Monday, November 15, 2010

1973 was a pretty good year too!

     You know, there's been some pretty big games played at Panther Stadium over the years, but this one coming up on Friday has the potential to be one of the biggest of all time. I've said several times that this game has lost a bit of its luster because of the Panthers 0-2 start on the season. Unfortunately, people just don't look at a team that's sporting a 9-3 record in the same light as one that's 12-0, or 11-1.
     The fact that the Panthers stand at 9-3 make them no less of an elite team than if they had suffered just the single loss to the Wildcats three weeks ago and stood at a lofty 11-1 when meeting the still unbeaten Wildcats at 12-0.
     But still, there's something about a battle of "unbeaten" teams. There's something about two teams playing, late in the season, for all the marbles, with a perfect record on the line. That doesn't happen very often, and it would have been fun three weeks ago to have the opportunity to hype up that game between the Panthers and Wildcats with the same enthusiasm as a game the I had the opportunity to play in many years ago against the Osawatomie Trojans.
     That was a game of epic proportions, at least to the guys that strapped it up that Halloween Night in Paola back in 1973. That was a battle of unbeaten teams, the second and fourth ranked teams in Kansas Class 3A at the time, and bitter, bitter rivals in a day when both teams were good, and when there was really something on the line. At that time there were no district playoffs, and the Paola vs Osawatomie contest that year was a "win and you're in" game. No district runner-up status to bail you out, that night, we had to win to play on. Lose and it was get ready for basketball season.
     If you will indulge me a bit, I'd like to take you all on a trip down "memory lane" so to speak and re-live that magical 1973 season as we prepare to watch the Panthers and their new rival Louisburg meet in another do or die game on Friday night.
     In 1973, we here in Paola High, knew were were good. Unfortunately, the guys that went to Osawatomie High were good too, it was much the same as Paola and Louisburg this year, there were no secrets, we were well aware of their talents, and they of ours, and it was almost like a weekly contest to see who could beat up on their opponent more, to send a message the eight or so miles between the two towns, that "we see what you're doing, now here, top this!" We did a pretty good job of putting some numbers on the board that were difficult to top.
     The season opened at home against Garnett (not Anderson County, they were still Garnett High School). They had a pretty good rushing attack, and we were a bit concerned that they might be able to get outside on us. We had a pretty strong up the gut running attack, and a nice late summer rain storm turned the Panther Stadium turf into a slippery track, much like last Friday and the vaunted outside speed running of Garnett was negated. We pitched a shut-out that night, and brought home a 22-0 victory, we stood at 1-0, and down the road the Trojans also won to make them 1-0 too.
     Week two brought our first road trip to play at St. Joseph of Shawnee. (If you're wondering who is St. Joseph of Shawnee, well that little Catholic school moved south a few years later and became Aquinas High School!) St. Joe jumped to a 10-0 lead on us in the first half, we knew they were going to be tough to beat, but we came back and held them scoreless in the second half (that fact will be important a bit down the line) and scored two touchdowns of our own to squeak by for a 12-10 win, we were at 2-0, and Oz destroyed somebody that night too, they were 2-0.
     It was back to Panther Stadium in week three against another team no one probably remembers, Immaculata. I don't remember much about this game, other than we pitched another shut-out. That was two shut-outs in three games, and gave us an streak of six straight quarters without allowing a point. Immaculata fell by a 16-0 score, were were 3-0 and Osawatomie rolled on with a victory to keep pace at 3-0.
     Week four produced a more familiar foe, the Lansing Lions. Not the 5A Lansing Lions of today, it was the same town, but a much smaller school, 3A Lansing, we always found it interesting going up to Lansing to play an looking at the Kansas State Prison on the hill overlooking the football field. This cat fight went to the Panthers that night, as we won that game 30-0. This was another game that I don't recall a lot of details from, but I do remember that I kicked off. Now most teams use their kicker as a safety on coverage, but when you're 6'6" and weight 235 pounds and aren't the fastest boat in the water, that's not a good idea. So I went downfield on coverage, and one of my more fleet footed team mates play the safety valve role. The Lions assigned some little guy the role of cutting me off at the knees about ten yards downfield. Now I'm not the quickest learner sometimes, and it took about three times for this runt to cut me off for me to figure out what to do. So the next time I kicked off, I decided that if he was going to go low, so was I, which was no small feat, but I did, and I hit him HARD. Needless to say, he didn't cut me at the knees again! Anyway, week four came and went, we remained unbeaten, ran our shut out streak to 10 quarters, and kept pace with the Trojans at 4-0.
    The next week saw us return to Panther Stadium to host the DeSoto Wildcats. I don't have any great memories of this game, but it was another victory and another shut out. Our defense had allowed just 10 points in five games, and had not been scored on for 14 consecutive quarters, as the Wildcats fell 44-0.
