Ness City, Rock Hills each going for first state title
By KLINT SPILLER
The Ness City machine hasn't even been slowed this season, but senior fullback/linebacker Dalton Gantz expects that to change Saturday.
Gantz said it should be a grind-it-out affair against Mankato-Rock Hills in the Eight-Man Division I state championship game at Fischer Field In Newton. Game time is 3 p.m.
"We've watched a lot of film on Rock Hills so far, and they have a really good team," Gantz said. "We are not going to pass through them like we have done with everybody else this year. It's going to be one heck of a state championship game. We know that, and Rock Hills knows that."
If that's the case, it will be a first this season. Ness City (12-0) has blown out all of its opponents, averaging a 44.8-point margin of victory despite playing the sixth-most difficult Eight-Man Division I schedule according to preppowerindex.com.
The two closest games the Eagles have played were in a 38-6 victory against Hoxie in Week 6 and 50-14 win against Minneola in the first round of the playoffs.
Rock Hills (11-1) is used to being the underdog, though. The Grizzlies weren't favored by many in either of their last two contests, and yet, they still managed to reach the state title game.
"We try to eliminate all of the exterior factors as far as statistics and records and whose crowd is bigger and anything like that," Rock Hills eighth-year head coach Sam Meyers said. "We just focus on the matchup. You have one person across from the line from you on every play. You have an assignment to carry out. Your job is to do that."
Saturday will provide an opportunity for Ness City's seniors to achieve a goal four years in the making: winning the school's first football state championship.
"We had a couple choices," Gantz said. "We could work our butts off in the weight room this summer and prepare like we want to win a state championship, or we could just have another mediocre season and maybe make a playoff run."
If Ness City's resume indicates anything, it shows the Eagles likely didn't choose the latter option.
"They are (special)," said third-year Ness City head coach Chris Bamberger. "Anytime you have a group of kids that come together and continually play together and fight and put the amount of work in they have, it makes it special."
The state championship game is foreign territory for the Eagles.
The last four years have have slowly built up to this moment.
The seniors were freshmen on the 11-man team composed of players from Ness City and Dighton in a cooperative agreement that went 5-4. As sophomores, they transitioned to Eight-Man Division I and played for a team that went 5-5 and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs 58-12 by an undefeated Pretty Prairie team.
The next year, the Eagles built momentum, but a leg injury to running back/linebacker Garrett Flax contributed to the end of their title hopes. They finished 8-2, falling 42-40 to undefeated Macksville in the first round of the playoffs.
This year, the season has unfolded nearly perfectly for them.
"They were here when I first got started, and they got a lot of snaps as young kids, too," Bamberger said. "It's nice to see a little bit of a payoff for them."
Ness City will attack Rock Hills with a multitude of weapons, led by Flax and Gantz.
Flax has rushed for 1,075 yards and 16 touchdowns, while Gantz has compiled 1,001 yards and 21 TDs (Maxpreps)
Senior quarterback Koltyn Ratliff has added 394 yards and 11 TDs on the ground as well as completed 64.7 percent of his passes for 647 yards and a 12/2 TD/interception ratio.
Meanwhile, the Eagles' defense has been the best in eight-man football, allowing an average of 5.2 points per game.
For Rock Hills, senior Clay Cosand and sophomore Joel Broeckelman lead the team in rushing. Cosand has rushed for 1,398 yards and 30 touchdowns, and Broeckelman's tallied 1,323 yards and 32 TDs (Maxpreps)
The Grizzlies were forced into a corner after falling 42-22 to Clifton-Clyde in Week 4.
Competing in a tight district with Clifton-Clyde, Osborne and Pike Valley who each finished with two losses in district play, Rock Hills could have easily missed the playoffs with another loss.
"It really refocused us on what our goals were," Meyers said. "At the same time, it put our backs against the wall, because any other loss would have knocked us out of the playoffs altogether. We really hit the playoff season in Week 6."
Since Week 4, Rock Hills has played solid football. The Grizzlies won their next five regular season games by a wide margin and toppled two state powers, Moran-Marmaton Valley (11-1) and reigning state champion Madison/Hamilton (10-2), in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the playoffs.
"It's tough to pinpoint just one thing that really worries me," Bamberger said. "They do a lot of things extremely well. They are big up front. They move well. They have some fast kids at skill positions. Obviously, they look smart and do the right things. They make good decisions, and you can tell they play their tails off every single snap for their coaches."
Whoever wins Saturday, it will be the first state title in football for either school.
Gantz just hopes his team will be the one hoisting the trophy.
"Us seniors, we kind of took (the challenge) head on," Gantz said. "We really want to make this season special and deliver Ness City its first state championship."