Chris Walden grew up playing eight-man football at Bird City-Cheylin. Now in his fifth season as the team’s coach while playing six-man, Walden can’t see playing eight-man again.
"Five years in, I don’t know if I could go back to the eight-man game," Walden said. "The game at six-man is so different, so fast."
Walden has the Cougars off to a fast start this season, undefeated entering Saturday’s home playoff semifinal against Rexford-Golden Plains (4-2). The winner moves on to the Oct. 31 state championship game, in Dodge City on Oct. 31. Cheylin was a 67-0 winner over Burrton in Tuesday’s playoff opener.
Cheylin beat Golden Plains 61-6 to open the season. The Bulldogs then lost their next game before winning their last four, including a 62-47 victory over Ashland in the playoffs.
"They’re looking really good," Walden said. "I’m expecting it to be a closer game this time."
Cheylin made it to the state title game last year, losing 52-6 to Moscow. The Cougars did not have a senior on that team, and Walden said a couple freshmen have stepped into starting roles this fall. The Cougars have rolled to a 7-0 record behind an explosive offense, but the defense has made a difference, allowing 63 points all season and coming off back-to-back shutouts.
"What’s changed the last couple years, we went from the mindset of outscoring people to beat them," Walden said. "This group of seniors we have now, they decided it was a lot better to beat people 45-0 than 90-40. They bought in a lot more on the defensive side of things."
Senior defensive end Andrew Schields has a team-high seven sacks and the Cougars have a turnover margin of plus 26, at 30-4.
"Winning the turnover battle is huge in the six-man game," Walden said.
Also huge is having a runner who can score from anywhere on the field. Senior Colton McCarty played quarterback in previous seasons and started out the year at the position. But his younger brother, freshman Logan McCarty, took over at QB early in the schedule and Colton McCarty moved to running back, where he has rushed for 1,577 yards, averaging 17.5 yards per carry, with 30 touchdowns.
"I would just call him a complete running back," Walden said of the 6-foot, 190-pounder with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. "He can break a tackle and get out in the open and turn on the jets, or just put down his shoulder and get four or five yards, if he needs to."
In six-man ball, the quarterback is not allowed to run the ball past the line of scrimmage. Cheylin gets around that by snapping the ball to Schields at fullback, who gives the ball to the QB. Schields is the leading receiver on the team with 13 catches for 311 yards, averaging 23.9 yards per reception, with 10 touchdowns. Also in six-man, every player is eligible to catch a pass, so Walden has routes with his center going out, and other plays in which all three linemen go out for a pass.
"We kind of get tricky with some stuff," Walden said.
There is no fooling around on the Cougars’ ultimate goal this season.
"Our expectation was to at least get back to the state championship," Walden said. "Our final goal is to win it this year. That’s been our outlook since the state championship (game) last year."
This six-man thing has caught on at Cheylin. Walden admitted he knew little about it before taking over as coach. His senior year in high school, Cheylin lost just one game in 2010, advancing deep into the eight-man state playoffs. But fans have taken a liking to the wild west shootout nature of six-man ball.
"Now people love it," Walden said. "There’s been discussion of going back to eight-man if we ever get enough numbers. I think our community would just rather us stay six-man, because it’s exciting. People like to see big plays; people like to see touchdowns. Six-man will give you that."
Walden hopes the Kansas State High School Activities Association makes it an official sport in the state. He is officially a six-man fan.
"I’m hoping we stay six-man for as long as I’m the coach here at Cheylin," Walden said.