     Tonganoxie was our next opponent and our next destination to play. I remember, they had a pretty good team that year, and going on the road was a concern to the coaches and players alike. Tongie had this field (maybe it's the same, I don't know) that sat down in a hallow and you could see it as you drove on the street around the school. I always remember that traveling to Tongie, DeSoto and Lansing for games those years seemed to take forever! I hated those trips, but it wasn't bad when we came home winners. My best memory of this game was that I absolutely killed two kick offs, sending one to the goal line and another sailing completely out of the end zone. The other highlight -- another shut-out victory. The defense was really playing well, we had not allowed a point in 18 quarters, and our offense was rolling. This night the score was 26-0, and for those of you keeping score at home, that moved our record to 6-0, and we had outscored our opponents by an impressive 150-10. Oh yea, that other team to the south won too, they were 6-0 also.
     Week seven brought Gardner to town. Again, this was not the big, bad, Bubba Starling led Trailblazers of the current day. No, they were a little more friendly, although no less competitive bunch, without the gleaming new mega school on the west side of town. Gardner as a sleepy little bedroom community at the time out on the edge of the Olathe Naval Air Station. They had some good athletes, but by this time, there was no one in the Pioneer (yes the Pioneer) League that could compete with either Paola or Osawatomie. It was homecoming, and the only outcome that was even in doubt that night was who would be crowned homecoming queen (no kings at that time, just queens). We rolled to a 43-0 lead by the middle of the second quarter, and the starters had long since turned the game over to the JV. Halftime came, junior Patty Conrow (see I told you we did things differently) was crowned queen, and our defense had run its shut out streak to 20 quarters with no end in sight. But then, late in the third quarter, Gardner did the unthinkable, they broke a run which was stopped at our 10 yard line. The first team defense was called on to come off the bench, after quite a bit of inactivity and try and preserve the shut out streak. Three straight draw plays had netted a couple of yards for the Blazers, but on fourth down, we allowed them to score, and lost our shut-out streak at four games, but preserved the victory by a 43-8 score. And yes, Osawatomie won too we both stood at 7-0.
    Week eight was another long trip, at least in those days, up to Piper, which, like all those other schools north and west of Overland Park were just little rural high schools at the 3A level. Piper was relatively new to the league, and the Pirates were no match for us, as we jumped out to a substantial half time lead. Much like the Gardner game, we were way ahead and shutting out the Pirates in the third quarter, when another miscue by the JV gave them a first and goal around our 10 yard line. Again the first team defense went into the game, and again they scored on us on fourth down. Other than allowing another seven points, the thing I remember most is the fog. There was a big communication tower outside the field at one end, I can remember that you could see it well at the beginning of the game, but it had all but disappeared by the conclusion. The good news in this game was we were not challenged, putting up 64 points, but the bad news was we gave up seven. That moved our season record to 8-0, we had outscored our opponents 257-25, put up five shut-outs. We had allowed three touchdowns and a field goal all season long, in 32 quarters, we had held our opponents scoreless in 28 of them. Oh yes, Osawatomie had put up as good, or better numbers, we were both undefeated and on a collision course for a Halloween night street fight at Panther Stadium.
     Needless to say, week nine did not go well for us as Panthers. The Trojans were everything they were billed as and a bit more. But, even though we lost by a 36-8 score, and then watched as the Trojans went on to win the Kansas Class 3A State Championship a couple of weeks later, I know we put up one heck of a fight. The game atmosphere was electric. I know I've told the story a thousand times about coming to the stadium two hours early to dress and seeing the stands on both sides of the field filled to capacity. The field was lined with fans five, six, seven deep all the way around, there had to be 5,000 to 6,000 people there. It was great. We were in the game at the half, trailing just 14-8, but an early Trojan score made the situation more difficult and two late turnovers by our offense gave Osawatomie two short field scores to make the final margin greater than it probably should have been. Don't get me wrong, the best team won that night, but I truly believe that if we would have won, we would have hoisted the state championship trophy later that November.
     Well, there you have it, that was my moment in the sun, at least on the football field. I was named an all league second team player in football, went on to a unanimous choice all league basketball season, including all-state honorable mention. We missed going to state in football, and fell three points short in basketball as we tied to play in our second straight state tournament. I finally got a taste of state competition in the spring as Paul Watson and I qualified for the state golf tournament in Wellington in the spring of 1974.
     It was a fun year, I would have liked to of won one more football game and one more basketball game and then seen how the rest of the games would have played out, but that was not in the cards, but it was a season that gave me memories to last a lifetime. Let's hope that the Paola and Louisburg players who will meet on the Panther Stadium field will have as many memories nearly 40 years from now as I do of that season.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Paola vs Louisburg the battle continues!


