Oakley defense takes it to Ellis
By CONOR NICHOLL
ELLIS -- The Oakley High School football team's strong, physical and experienced defensive line features seniors Austin Baalman (6-foot-5, 218 pounds) and Mason Rains (6-2, 247) at the ends. The inside has 6-2, 231-pound junior Ryan Kuhn and 6-2, 217-pound senior Gage Hayden. Baalman and Kuhn were each all-state last season, while Rains moved to defensive end midway through the fall, and Hayden has played well after he missed 2012.
"They are really the heart of our team," Plainsmen senior quarterback Darius Herl said. "They work hard, and they just want to win."
On Friday, Oakley's defensive line continued the Plainsmen's dominance in a 53-0 victory against Ellis.
"I look sideways, and there is this monster just tearing through the line, just throwing people sideways and just ripping people's heads off, that's pretty much what it's like," Hayden said of Kuhn. "I look over, and I am even a little scared - and he is on my team."
Oakley, Kansas' No. 1 scoring defense with just 20 points allowed, moved to 7-1 after a bye last week.
The Plainsmen, ranked No. 5 in Class 2-1A in the statewide media poll, clinched their second straight district title with a 4-0 record. Ellis coach Butch Hayes said Kuhn was the best lineman and Oakley the best team the Railers played all season. Ellis opened with a loss to La Crosse, ranked No. 2 in 2-1A.
"They are very talented," Hayes said. "They played well. They played hard, physical, Kuhn is a force inside. He is quite the disruption."
Oakley will play host to 8-1 Elkhart and its fast-paced spread offense next Friday in the first round of the state playoffs. This marks the last fall for coach Randall Rath, in his 16th season as Oakley's head coach; he announced his resignation earlier this fall. Oakley has made two sub-state championships under Rath, but never a state title game.
"We just want it," Hayden said. "We just want it more than anyone else."
Just like all season, Kuhn drew a constant double team, yet still finished with a game-high 3.5 tackles for loss. Oakley had 10 tackles for loss, forced six turnovers and had another short field off a poor Ellis punt snap. Hayden collected 2.5 tackles for loss, while Rains added half a sack and senior defensive lineman Eric Rucker batted down a pass.
"We take pride in everything that we do," Kuhn said. "We try our hardest every play, every snap."
Because of the bye week, Rath said the team had its five hardest practices since two-a-days, but responded well to the challenge.
To clinch the district, Oakley had to win or take a close loss. However, Ellis could win the district and knock Oakley out with a victory by more than 21 points.
"I thought the kids bought into (practice), and focused," Rath said. "Kids at this time of the year have to want to play, and they do."
Before Friday, the teams had split the last six meetings with an average margin of eight points. Ellis missed senior lineman Nick Gehring, a three-year starter, who suffered a concussion last week.
The Railers finished 3-6, the worst record since 2003.
"We were young coming in, and we had some injuries and our kids fought throughout the season," Hayes said. "I am proud of them for doing that. It didn't go the way we wanted it to go, but these kids, they worked, they did what we said, they played hard. It's unfortunate how it ended, but those kids have a lot to be proud of."
On the game's second play, senior Key Keller picked off a pass and returned it 34 yards to the Ellis four-yard line. Two plays later, Herl scored from two yards out.
"We just had some mental breakdowns," Hayes said. "In a game like this, you can't have those."
On the next drive, Ellis had a bad snap on the punt, Oakley took over at the Railer 19 and Herl scored from 3 yards out. On the first play of the next drive, Ellis senior Landon Younger mishandled a pitch and Oakley recovered.
Four plays later, Keller scored from four yards for a 22-0 lead with 6 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first quarter. Oakley led 37-0 at the break and had the running clock for most of the second half.
Keller collected 13 rushes on 106 yards and three TDs, while Herl rushed 10 times for 77 yards and two scores and threw a 15-yard TD pass. Senior fullback Oscar Macias rushed 14 times for 62 yards. Oakley often gained big yards on dives up the middle.
"We haven't done that as much this year, but we thought against what they did, that was an opportunity for us," Rath said. "I know they were worried more about us running off tackle."
The defense, without two starters, did the rest. Three weeks ago, sophomore linebacker Colter Stoll broke his leg and is done for the year.
"Two weeks ago, when we played Oberlin, it really showed up," Rath said. "I thought tonight, our kids did a better job."
In Week 3, Oakley lost 14-6 to Class 3A powerhouse Phillipsburg and junior Sam Gallagher suffered a season-ending labrum injury. Rains moved to defensive end and Hayden went to defensive tackle. Hayden had played his freshman year, but sat out last fall.
"I had some other things that I had to solve in my life," Hayden said.
The team maintained contact with Hayden and knew he had potential. He returned for 2013 and wore a big smile after Friday's win. Hayden helped hold Ellis to 5 of 15 passing for 38 yards and just 11 rushing yards.
"It's been a really good experience, and it made me really happy that I came out this year and worked really hard," Hayden said. "...I love playing football, going hard, hitting people. It's all so fun."