”

The Eagles have had a miraculous season full of lopsided wins. The school dropped down to the eight-man ranks in 2010, and years prior the school combined with nearby Dighton to field a combined 11-man team.

When that partnership dissolved, the Eagles settled into eight-man football, matching what the school’s junior high plays.

But this year’s team, led by nine seniors, has been a core group for many years before that.

“Back when they were third-graders and playing flag football, they went undefeated,” said Jason Ratliff, a USD 303 school board member who also has a son, Koltyn, on the team. “As they’ve progressed in their careers, you’ve seen the level of maturity grow.”

The Eagles have been flying high this fall, amassing a school record for wins in a season. Ness City has fielded good teams in past years, but none as talented in the eight-man ranks, and solid teams when the school was in 11-man failed to make it past the first or second round of playoffs.

“It’s a really special time,” said Gary Gantz, former mayor of the town who has a son, Dalton, on the team. “They’re all really fortunate to be able to put a team together like this.”

The fewest points this year’s team has scored in a game was 38. That game still resulted in a 32-point win for the Eagles against Hoxie, the closest game this year.

Ness City even has held its last two playoff opponents scoreless, including a much larger Solomon team last week in sub-state action.

“Everyone knew the boys were capable of doing great things,” Ratliff said. “When you can get this far into the season and shut out a team like that, that’s pretty good.”

Fans have been turning out in full force this year for games, sensing something special.

“They’re just really excited about it,” Gantz said. “My gosh, the crowds we’ve had at the game from the first one to the last game. Everyone wants to be a part of it.”

And most of the town will. A pep rally was scheduled for this afternoon, with a bonfire tonight at the county fairgrounds. Then there will be a large caravan to Newton on Saturday morning, leaving the town empty.

Until they return that night. Then, the town’s population might see a boost, even if it is by just one person.

That’s because the championship trophy sports a gold-covered football player, one Ness City fans think would be right at home in western Kansas.

“I think the city of Newton’s population is going to grow by Ness City’s population on Saturday,” Flax said.