Ok, quick show of hands, how many of you, who were at the first meeting of the Paola Panthers and Louisburg Wildcats two weeks ago at Panther Stadium DID NOT think these two teams would be squaring off against one another for the Kansas Class 4A Sub-state Championship next weekend?
Anybody? That’s what I thought, and really, this is the way the season looked like it would play out clear back when two-a-days started in August.
A bit of the luster was taken off the first meeting on October 28 because the Panthers came into the game with a 6-2 record, after inexplicably dropping their first two games of the season to Baldwin and DeSoto. At that time, the talk around the county, and indeed around the eastern part of the state was “What’s wrong with Paola?”
Well, make no mistake, the Panthers showed, over the next nine weeks and ten games, that there was, thank you very much, nothing “wrong” with them at all. As I said in a game story back in week three “the reports of the Panthers demise had been greatly exaggerated” and Paola came back with a vengeance, winning nine of their next ten games and putting a shine back on the rematch that will be eagerly anticipated and talked about this week here in Miami County.
After all, it was the Panthers that needed to shine up their stature, the Wildcats have done everything they were asked to do, including go on the road to Silver Lake and end the Eagles 52 game regular season home winning streak with a 21-3 victory. Yes, the Wildcats have lived up to their billing, and at 11-0 they deserve to be ranked as highly as they are, and will enter the sub-state championship game with Paola as one of only two unbeaten teams remaining in the class this season, along with Buhler which dispatched of Topeka Hayden in another soggy game by a 21-0 score. Which, coincidentally was the same score Louisburg hung on DeSoto in the rain and muck of Wildcat Stadium.
But it is the Panthers, who will join Louisburg, Buhler and the winner of the Ulysses and Holton game this afternoon in Holton as the Kansas State Class 4A “Final Four”. It’s the Panthers who have erased the sting and stigma of losing their first two games, AT HOME, it a fashion which left those who watched scratching their heads in wonder. It’s the Panthers, who have, with that 0-2 start, had to PROVE they belonged, right up to final seconds of the game Friday night against Baldwin.
When the season started, I had a pretty good idea this was the way this season was going to play out. There were just too many signs which pointed to this match up. 
Louisburg is wildly talented offensively and defensively, and after going through last season without the services of quarterback Kody Cook, were poised to take it to another level with his return. In addition, the Wildcats are a beast on the defensive side of the ball, Tyler Ewy is one of the best defensive players in the region, if not in the entire state.
The Panthers were loaded too, although it took a couple of weeks to find their identity, and those two lost weeks in September cost Paola some of the recognition through the rest of the state that they so richly deserved. The Panthers figured out in week three that they didn’t need to pass the ball to win football games. They figured out that a potent (and that might be an understatement) running attack with three and sometimes four players capable of breaking long runs every time they touch the ball was just as good as having a balanced passing and running game. And finally, the Panthers rediscovered how to play defense.
Let’s face it, big offenses are nice, but defense wins championships, and the defenses will be the star next Friday night when the Panthers and Wildcats meet to determine which team will play for the State’s ultimate Class 4A prize on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Salina.
Despite the score (and a Louisburg Herald headline proclaiming a “thrashing of the Panthers -- really Andy Brown, I like you a lot -- but “thrashed”?), the first meeting between these two teams was just about as even as you could get. That game boiled down to one team making the plays to win the game. It’s often cliché in sports, but the first meeting truly came down to four plays. Three outstanding offensive plays from Louisburg’s playmakers, Cook and Griffin, and an ill advised rugby style kick by the Panthers that was blocked it setting up one of those Wildcat touchdowns. Remove a pair of scrambling touchdown tosses, and a 50 yard Garrett Griffin touchdown run through just about every Panther defender on the field, and that game is far from a “thrashing”, no, it was anybody’s game and an outstanding high school football game between two very evenly matched, and really well coached teams.
I expect no less from the rematch next Friday. Who will win is anyone’s guess. I’m too close to both programs to make a prediction, but what I do know is this, I’m going to get to cover the state championship game regardless of the outcome on the field next Friday.
The Saturday after Thanksgiving will find me on the sideline of a deserving participant in the state championship game, and wether I’m wearing black and gold, or purple and white, it will be a fitting end to a fantastic season.

