Unbeaten St. Francis eyeing state title

Randy Gonzales
Special to Hays Daily News

A state title is the next step for the St. Francis football team.

The Indians lost in the sub-state title game two years ago and in the state championship game last season.

“It would mean the world to this community,” third-year coach Nick Fawcett said of a first-ever state football title. “We want to get better every day, every game, every year. That’s the next step we need to take. That’s our goal, and we’re not afraid to say it.”

St. Francis lost 42-0 to Central Plains in sub-state in 2018, then led 36-0 at halftime in last year’s Eight-Man I state championship game only to see Canton-Galva score 66 unanswered points for the biggest comeback in eight-man state title game history.

St. Francis lost a couple of key players to injury in that title game, and Fawcett said a lack of depth was an issue. This year, St. Francis moved down to Eight-Man II.

“It’s nice to play schools and teams the same size as we are,” Fawcett said. “More of a level playing field.”

St. Francis (5-0) has outscored opponents 254-14 heading into Friday night’s home game against Wheatland-Grinnell (5-1). The Indians are 5-0 in District 9 and the Thunderhawks are the lone other unbeaten team in district play at 2-0.

“We feel they’re the best team we’ve seen all year,” Fawcett said. “Hopefully, we’ve yet to play our best game all year, put one together.”

The Indians have been running over their opponents so far this season in their single-wing attack. St. Francis runs behind a pair of linemen Fawcett considers among the best in the state in eight-man ball and has a pair of big running backs in an offense without a quarterback.

Colton Neitzel, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior, is the team’s center and 6-3, 215-pound senior Jesse Baxter is the left guard. Running back Shadryon Blanka (6-2, 205) is the team’s leading rusher with 960 yards and 16 touchdowns. Senior running back Adam Krien (5-11, 200) adds 450 yards and eight TDs.

Blanka runs the 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and was third at state wrestling last winter.

“He’s the fastest player I’ve ever coached,” Fawcett said. “He’s big and fast, a force for sure. What’s good about the single-wing, we have four backs who are pretty good. We can put our two big, fast kids behind that line. I think it’s tough to stop.”

Defensively, Blanka leads the team in tackles with 37 at one linebacker spot, and Neitzel, also a linebacker, has 32.5 stops. The Indians’ statistics are held in check because St. Francis has yet to play a full game this season due to the 45-point rule. Three games have ended at halftime, another in the third quarter and one in the fourth quarter.

Fawcett admitted he was unfamiliar with St. Francis while growing up in Dodge City. He was an assistant when Randall Rath — a St. Francis native — was the head coach at Hays High. Rath told Fawcett about the St. Francis job and said he should check it out.

“Here we are, three years later, trying to win the big one,” said Fawcett, who is 28-2 in two-plus seasons with the Indians. “It’s been a good move.”

It’s been good just being able to play, said Fawcett. The team has had just one game canceled this fall.

“After we played that first game, several kids told me they thought it would never happen,” Fawcett said.

Friday’s game is Senior Night. Fawcett is aware of the uncertainty each week due to the coronavirus.

“Everybody says play this game like it could be your last,” he said. “I told the kids, I’m going to say that every week, because it really could be your last.”