If not for the powerhouse of Smith Center in the mid-2000s, Rodney Yates and the St. Francis Indians might not be trying for the program’s first state championship in 2015. In the team’s second year in Eight-Man Division I and first year under the reign of Yates, that is not too far out of the realm.
With the Indians off to a 5-0 start for the first time in recent history, Yates’ impact on the program is already coming to fruition. St. Francis has allowed just 36 points and recorded three shutouts while averaging more than 47 points per game.
The experienced veteran saw the pieces he had to work with upon his arrival for Colorado Springs, Colo., and immediately honed in on what the Indians must do to bounce back from a 5-4 season during their first stint in eight-man after having “a reputation of being a pretty strong 11-man football team.
“In the early stages of their eight-man transition, the previous coaching staff was trying to implement 11-man principles into an eight-man game and you just can’t do that,” Yates said. “You can’t have the same blocking scheme, you can’t have the same defensive schemes, you can’t have the same defensive coverages. You can’t do the same things you would do in 11-man, you just can’t do it. My previous experience coaching eight-man has enabled me the opportunity to teach these concepts, even starting back in June.”
If there is a man who knows the differences in the style, it is Yates. He has spent time coaching both levels, including time in six-man, and took his most recent team to the Colorado state semifinals before his move east across the state border.
“Those concepts, although they’ve been different, they’re not so difficult to learn,” Yates said. “They’ve learned the keys and concepts pretty quickly, but that was something I identified early, the fact that they didn’t understand the eight-man keys very well, and I think they were still trying to use the 11-man concepts in the eight-man game.”
To get to the point the Indians are at now has required a step up in leadership from Yates’ four seniors — Garrett Brunk, Justin Pacheco, Jude Faulkender, and Lane Hobrock. Beyond those four, he sees more than a handful of guys “that stand on the sideline that should be in the game playing,” because of the depth of the Indians. The depth has upped the competition in practice and made every Wednesday a chance for a reserve to beat out a starter in position battles. With the depth, Yates has implemented plenty of variation into his gameplans and has received 100-percent effort each day of practice
“We have a lot of speed that allows for a lot of versatility and that versatility allows for me to put in a lot of variation. Through that variation, it makes it tough for opponents to scout us. It makes it tough for opponents to find out what our tendencies are,” Yates said. “The depth that I has is just fantastic and that allows for a great week of practice and for those older guys that are in there to get better because they know someone is chasing them and trying to take their playing time.”
The philosophy change has brought out the best in his players. Junior running back Taylor Rogers has accumulated 844 yards on 99 carries for 15 scores in his first year as the full-time starter while Jordan Raby and Quinton Cravens have also rushed for 150 yards on the season. Cravens also has tossed for more than 250 yards and four scores at better than 50-percent passing.
With the personnel issues he faced coming into the season resolved, the defense is clicking as well as ever for the Indians as well. Tate Busse, the Indians’ starting corners, anchors the defense with four of the unit’s 11 interceptions — four others have recorded multiple interceptions on the season. Brunk, who Yates described as smart and excellent in cover, leads the Indians in tackles on a weekly basis and has pedaled his way to 49 in five games.
Midway through the season and a playoff run in sight, it has all been about meshing the players with the philosophy change and measuring results on a weekly basis for the rolling Indians.
“I was given some really good players. We have four outstanding seniors that contribute to this team mixed in with a healthy group of underclassmen,” Yates said. “I think with that and the philosophy change, the meshing between those two has really paid dividends and I think that’s a huge contributor to our 5-0 start.”
For Jeff Hennick’s Sharon Springs-Wallace County Wildcats, a 5-0 start, and beyond, is expected, if not demanded.
The Wildcats last loss a regular season game was an eight-point loss at Cheylin on Sept. 23, 2011. For more than four years, the Wildcats have only faced defeat in the playoffs. Much like last year’s sub-state championship loss to eventual champion Victoria, the losses leave a bitter taste in the mouths of the Wildcats.
“Being able to get that far — we were an underdog most of the year after losing that many kids and only bringing two back — their mindset going in was ‘We can still do this,’” Hennick said. “Getting that far and then coming up one game short, it brings them back into the summer with them knowing that they’ve gotta work that much harder because they don’t wanna be the team that walks off that field being the loser.
“For these groups of kids we have now, every year that they’ve walked off the field their last game, they’ve lost just the one game. They wanna take that next step into being successful and getting to that next game and getting an opportunity to play one more game.”
For each class, except for the freshmen, the Wildcats only know what it is like to lost in the postseason. For the seniors, they learned the feeling with a sub-state loss to Thunder Ridge in 2012. The next season, this year’s juniors felt the hurt of losing in the state championship to Baileyville.
After losing to Victoria last year, Hennick said what he most learned about the playoffs was to not be one-minded when it comes to preparation.
“You always have a set gameplan on what you think a team is gonna do when they get in. The one thing that I learned about that is you need to plan for different situations,” Hennick said. “If somebody comes out in a different offensive or different defensive set, you need to have players familiar with another position in case you have to throw a player in at that position to better help your team and be successful in the long run.”
Along with prepping his players, they have also put him in position to win frequently. With senior running back Luke Schemm and Eric Gfeller, the Wildcats have scored at least three touchdowns in every game and held opponents to 18 points or less. Gfeller is completing 65 percent of his passes for 757 yards and nine touchdowns with another 611 yards and 13 scores on the ground. Schemm has added four rushing touchdowns and more than 400 yards with two receivers hauling in multiple touchdown catches and more than 200 yards.
The likes of junior Grady Hammer and senior Hardin Perry propel a defense with four guys recording more than 40 tackles thus far. And as a whole, Hennick is pleased with the results he has seen on the field.
“We’re coming together as a unit the way I would like. Each week is still a work in progress,” Hennick said.
“I’m always finding stuff we need to get taken care of; we’ll get one thing taken care of then it’s on to the next thing that we need to take care of. To this point, I’ve been, for the most part, happy with our young men. There’s still a long ways we have to get going.”
With the Wildcats’ facing a favorable schedule — their final four opponents have combined for five wins — it appears as if their first regular season loss will have to wait another year. But for the time being, an opening round matchup with Otis-Bison or Victoria, who play Week 9 for a likely District 7 title, looks to be their next challenge at remaining perfect for an entire season. If the trend continues, they will meet the other in the sub-state championship, once again.
Hennick does not let his players approach games in that manner, though.
“ I look at all the good things a team can do against us that can affect us and I bring that right to the forefront of our players’ mind and let them know, ‘Hey, just because this team hasn’t won very many games, they still do some very good things. If you don’t prepare yourself mentally and physically, this team will sneak up on you,’” Hennick said. “That is one thing that I think some of our kids don’t understand. I feel that having the successful program that we’ve had in the past, these kids don’t understand that they’re going to get each team’s best every night that they play.”