Friday, November 12, 2010

It's a long way to Holton, Kansas

     I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating again, the road to the Kansas Class 4A State Championship runs through Holton, Kansas. In the past few years, it's been the Paola Panthers, or the Louisburg Wildcats hitting that road, and taking on the Wildcats on what could best be described as a "quirky" field on the north side of Holton High School. (Any one who's stood on the visitors side of that field will know exactly what I'm talking about!)
     Now, lets get this out in the open, I have nothing against Holton, or Holton High School, quite the contrary, I really like Holton, my mother's side of the family all came from that area, and I still have relatives living in Holton, and heck, what's not to like about a team that's coached by a good K-State Wildcat like Brooks Barta.
     No, I like Holton a lot, just not this time of year. Now we on the "Eastern" half of the state (I'm no geography expert, but I'd sure like to know where East turns into West in the eyes of the KHSHAA), have had the good fortune to get to take that trek up 75 highway to Holton, which sets just 36 miles from the Missouri Border (which by the way is closer than Baldwin is to Missouri), and vice versa to tangle with the Wildcats on many occasions.
     But not this year, nope, that honor goes to the Ulysses Tigers, out of good old Ulysses, Kansas, location, 38 miles from the Colorado border. Yep, the Tigers get to make a six and a half hour, 375 mile trek from the southwest corner of the state to play at Holton in the northeast corner of the state. Evidently, the Tigers ran out of teams to play out there, because they're certainly getting the money's worth out of this trip!
     The good news is the folks from Ulysses will get an extra day to make the trip, since their game will be played tomorrow night, instead of tonight, and more good news, they might just miss the rain, but there could be a hit of snow in the air up there in Holton. Heck, even Buhler has a long trip ahead of them as they get to travel to Topeka to take on the Hayden Wildcats.
     It makes the 30 to 40 mile trips that DeSoto and Baldwin have to make look easy (and they are)! But, I guess it just goes to show where the population base of the state lies -- there's just not much out there after you get past Salina.
     A couple of more interesting tidbits about the sectional games. If Holton, Hayden, Paola and Louisburg all win their games (and I think there's a good chance they will) then all four of the Class 4A Sub-State teams will have come from two districts, district 5 with Louisburg and Paola and district 9 with Hayden and Holton.
     I find this interesting because a the reason the winner and runner-up in each district advances to the playoffs is because of the Hayden/Holton district alignment in the past. Those two school have battled for years in the same district, and many times one would get left out of the playoffs because of the head-to-head district match up. Several years ago they lobbied the KSHSAA and got the the system changed, two teams out of each district qualify and voila, there was the "bi-district" level of playoffs.
    Not that this change has hurt the Panthers and Wildcats here in Miami County, because they're running into the same dilemma. Hayden and Holton were moved out of the same district for a few years recently, but are back battling it out again this year. Paola and Louisburg are going to be in the same situation, unless and until one school moves up a class. It could happen, Paola is still right on the border line of the 4A-5A split, and the Louisburg community is growing, but I don't foresee these two escaping their district battles any time soon.
     Finally, and I'm no expert, or historian, but I certainly can't remember when one league has filled four of the eight spots in the sectionals like the Frontier League has done this year. With Louisburg (11-0), Baldwin (10-1), Paola (9-3) and DeSoto (8-4) all holding down spots in the eastern sectional games, the Frontier League is guaranteed a spot in the state championship game in two weeks in Salina. Pretty good stuff, and proof that it's not just lip service when coaches in the league say "The Frontier League is a tough league to play in."
     The next two weeks will be fun to watch. I'm still predicting a Paola and Louisburg rematch next Friday night, this time it will be for all (or nearly all) the marbles. The other games I have no clue on, I have no idea what Ulysses brings to the table, and I know Buhler is undefeated, but judging from their schedule, weren't really tested prior to defeating Abilene last Saturday night. So, I'm going with history here and saying I think Holton and Hayden will again duke it out next week also.
     Heck, all Hayden's done this year is go 10-1, and that loss was a 7-6 loss, on the road to 6A Manhattan (which by the way is undefeated and cruising to a 6A title game berth), and includes a 27-13 district title game win at Holton. Now Holton's been no slouch either, losing just to Hayden, and on the road at 6A Topeka High School in the first week of the season.
     So, there you go, it's a long way to Holton, but if you want to get to the state championship football game in Class 4A, you better be prepared to make that trip somewhere down the road.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Panthers are getting stronger!

