2-1A playoffs -- Oakley hopeful for deep run

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Oakley High School junior nose guard Ryan Kuhn has greatly enjoyed playing for Plainsmen football coach Randall Rath, who is in his 24th season with the program, 16th as head coach. Since 2001, Rath has led Oakley to the playoffs every year except 2010. In that span, the Plainsmen have made two sub-state championships -- the farthest football advancement in school annals -- and three of the Plainsmen's four quarterfinal showings.

Rath, who announced his resignation for personal reasons earlier this fall, will step aside after the school year. Kuhn said one of the team's biggest goals is to finish the season at the Class 2-1A state championship game in Hays.

"We want to get him that state title," Kuhn said. "Send him off right. It's great. He lets you know when you are doing something wrong, he lets you know when you are doing something great, he shows the enthusiasm, he wants to be out there. There isn't a coach like that."

The four-week postseason journey starts Friday when Oakley plays host to 8-1 Elkhart and its fast-paced spread offense similar to the blur look at the University of Oregon. Elkhart's lone loss was a 28-6 defeat to Meade's single wing power-running game in Week 8.

Oakley, 7-1 and ranked No. 5 in the statewide media poll, has a similar attack with its ball-control, run-heavy offense and aggressive defense that leads all of Kansas with just 20 points allowed. Rath wants to run at least 60 offensive plays Friday. Oakley defeated Elkhart 50-0 in the second round of the 2009 playoffs, the only matchup between the squads in the last 10 years.

"Offensively, we have got to dictate the game by being physical and making them tackle a lot," Rath said.

Elkhart stands fifth in the classification at 367 points. The Wildcats average 469 yards per game under fourth-year coach Khris Buckner.

Among the top-25 Kansas 11-man teams in total offense, Elkhart ranks second to Class 5A Liberal at 62.6 plays per contest. Senior quarterback Alex Gomez, a four-year starter, has completed 85 of 172 passes for 1,820 yards with a 25/7 TD/INT ratio this year.

"I feel like if you score quick, you put more pressure on the other team to score and hopefully force them into mistakes," Buckner said.

For his career, Gomez has thrown for 6,340 yards with 73 scores against 34 interceptions and rushed for 1,452 yards and 20 TDs. Senior Juston Hurn has 37 catches for 1,145 yards and 16 scores in 2013. The faster pace has helped Elkhart match its win total from 2011-12 combined.

"It's been pretty fun," Gomez said. "The first game, we were so tired, but after that, it's been really easy. To be honest with you, it doesn't seem like we are going that fast anymore. It feels normal, and it's just really fun to see the other team gasping for air while we are in the fourth quarter, and we are feeling perfectly fine."

However, Elkhart had trouble with Meade, ranked No. 3 in the classification. The Buffs' single wing held a 23-9 first down advantage and had 74 plays (67 rushes) to Elkhart's 39 snaps. Gomez finished 5 of 15 for 61 yards. Meade plays host to Oberlin (5-4) for the second straight season.

Against Ellis last Friday, Oakley continually gained at least four to five yards each play, especially off the inside dive. Senior quarterback Darius Herl managed the game well and the first team offense had no turnovers.

"He is doing a good job," Rath said. "He is just getting better every game. Another kid, he is really strong, worked hard, too all offseason and wants to do well. I thought he took charge, and we didn't turn the ball over, and he has a lot of pride in that and tries to relay that message to the rest of the backs."

Kuhn, all-state as a sophomore, is nearly impossible to slow down. Kuhn started playing nose guard in middle school and loves the position. In the summer, Kuhn never missed a day. He lifted once at night and came in the mornings to run a mile or stadium stairs. Rath called Kuhn a "great leader." Kuhn has drawn double and triple teams and helped Oakley shutout six opponents.

"He has shown our kids what hard work can do, and when you have a good player that works hard, that's just very contagious," Rath said.