8-man state -- Osborne going for gold
By CONOR NICHOLL
The previous two seasons, the Osborne High School football team went 10-2 and 6-3, but had several significant injuries. In 2011, lineman Collin Berkley broke his leg. Last year, Berkley and Joel Simon each had season-ending knee injuries. Osborne started 6-1, but three starters, including tailback Kenton Ubelaker, suffered injuries in Week 8 against Scandia-Pike Valley. The Bulldogs lost that game and Week 9 against eventual state runner-up Mankato-Rock Hills. Osborne finished 6-3 and missed the postseason.
This fall, the Bulldogs returned basically everyone -- and have stayed healthy despite starting just nine players combined on both sides of the ball. Berkley, Simon and Ubelaker have played the entire season and senior Maverick LeRock is healthy after he recovered from a knee injury last fall suffered in the 2012 track season.
"If the wrong guys would get hurt, just one of them, we are scrambling then," said coach Steve Tiernan, who is in his third year at Osborne. "Everybody has managed to stay healthy and suit up for every game. That's huge."
It's helped Osborne start 12-0 and has it facing 12-0 Hodgeman County at 11 a.m. Saturday in the Eight-Man Division I state championship game at Newton's Fischer Field. Osborne is playing in its second state football championship; the first time ended in a 3A crown in 1983.
"We have been together for a long time and we really worked hard together this summer and we started winning those first games, and we knew we had something and kept on winning and going," LeRock said. "We knew from those four or five games that we were a tough team."
Osborne is the third eight-man team since 1999 to reach a state championship the year after it didn't make the playoffs. Montezuma-South Gray accomplished the feat in 2011, Bern in 2001 and Midway-Denton in 2000. Midway-Denton was the only one to win a state championship. Osborne has survived a difficult playoff stretch of Madison, Melvern-Marais Des Cygnes Valley and Clifton-Clyde, all games that were within 16 points, two by a score. Tiernan called the run "Murderer's Row."
"Adversity is good, because we didn't really have that hard of a time during the regular season," junior Brandt Wolters said. "Having these hard games and showing that we can fight through some adversity is good for the state championship."
Osborne, with no starter above 200 pounds, has relied on its speed for a Kansas-best 704 points.
Hodgeman County has four players over 219 pounds and senior lineman Zech Schiew, the team's best defensive player with 91 tackles and a team-high 10 for loss, is 198 pounds. The Longhorns haven't been ranked until last week.
"We have been underranked all year," Hodgeman coach Matt Housman said. "I thought we were going to have a good team this year. Everybody says that we are a surprising team, but we have been close the past couple of years. We will take the underdog role, that's fine. That way we won't be complacent or anything like that. It doesn't bother us at all."
Senior quarterback Alex Kreger has rushed for 1,783 yards, passed for 640 and accounted for 39 scores, 32 rushing. Junior running back Kolt Washburn has emerged as a big surprise with 109 carries for 941 yards and 10 TDs.
"They are big, but they have got some speed, too. They have got their backs. Their quarterback can run. He is fast, he reminds me a lot of that Clifton-Clyde guy," Tiernan said, referring to Caleb Gelino. "You don't ever get a good shot on him. He makes people miss, and if he sees any opening at all, he is fast enough to hurt you, and he will hit the gap, and he is gone. Their size is concerning, because they got the speed to go with it."
Matt Housman played under the late Jerry Slaton, the legendary Hanston coach. One of his assistants, Oliver Salmans, took over for Slaton and also coached at Rozel-Pawnee Heights. Hodgeman County, a consolidation of Jetmore and Hanston, runs the Wing-T power offense and 5-1 defense, just like Slaton.
"I had all of these ideas, I think it's going to be easy," Housman said. "Think you are going to be able to do this and do that, and I found the more basic that I am, the more success that I have. Not how much you run, but how well you run it. That is the Coach Slaton philosophy for sure. Even though I knew his philosophy when I first came out, I found myself going back to that, old keep it simple, stupid stuff."
Osborne runs a variety of offenses -- "Coach Tiernan has like 1,000 plays," Wolters said - and has tallied at least 40 points in every game. The Bulldogs started the season ranked No. 5, but have moved up the rankings to No. 1 after Madison had multiple injuries and took a loss. Osborne defeated Madison 40-34 in the first round of the playoffs. The Bulldogs have avoided injury through a combination of luck, physical play and year round weight room work that started shortly after last season before the playoffs.
"Week 1, if we played Madison, we probably would have gotten hammered, but I think just as the season went, we gained confidence and we got better and better and better," Tiernan said. "The most ironic is no deeper than we really are, we have a lot of guys out and they make us better in practice, and they work their tail off and everybody has improved, but we are just not very deep."