They say, “That which doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
Well actually, the saying was written by German philosopher Fredrich Nietzske and is literally translated as “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
But, if you’re looking for something to illustrate this statement, look no further than the Paola Panthers football team over the last ten days.
Rewind to Thursday, October 28, 2010. The Panthers were riding the crest of a six game winning streak, and playing host to the undefeated Louisburg Wildcats in the final game of the regular season, as well as playing for a district championship.
Now the district championship in Kansas Class 4A Football really doesn’t mean much. No, thanks to the “Holton/Hayden” rule of a few years ago, winning the district championship in Kansas football is roughly a kin to a tie in soccer, or kissing your sister, it really doesn’t count for much.
Oh, it’s nice to say you’re a district champion, but all it really gets you is one more game, against a district runner-up, as you embark on the roughest ten days of football for Kansas Classes 4A and below. Because the state activities association, in it’s infinite wisdom, created this extra layer of games, called the “Bi-District” level, which allowed northeast Kansas high school super-powers Topeka-Hayden and Holton High Schools BOTH the opportunity to continue playing since they were more often than not in the same district year after year, winning and losing at the district level just doesn’t have quite the mystique anymore.
Now, don’t get me wrong, if it weren’t for the Hayden/Holton rule, the Panthers would not be playing right now, and we would not be able to bask in the glory of having four, count ‘em, four, Frontier League teams squaring off in two of the Class 4A sectional games this coming Friday night.
But anyway, ten days ago the Panthers had erased the adversity of the first two weeks of the season, and were rolling on in the season, riding a six game win streak and looking to hand the Wildcats their first loss of the season.
Well, it was a good plan, but you know what they (and exactly who are “they” anyway) say about the best laid plans of mice and men? The Wildcats were going to have none of that talk, and stopped the Panthers cold in a 21-3 victory and relegating Paola to the “runner-up” place in the bi-district bracket and a trip to Fort Scott for the opening round of the playoffs just five days later.
This is were the real adversity starts to kick in.
On the Panthers first scoring drive of the game, junior quarterback Seth Kern came to the sidelines with an injured right hand and did not return to the game. Kern not only directs the Panther offense, but is a staple on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, the Panthers have several other player who are “nicked up”. Bumps and bruises are a football players badge of honor this late in the season. But it’s the late season dings, the loss of a key player in the middle of a playoff run, its playing in an unfamiliar position, there’s a bunch of things that can happen to a team this late in the season, and most of them are bad.
That brings me back to my original though, “that which does not kill you, makes you stronger.”
None of the bumps in the road the Panthers have suffered the last ten days have killed them, they have, as was witnessed Saturday night in Independence, made them stronger.
“We didn’t blame anybody, we stuck together, we’re a family, and we just kept working hard,” said Panther senior Dustin Matz when talking about coming back off a tough loss to Louisburg last week. “Our motto is just get better every week and I feel we’ve done that, we’re getting better.”
You bet they’re getting better, the Panthers turned in probably their most impressive defensive performance of the season on Saturday, it started with the Panthers stopping the Bulldogs on four plays at the Panther 19 yard line after a game opening fumble by Paola and ended with the defense stopping the Bulldogs on four plays from their 18 yard line to preserve the shut out victory.
In between those two defensive stands were series after series of bone jarring hits from the Panther defenders in route to holding the state’s leading rusher Bulldog senior Matt Bromley to next to nothing on the ground and keeping an offensive that had averaged 41 points per game coming into the game to a big, fat “0”.
“Getting a shutout was big, especially when you’re talking about a runner the caliber of the Bromley kid for Independence,” said Panthers Head Coach Mike Dumpert. “I think he was the leader in the state last year, and leading the state this year, our kids did an exceptional job on that.”
“We wanted to get this done (shutout), it sends a statement to the other teams, we’re not here to mess around,” said Panther junior linebacker Brandon Goodman. “We’re going to be there to hit you in the mouth every play, that’s what the whole Frontier League plays like, so some of these other teams, when they see us coming and hit them like that, they’re just not ready for it.”
So now the Panthers get a chance to avenge a couple of their three losses on the season. First up is Baldwin, which handed the Panthers a season opening loss, when the rolled into Panther Stadium and gave Paola a heavy dose of their own medicine. The physical nature of the Baldwin game caught the Panthers off guard, I’d like to think it won’t this time around. Then, if they take care of business against Baldwin, and no matter who wins the “Wildcat” war in Louisburg, it will be another re-match with the Panthers facing a team that handed them a loss in the regular season. DeSoto followed up the Baldwin loss for Paola by putting them in a 0-2 hole with a victory in Paola in week two, and, of course, we all know about the loss ten days ago at the hand of Louisburg.
But through all that, through an 0-2 start, a disappointing loss to Louisburg and the loss of a key offensive and defensive component, the Panthers have continued to grow, continued to improve and it’s something that pleases Panther Head Coach Mike Dumpert.
“The offensive growth has been somewhat stymied through injury but defensively we’re getting better,” Dumpert said. “One of the things we preach, and you guys have been around me long enough and heard this enough, we want to get better each week and defensively we are getting better.”
Frankly, my money’s on a Paola vs Louisburg rematch. No disrespect to either Baldwin or DeSoto, but I really feel Paola and Louisburg will be facing off again in two weeks.
I called it right after the first Paola vs Louisburg game ten days ago, and I’m sticking with my gut feeling. And, if that feeling holds true, then the two teams can meet for the second time this year, with something tangible on the line, a shot at a state championship.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Tragedy Overshadows Incredible Game

