The Hoxie High School football team returned virtually everyone from a team that was on the cusp of making the playoffs in 2016.
A tough stretch through a loaded Eight-Man Division I, District 8, though, kept the Indians from making that happen.
The same schedule this season, one in which Hoxie had a two-win improvement, arguably helped the Indians reach somewhere they haven’t been in three-plus decades.
For the first time since 1981, the Indians will play in a state championship game when they face St. Paul in the Eight-Man Division I state title game at Fischer Field in Newton.
The game is slated for 11 a.m. Saturday.
It’s only the third state title game appearance in Hoxie’s school history, and the program is seeking the school’s first state championship.
The previous two meetings — 1981 and 1978 — resulted in losses in 11-man.
Since switching to eight-man in 2010, Hoxie has made four trips to the playoffs and until this year, the deepest run came in 2013 when Hoxie lost to Jetmore-Hodgeman County in the sub-state title round.
Hoxie (11-1) will face a St. Paul team making its seventh appearance in a state title game and the sixth in eight-man. St. Paul (11-1) defeated previously unbeaten Burlingame last week, claiming its sixth straight victory.
Hoxie, 11-1 after knocking out Spearville 44-20 on the road a week ago, has won seven straight since suffering a 16-8 loss to St. Francis in September.
Hoxie has hung its hat on a stingy defense. The Indians have allowed 25 and 20 points the last two games, but recorded six shutouts during the regular season.
The front line of Chris Cox, Jarrod Dible, Colton Heskett and Taye Washington has been a dominant force. Cox, a transfer from Oakley, has 25 tackles for loss among his 64 total tackles. Heskett has recorded 23 tackles for loss and Dible 17.6. In addition, Washington has 7.5 tackles for loss, and senior Luke Schippers adds 11.5 tackles for loss.
Cox also has recorded 13 sacks, Heskett 7.5 and Dible 7.0.
The Hoxie offense has relied heavily on the running of senior Latham Schwarz, although other weapons have stepped up at key times. Schwarz has 1,518 rushing yards and 31 carries, while Cox provides a big body for short yardage situations. He has 59 carries for 362 yards and 10 scores.
When Hoxie has thrown the ball, Jared Kennedy has recorded 666 yards on 42 completions, with 11 touchdowns to eight interceptions. Schwarz as well has a touchdown pass, coming up big out of the wildcat formation during a game where Hoxie was trailing Coldwater-South Central two weeks ago in playoff action.