The last two seasons, the Smith Center High School football team has boasted one of the better clubs Class 2-1A has to offer.
But twice the Redmen had their campaign come up a game short to teams they already had lost to during the regular season.
Phillipsburg knocked the Redmen out two seasons ago, then went on to win the school’s first state championship. Last year, the Redmen were bounced by Plainville as the Cardinals made a state finale for the first time in three decades.
The third time was the charm, said Smith Center senior quarterback/defensive back Colton Hutchinson.
And now, he said, a group that has worked their tails off for four years is going to get its opportunity to leave its mark on a rich Redmen history.
Hutchinson and company will take the field for Saturday’s 7 p.m. Class 2-1A state championship game against Pittsburg/St. Mary’s-Colgan at Lewis Field Stadium.
It will be the last 2-1A title game as the Kansas State High School Activities Association adopts a new classification system next fall — splitting 2A and 1A into separate 11-man classes.
“That’s been the goal the whole year,” Hutchinson said about a title. “We’ve been preparing the whole year in the weight room.”
And there possibly couldn’t be a better matchup for the final 2-1A title bout. During an 11-year stretch that ended in 2010, these two programs combined to play in 17 state title games. The Panthers won four, and the Redmen captured six (one in 3A). Five of those for Smith Center came in consecutive fashion under legendary coach Roger Barta. The first came when this year’s group of Redmen seniors were 4, perhaps 5 years old. It just so happened Smith Center beat Colgan that year, beginning its streak of five straight crowns that ended with an overtime loss to Centralia in 2009. The win in 2004 also snapped Colgan’s stretch of four straight titles — meaning from 2000 to 2008, every title was won by one of these two teams.
“This is all just an extension of what Coach Barta started,” said Redmen coach Darren Sasse, who took over after Barta’s retirement in 2013. “The staff here and these kids, we’re just trying to continue to do what he taught us and started so many years ago.”
The Redmen were close the last two seasons, but this year seemed to be playing with more of a chip on their shoulder. The Redmen have been nothing short of dominant since losing 23-0 to Phillipsburg in Week 2. Since then, the 11-1 Redmen have allowed just 41 points, giving up no more than one touchdown in each of their previous nine games with five shutouts. That included last week’s 51-0 shellacking of Plainville in the semifinal round.
“We put up 51-0 on a team that gave us some trouble in the first week,” said senior Dalton Kuhn, a collegiate hopeful. “It’s really just been building all four years. We’ve always said we need to put in the extra work. That extra work is paying off.”
Kuhn is one of the leaders on a dominant defensive unit. He has 90 tackles, 18 for loss with four sacks. Senior Avery Hawkins leads the way with 97 tackles (16 for loss), while Hutchinson has 95 tackles. The Redmen have 107 tackles for loss as a team.
“We talk about playing for the guys beside you,” Sasse said. “These guys do a really great job of doing it for their teammates.
“Just guys believing in each other and trusting each other.”
And that has helped rekindle a dominant Redmen running game out of the famed wishbone offense. Senior Jesse Staples has 1,271 rushing yards and 24 rushing scores, part of a run game that has posted 4,021 yards and 70 scores. Senior Trace Haven has 687 yards and six scores, with three more backs with at least 400 rushing yards.
Colgan has won eight straight since suffering a 23-8 loss to Columbus, and suffered a 16-0 loss to open the season to Galena. The Panthers knocked out Olpe 15-12 last week in Pittsburg to reach the title round. Colgan is in the title match for the first time since falling to Meade in 2010. Colgan and Smith Center have met three times in this game, with the Redmen owning a 3-0 record.
“Right now, we have all the confidence in the world,” Hutchinson said. “We don’t want to venture into the land of overconfidence, but I think we can get it done.”