  As incredible as the score and statistics were for the Trojans and Broncos, we always must remember, it's just a game.
  That point was made abundantly clear early Friday morning when we all recieved word that Spring Hill senior Nathan Stiles, who had collapsed on the sideline during the second quarter of the game, had died.
  There will be enough speculation about the causes of his passing, so, we will let others write and comment about the pros and cons of sports injuries.
  We will simply pass along our heartfelt condolences to the Stiles family, the students and staff at Spring Hill High School, and the entire Spring Hill Community.
  We don't cover the Broncos full time, yet, but we spend enought time at Spring Hill with our regular coverage that we feel like we are part of that family, and we can safely say, it hurts when you lose a family member, especially one so young and with so much to live for. 
  So, please remember, it's just a game, and should always be treated that way.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Louisburg should be proud of Wildcat Volleyball

     A little over two hours into the most important day of their volleyball lives the Louisburg Wildcat Volleyball team knew their dream season was all but over.
     In a cruel seeding draw, the Wildcats found themselves paired with not one, but two defending state champions, and not just any state champions, no, the Wildcats were up against the St. James Academy Thunder and the Topeka Hayden Wildcats. Those two teams represented the last three state champions, two straight from St. James and the one before that from Hayden, which, not coincidentally featured the Thunder as runner up.
     Heck, all the Thunder did prior to playing in this years Class 4A State tournament was go 39-1. The eventual 5A state champion Bishop Miege Stags were the only team to defeat the Thunder this year, and, in the Thunder's 39 match wins this season, they lost a grand total of FOUR games, four, that's it!
     So, after playing Hayden tough in their first game, eventually falling by a score of 25-20, the Wildcats felt the wrath of Hayden and St. James. Louisburg dropped their second game against Hayden in a game which they really weren't competitive. Then they got steam rolled by the Thunder in the first game of their match, and despite the fact the Wildcats opened a 3-0 lead in the second game of the match against the Thunder, it was little more than a stay of execution, as the Thunder rolled off 10 straight points and went on to a 25-10 victory.
     That's when the Wildcats fortunes in the state tournament changed. Lesser team would have mailed in their third and final match of the pool play, taken a beating and gone home, feeling good about just making it to the state tournament. Especially a team that had not been to such a lofty position in nearly 20 years. But not the Wildcats, not this bunch of kids who found it not good enough to just get to the dance, they wanted to at least make it to the floor.
     "We knew we had to keep our heads in it, we had to focus and come together as a team," said Marisa Mackey, and led by Mackey and the Wildcat seniors, that's exactly what they did. The Wildcats came back even after waiting over three hours to finally hit the court again, and defeated the fourth seeded Labette County Grizzlies in straight sets to take the match victory. The Wildcats jumped to leads in both games, watched as the Grizzlies fought their way back into each game, and then finished off the Grizzlies  each time.
     And that's been a problem for the Wildcats this year. Several times through the course of the season, the Wildcats watched as late game lead evaporated, but not on this day. No, on this day, the Wildcats held on, and won what might have been the most important match in recent memory for the Wildcats.
     From that point on, the Wildcat faithful were all smiles, even Mackey, who was battling a pounding headache, managed to smile through the pain. Everyone realized what an important win it was. For the seniors, it was the opportunity to win the final match of their career. For the underclassmen it was the opportunity to get not only a taste of playing in a state tournament, but they now knew what winning in the state tournament felt like, and for the family, friends, and fans of the Wildcats it was the chance to celebrate a winning end to a magical season.
     Everyone won on Friday at Salina, and the Wildcats did something to make their community proud. The went to Salina, performed with grit and determination, taking on the best teams in the state and handling everything that was dealt them. The Wildcats performed like champions and the entire Louisburg community is better for their efforts.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Wildcats and Panthers set to face each other

The match-up we’ve all been waiting on is finally here. With Paola downing Spring Hill and Louisburg toppling the Trojans of Osawatomie, the battle for supremacy in the Kansas Class 4A District 5 will again take place between the 8-0 Wildcats of Louisburg and the 6-2 Panthers of Paola.

This year, the Panthers will get to host the showdown, it will be senior night in Paola, and will be one of the most anticipated football games in the eastern part of the state.

It’s too bad the Panthers got off to such a slow start, floundering around for their first two games and padding the records of Baldwin and DeSoto in the process, or this match-up could have been really huge, with two undefeated and highly ranked teams meeting at Panther Stadium.

It would have been nice to see both teams come in to Paola next week with unbeaten records, but since those opening two games, the Panthers have been playing as good a football on both sides of the ball as anyone in the state. Just because Paola has a couple of losses, this is going to be one whale of a football game.

But I’m here to tell you that this meeting between these two great programs may not be the last one this year, and if you want to dream just a bit, it’s the game these two will play on Friday, November 19, that will be the game that everyone will be watching.

You see, with the state football playoff system the way it is, this game really means nothing to the overall scheme of things. The only thing this game does is determine whether you play a district champion or a district runner up on Tuesday, November 2nd. Both the Panthers and Wildcats are in, they will advance to the bi-district round, and, I think they’ll go a lot further.

