When key players get injured, that hurts a team. But it can also help a program, said Smith Center football coach Darren Sasse.


Last year, Smith Center lost three starters to injury but still made the Class 1A state championship game, where the Redmen came up short of winning their third straight title under Sasse.


"We definitely had some guys play last year that wouldn’t have gotten to play," Sasse said. "As a coach, you try to look at those injuries as a positive, because it helps build your future."


That future starts Friday, when the Redmen travel to Norton to take on the rival Bluejays in Mid-Continent League action. Sasse, 6-1 against Norton, is 68-15 overall in seven seasons, with the two state titles.


"Every year when we open up with league schools, you’re going to meet a good team," Sasse said. "(Norton) coach (Lucas) Melvin has a tremendous program going over there. Those kids have high expectations. You know you’re going to play against quality players, a really well-coached team."


Smith Center returns four starters on both offense and defense. Key returners include three seniors: wide receiver/defensive back Griffin Kugler; offensive lineman/defensive lineman Charlie Timmons; and halfback/defensive back Nate Hendrich. The Redmen will have a first-year starter at quarterback in junior Nathan Jaeger.


"They’re ones I think we’re going to have to lean on," Sasse said. "This year’s group has that memory of losing that last game. I think that motivated them over the summer."


Smith Center’s history of success under Kansas Hall of Fame coach Roger Barta has continued under Sasse. The program has 10 state championships overall and also won 79 straight games under Barta. But while that tradition of success is important, Sasse is not sure how much that translates to today’s players.


"These kids only remember the last couple years," said Sasse, a 1991 Smith Center graduate who played for Barta. "When you bring up the past, they don’t know a whole lot about it.


"I think they know we’ve had success, but so much of that is before they were born," he added. "I think they feel there are expectations that come with that."


Sasse remembered something Barta once said in the midst of the program’s long winning streak.


"When coach Barta was in that 79-game streak, somebody said it had to end, eventually," Sasse said. "He said, ‘Why does it?’ You don’t coach to lose, so why plan for it. Obviously, it did end, but you coach to win the next game."