Game of the Week: Oakley rallies around injuries
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Oakley High School football team opened the fall with a 20-15 loss to Class 4A Colby, a team that eventually finished 2-7. After a blowout 63-6 victory versus Sublette, one of Kansas' weaker teams, Oakley fell 54-6 to Phillipsburg in Week 3.
An inexperienced team with no stars lost arguably its best player in senior tailback/safety Cody Gabel, a three-year starter who earned all-league on both sides of the ball last year. Gabel tore his anterior cruciate ligament about six plays into the contest and has missed the rest of the year.
"It just deflated our kids in that game," coach Randall Rath said. "I think we hit an all-time low."
On the Monday following the Phillipsburg defeat -- one of the worst losses of the 15-year Rath era -- Oakley gathered for a meeting. Rath said the team wasn't going to dwell on injuries. They provided a detailed critique of the film from the Panthers' game.
"We called people to the table and we talked about, we've got to be accountable for our actions and we've got high standards and we all want to reach those, all of us," Rath said. "Coaches down to every kid on the team, and we have got to hold ourselves accountable to that, and we felt that we were a lot better than we showed there.
"Then, that's where I think every kid held themselves accountable and they also were trying to hold each other accountable, and I thought that made us a lot stronger as a unit," he added.
Since then, Oakley, which returned just four starters (including Gabel) from last year's 7-3 squad, has won six straight contests.
The Plainsmen, in a rare year where they haven't been ranked a single week all season, rode their power running game and traditionally strong defense to a 14-12 first playoff win against Johnson-Stanton County last Friday. Stanton County was 8-1 and ranked No. 5 in the classification.
On Friday, Oakley will travel to La Crosse, ranked No. 1 in Class 2-1A at 10-0. The Plainsmen have permitted just 12.9 points per contest after it allowed 21.8 points per game last season. Oakley has won at least seven games in eight of the last nine seasons - including five falls with double-digit victories.
"Extremely physical up front," La Crosse coach Jon Webster said. "Their front seven, front eight guys get off the ball well. They flow. Their defensive line really controls the line of scrimmage. Their linebackers come downhill very well and hit and they are always where they are supposed to be. I think that is just a hallmark of a Randall Rath-coached team that their guys are going to be in the right spot."
Oakley has produced some of the area's best players in recent years, including running back Aaron Racette and lineman Ethan Jirak, but this season's squad is unique. Senior Darius Herl is in his first year with the starting quarterback, while fullback Oscar Macias has been impressive, including a 35-yard TD against Stanton County.
"I haven't experienced it in the years I have coached, they are just a very strong group and we don't have any superstars," Rath said. "We have got a lot of kids with high morals and character that work hard. They kind of bring their lunch bucket to practice and just work. It's a good feeling.
"They are a lot of fun to coach," he added. "They are good kids and they expect a lot, and they know to reach that, they've got to do everything. They can't take any shortcuts, because talent-wise, we are not gifted enough to do that, and they understand that, and sometimes kids at this age don't get that."
Following the Phillipsburg loss, Oakley defeated Syracuse and Leoti-Wichita County before it had a month with four games with teams that significantly factored into the playoff chase: St. Francis, Oberlin-Decatur Community and Stanton County. Oakley won the first three 30-6, 16-6 and 18-12 in overtime to capture the district. Last week, Oakley delivered another strong team effort and advanced past the first round of the postseason since 2009.
"It was pretty evenly matched and I thought it was a defensive battle the whole game," Rath said. "Both teams I thought defensively played really well."