Currently there are just three undefeated teams in the “Eastern” half of the Class 4A Bracket (not counting the Friday games), Sumner Academy in District one at 7-0, Basehor-Linwood in District two and Louisburg in District five. The way the state bracket plays out, the top team in district one is at the top half of the Eastern bracket and the top team in district two is in the bottom half of the bracket. The top team from the Paola/Louisburg District -- District five is in the top half and the second team from district five is in the bottom half. So, it doesn’t make any difference which slot the Wildcats or Panthers get, the potential is there to meet an undefeated opponent in the Sectional Round of the playoffs on Friday, November 12th.

The bi-district and regional rounds don’t throw match-ups at either team that they should not be able to handle and puts each one squarely on a path to meet again in the Sub-State round with a trip to the State Championship on the line.
Just for the sake of argument, and since I’m writing this a week before these two teams match up on the field. I’m going to put Louisburg in the top spot coming out of the district, and Paola in the second spot. Now before you get up in arms, I’m not predicting anything, I have to put one team in one spot and the other in another, since Louisburg is currently undefeated, I’m putting them in the top spot.

Winning the district would put the Wildcats in a bi-district matchup with the second place team in district six which will most likely be Fort Scott. A win in that game would pit the Wildcats against the winner of an Independence and Columbus matchup and if they would get past that game waiting squarely on the horizon would be an unbeaten Sumner Academy squad. Sumner would have to defeat Perry-Lecompton and the winner of a DeSoto and Eudora rematch to get to a game against the Wildcats.

Finishing as the runner-up in the district is not always a bad thing, just ask the Panthers. Last year Paola got one game further in the playoffs than the Wildcats because they didn’t have to face eventual state champion Bishop Miege until the sub-state round, rather than the sectional round.

Anyway, the Panthers, as the district runner up would probably face Anderson County in the bi-district round, and then would take on the winner of a Baxter Springs and Chanute match-up. That would put them in a regional round against an undefeated Basehor-Linwood squad that would have had to play Atchison in the first round and the winner of a Baldwin and St. James Academy or Blue Valley Southwest (if you can believe either of those teams should be playing on). Now, I’m sure Paola would really like a second shot at Baldwin, so the sectional round would be really nice for the Panthers if Baldwin would just go ahead and knock Basehor out in the regional round and set up a rematch with the Bulldogs in the sectionals. Either way, the Panthers would be facing a undefeated Basehor or a once beaten Baldwin team in the sectional finals.

Should the Wildcats and Panthers both win those games -- look who’s waiting in the sub-state championship!

Now, I’m a firm believer in taking things one game at a time, playing the games on the field and not on paper, and there’s a whole lot of football to still be played, and any other cliche you can think of. But let’s be real, the way both of these teams are playing, it’s not a big stretch to see them playing each other again.

And if they do, November 19, 2010 will go down as one of the biggest nights of football in Miami County history.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Seeding gives Panthers shot at sub-state

Since the Kansas Class 4A Sub-State Volleyball Tournament assignments were made weeks ago, I’ve felt the Louisburg sub-state was a three horse race, with the host team, the Louisburg Wildcats, and their Frontier League comrades the Paola Panthers and the Spring Hill Broncos the odds on favorites to take the tournament title and represent the area again at the State Volleyball Tournament in Salina.

With the release of the brackets for the tournament I’m even more convinced that the tournament champion will come from one of those three schools. In a previous blog entry, I outlined why I thought the Wildcats from Louisburg would be the eventual champion, and I’m standing by that opinion.

But, I’m here to tell you that if the Wildcats slip up, the Broncos and Panthers can, and will be right there to pick up the banner.

Really this column is more about what Spring Hill and Paola have to do to punch their ticket to state, rather than what the Wildcats have to do. For them, it’s easy, just play well, get a fast start and beat teams you’ve already beaten and you’re in. The main thing for the Wildcats is to get a fast start, this is a one and done tournament, the Wildcats can’t take a match off, they can’t take a game off, they have to fire on all cylinders, from the beginning, and they have to put teams away.

For the Broncos the task is simple, beat Louisburg. That’s it. The Broncos open with Iola, while the Wildcats open with Osawatomie, neither opponent will strike fear into the hearts of the Broncos and Wildcats, so they will match up again in the semi-finals. For either team, it’s then a matter of winning the final which will most likely be against Fort Scott or Paola. If you’re the Wildcats, you can look at those two teams and see opponents you’ve already beaten. If you’re the Broncos, you know you’ve just beaten a team who has beaten your upcoming opponent. 

That brings us to the Panthers. A month ago I was ready to hand this tournament to the Panthers. They were playing solid volleyball, Paige Getz was developing into a solid middle hitter and Kelli Cullor and Cheyenne Rankin were doing great things on the outside. Melanie Golubski, Courtney Johnson and Elizabeth Edwards were strong along the back line with Mallorie Nelson starting to really get comfortable setting the ball for the hitters at the net. That was a month ago, and the Panthers have gone into a bit of tailspin lately, but all is not lost, and there’s no reason why the fourth seeded Panthers can’t take home the ultimate prize on Saturday at Louisburg.

