Most people would look at the final record of last year’s Hays High School football team and not realize what was within reach.
Despite and 2-7 final mark, the Indians were only a win away from making the postseason in Class 4A Division I.
But Hays High stumbled in the final game against Wamego, losing 30-13 to a team a lot of the players knew they could beat.
A victory would have put the Indians in the postseason with a 2-1 district mark.
Instead, the underclassmen knew things slipped away.
“That was a bit of a disappointment,” said senior quarterback Hunter Brown. “We had some guys that didn’t want to lead, and that was part of our problem. That’s not going to happen this year. We have a great group of kids, and it’s a different feeling out here for us this year. We’re really excited and ready to get on the field and play.”
This year’s schedule is a mirror image of last year’s that was one of the toughest in the state.
Still, there are high expectations amid the returning starters and younger players willing to step into a key role.
“We have a great group of leaders out here, and a great group of seniors,” Brown said. “All the way through, we have a group of guys who want to work and have high expectations for this season. We came out with a win in the first game last year, then had to wait until the eighth game of get another one. That was hard to do. We just want to get better every week, get better every day.”
Last year, the Indians started 1-0 after knocking off Scott City. But what followed were six straight losses against larger schools — Great Bend, Liberal, Garden City, Valley Center and Dodge City.
Hays High also dropped its first district game against McPherson.
“We have a pretty rough schedule, a pretty tough schedule,” Brown said. “I think last year was the second toughest schedule in Kansas. We are ready to take that on. We have our first game against Scott City, and that’s what we’re focused on right now is just getting ready for Scott City. We’re really excited for that and working hard this week to get ready.”
But Hays High showed signs of what it could be in Week 8 against an undefeated Abilene team, coming away with a 23-12 victory.
What followed was the sub-par performance against Wamego.
“It really did,” senior Dante Blackmon said about that game leaving a sour taste in their mouths. “That last game, we thought we would go in there and take care of business and get into the playoffs for the first time in like three years. We were excited, but a lot of the guys who were starting wanted to be done. They weren’t really into it like some of the younger guys like me. I didn’t get to play much last year, but I was one of the guys who wanted to see us go further.”
Now, Brown is back at quarterback, and Blackmon has transitioned onto the offensive line.
Both players said the effort and leadership this year should bode well for the team against a tough schedule.
“We just have to know these teams we play are bigger than us,” Blackmon said. “And they have more kids. But if we play hard, we can beat anyone.”
Hays High opens the season at 7 p.m. Friday at home against Scott City, and the Indians are hoping that sets the tone toward the school’s first winning season since 2014.
The last two seasons, HHS has won a combined four games. The Indians haven’t made the postseason since an appearance in the Class 5A playoffs in 2012.
“I think it gets us ready for those games,” Brown said. “It lets us know that our competition late is going to be 4A, and not those 6A schools. Those are teams we have the same number of guys on the football team. We’re just ready to take on anything every week.”
Brown was the leader on offensive last year, and Blackmon spent time in the backfield but will have a change of position this year.
“I’m not afraid to take on anything,” Blackmon said. “It’s nice getting to learn something different. It’s good experience. We have some guys on the line that are good, so I know I have something else with me up there.”
They are two of the five returning starters on offense. Hays High has only four starters back on defense, including Brown as a defensive back.
Junior Keaton Markley and senior Dylan Schmidtberger are the only other two-way starters to return this year. Schmidtberger spent time in the backfield and also filled a defensive end spot, while Markley played at end on offense and at linebacker.
Junior Wyatt Scheve also has experience on defense after starting at linebacker in 2016, and senior Trey VanPelt was an offensive starter.
Senior kicker Logan Clark gives the Indians a threat on field goals and can pin teams deep on kickoffs.
“I think just staying together as a team and staying confident,” Brown said about the key to the season. “We have to keep guys healthy. We have a great group of kids in our starting spots. If we can keep guys healthy and do things to work with the players we have, we’ll be OK.”
Brown will be expected to carry the load on offense, and he said he’s ready for the challenge after a year of experience.
“I have a whole year under my belt, and we’re doing some things that we’ve done before,” Brown said. “So I have some experience there. I’m just ready to take over this leadership role and get out there.”
Blackmon said the team is ready to shake off the disappointment from a year ago and looks to gain a playoff spot this time.
“They are going to think, ‘Oh, they only won two games last year,’ ” he said about opponents. “Hopefully they are. We’ll have to show them what we’re made of then.”