Oakley looking to cap breakthrough season with title

Rick Peterson Jr.
Ethan Abell and the Oakley football team will face Olpe in the Class 1A state championship game at 1 p.m. Saturday at Lewis Field Stadium.

The Oakley football team will look to cap off a dream season at the same place where it started.

Oakley’s run to the Class 1A state championship game began at Fort Hays State’s Lewis Field Stadium in the season opener with a 25-13 win over Thomas More Prep-Marian. It was the first Mid-Continent League win for Oakley since 2015.

The Plainsmen (10-2) will return to Hays on Saturday to try and realize the dream in the title game against against Olpe (12-0) at 1 p.m. at Lewis Field. It will be the first state championship game in program history for Oakley.

“We talked about how cool it was that we started our season at Lewis Stadium and we’d like to finish it there,” Oakley fourth-year coach Jeff Hennick said. “These kids, they’ve taken every step into doing that. We’re so excited we’re so close to home where we can get a lot of people there. Just to play at that venue, it’s special.”

The Plainsmen were 3-6 in each of the last two seasons and had 1-8 records in both the 2017 and 2016 campaigns.

“The pride left Oakley for a little bit,” Hennick said. “These kids have brought pride back.”

Hennick said he was encouraged by his team’s experience heading into the year. He credits his upperclassmen for spearheading the turnaround.

“We as a staff have been trying to get this thing built back up,” Hennick said. “The biggest hurdle I would say was getting the kids to believe in themselves and believe in their own abilities and to believe that if they play for each other and they work together a lot of things can fall into place at the right time.

“I think this group of seniors that we have has been the biggest part of the foundation and the pillars. They’ve all leaned on each other and trusted that they can get it done. When that happens, you get everybody else to fall in and special things really come together.”

In the last two weeks, the Plainsmen have avenged both their regular-season losses — 35-0 to Smith Center and 39-13 to Inman. Oakley took down Smith Center 20-0 in the quarterfinals before notching a 9-0 win over Inman last week in the semis.

“We knew that we didn’t play our best ballgames against them the first time,” Hennick said. “We knew that mistakes on our part mentally, turnovers, those were huge things. When one mistake happened, we didn’t cut it loose, and we let another mistake happen to us. Those are good football teams and you can’t make those mistakes because those teams can hurt you.

“Coming back and playing them a second time around, we knew that if we could limit those mistakes and stay very consistent offensively, and defensively, if we could do our same jobs over and over and over, then we could control clock and we could get them out of their rhythm and good things could happen for us.

“These kids, they went in with our game plan and they stuck to it. I’m so pleased with them for doing that.”

Oakley has been superb defensively, shutting down the Redmen and Teutons in the last two weeks.

“The kids are trusting each other to get their own job done,” Hennick said. “They’re not trying to be the hero and make plays they’re not supposed to make. They’re trusting each other to get it done.”

The Plainsmen are led by senior Ethan Abell, who has 1,979 yards and 26 touchdowns on the ground this season.

“He’s a great leader for us and one of the most unselfish kids we have on the team,” Hennick said. “He’s the first to give praise to all the kids around him. The offensive line and our quarterback and the receivers, they’ve done a tremendous job of getting him to where he’s at, and he’s very grateful for each and every one of those guys on his team.

“He knows that if he’s a leader and he’s unselfish, all those guys are going to continue to work for him. His attitude is contagious. He’s a very, very positive young man.”

Hennick said the line has been integral to Oakley’s success.

“John Stoecker, he’s the brains of our line. He gets all our kids lined up, tells them what they got to get done,” Hennick said. “Jenson Schoenfeld, he’s the meat of it there. He and Eric Annis and Christian Koch and Jonathan Temaat — all those guys have made huge gains throughout the summer and they’re getting better week by week.”

Hennick also gave credit to his receiving corps in Will Schmidt, Cody Zimmerman and Jackson Pfeifer and Brayden Cunningham.

“We haven’t thrown the ball a lot lately, but they’re huge about getting a body on a body,” he said.

Fullback Hunter Scheck has also been key in creating holes for the run game, Hennick said, while Eric Cain has been steady at quarterback.

“He threw for a lot of yards last year and his role has changed tremendously,” Hennick said of Cain. “We expected him to jump up as a leader. The growth that he has developed into being a leader and a team captain and the quarterback of this team is huge. He knows he’s not going to throw the ball much, but he knows he has to be the leader and he has to control the clock and be a positive influence on each and every one of the guys around him.”

Olpe is coming off a 14-12 win over Lyndon in the semifinals. Olpe made a key goal line stand in the first half and then snuffed a game-tying two-point conversion and game-winning field goal try by the Tigers in the fourth quarter to return to the state championship game for the second time in three years.

“It was very important (to be tested) going into this game,” Olpe coach Chris Schmidt said. “We had to play good to get through it. Coming into it, we really didn’t know where we were at just because we hadn’t played (in tight) games. It was good for the kids to fight through adversity, which we had to. We had to make stops down the stretch and were capable of doing that. I think that gives them confidence going into this week to know we were in a battle and now have one more ahead of us.”

Hennick said the Eagles play aggressive defensively.

“Defensively, they fly,” he said. “They are very good with their hands. Linebackers fly around and DBs are in the mix all the time.

“Offensively, they put some problems out there for us because they do so many different formations. Our kids are going to have to be mentally ready to go and get all this stuff locked down.”

Hennick is telling his team not to be intimidated by the stage.

“We tell them: ’Don’t make it any bigger than it is,’ ” he said. “Yes, you’re playing for a state championship, but it’s just two teams on a bigger venue playing on the same field. They bleed the same way you do, they hustle the same you do, they life weights the same way you do.’

“You can treat it any different than it is. We tell them, you got to be able to control your emotion, because if you can’t control your emotion, it can paralyze you. Figure out how to control that emotion, fuel it in a way that’s going to be very productive and let everything else fall into place and control the things that you can control.”

St. Francis eyes perfect season

After a painful loss in the state championship game a year ago, St. Francis will take another shot at completing a perfect season.

The 11-0 Indians, runners-up in Eight Man Division I last year, will face Hanover (10-0) in the Eight-Man Division II championship game at 11 a.m. on Saturday at Fischer Field in Newton.

St. Francis stormed out to a 36-0 lead in the title game last year, only to see Canton Galva score 66 unanswered points to claim a 66-36 win. St. Francis suffered two key injuries in that game.

This year, St. Francis has been a juggernaut, outscoring its opponents by a staggering 538-52 margin on the season.

The team punched its ticket back to the title game with a 44-22 win over Victoria last week.

“It’s kind of a relief because we felt pressure all year to make it back (to the title game) again,” St. Francis coach Nick Fawcett said after the Victoria win. “Hopefully we can get the big one. In the history of our school, we’ve never won the big one. I think this is a group that could do it and hopefully we can get it done.”

Explosive back Shadryon Blanka is one of the top playmakers in the state, while Jesse Baxter and Adam Krien and Colton Neitzel have paved the way up front and anchor defense.

Hanover, a perennial power in Eight-Man, is coming off a 74-26 win in the semis against Frankfort last week.

Topeka Capital-Journal staff writer Brent Maycock contributed to this report.