It all starts with the seeding. In my opinion, the Panthers drew about the best position they could have, sure if they make it through their first round match, they’ll have to face the number one seeded Tigers of Fort Scott in the semi-final (I know, I’m giving the Tigers a win here, but let’s face it, Prairie View, the Tigers opening round opponent hasn’t won all year long, I don’t think they’ll suddenly start Saturday, but hey if they would happen to miraculously knock off the Tigers, that makes my argument for the Panthers even easier.). Any other seeding position, and they would have to face one or both of their biggest rivals just to get to the final. With this seeding Paola won’t face either until the final and by then they could have a tremendous amount of momentum on their side.

Why, you ask would the Panthers want to look to a semi-final match with the Tigers? Well, the Panthers already own match victories over two of the Tigers SEK comrades, the league champion Pittsburg Purple Dragons, and the third place Chanute Blue Comets. The Tigers, well they finished fourth in the SEK with a 6-2 record, so, if the Panthers can rekindle some of the fire they showed earlier in the season, there’s no reason to fear the Tigers. And, as I’ve mentioned before, the Tigers have been beaten by Louisburg (and Anderson County for that matter) and the Panthers know they can play with the Wildcats, so then its just a matter of going out an playing like they know they can.

From there, it’s a simple matter of defeating either Spring Hill or Louisburg in the final. Now for the Panthers, they’ve beaten Louisburg, at Louisburg, but have not had much luck with the Broncos this year, so to me, the Panthers have the best of both worlds here too. In a matchup with the Broncos, the Panthers can draw on the fact that it’s hard to beat a team three or four times during a season, and against the Wildcats, the Panthers can draw on the fact that they have just recently defeated the Wildcats on their home floor, and, it seems like the home team very seldom wins the sub-state tournament they host.

So there it is, it’s all there for the taking, the Panthers have a golden opportunity to pull off another stunner and make a return trip to the state tournament, but it can only happen if the Panthers take a quick trip back in time and find the team that was playing so well through the middle part of the season. If that team shows up, with this short, three game format, anything is possible.

It's tough having three "Home" teams!

Originally Posted, Tuesday, October 19, 2010

    You know, there were a few things I didn’t think through real clearly when I started two and a half years ago. But that’s really nothing new for me.
    Now, in my defense, when this idea first came up in the spring of 2008, there was a promise by certain individuals who will remain nameless of a partnership, and at least some help in coverage for Louisburg and Osawatomie sports.
    Well, when we launched in September 2008, I did have some help. My assistance in Osawatomie lasted about five football games. My Louisburg connection lasted two football seasons, but just football nothing else. So for the most part it’s been just me.
    As the old saying goes “Hindsight’s 20/20”, and if I knew in the summer of 2008 what I know now, the coverage of the site would probably be a lot different, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way, and I’m proud of what we’re providing for the kids at Paola, Osawatomie and Louisbug High Schools.
    My only regret right now is that I can’t extend coverage past the varsity level. There’s a bunch of great kids toiling away in junior varsity and freshman competitions, and for some, that will be as far as they ever get, but I simply cannot make it to that many games. This fall, between the three schools there are 11 varsity level sports, I try to make as much as I can, but impossible does not nearly begin to describe what I face each week when I make out my coverage schedule.
    That leads me to my other great dilemma. I now have three “HOME” teams!
    First, let me say, I’m a Paola Panther through and through. I was born in Paola, I was educated in Paola, and I’ll probably be buried here too. So, the Panthers are my “home” team. Always have been and always will be.
    With that being said. I have been in the newspaper business all my life. My grandfather was a newspaper man, my dad was a newspaper man, and my college degree is in journalism and mass communications. So, doing what I do now is in my blood, and I’m kind of proud of my heritage.
    But, I’m also a Louisburg Wildcat. You see, I spent nearly the first ten years of my newspaper career in Louisburg at the Herald. My two oldest daughters were born while we were in Louisburg, and some of our closest friendships were made while we were living in that community.
    I’ve thought about this several times, when I look out at the Wildcat Volleyball team and see Colleen O’Brien, I think about writing stories about her parents Barry and Barb and their exploits as football, volleyball and basketball players at Louisburg High School. I see Kate Dixon and remember writing about her mom on the volleyball court and all the years I spent visiting with her grandmother Connie at Louisburg Elemenatry  School, and I watch Kody Cook run the Wildcat offense on the football team and remember his dad playing for the Wildcats.
    So, it’s pretty easy for me to be a “Wildcat” also, in fact, if situations hadn’t changed in the mid 1980’s we might still be living in Louisburg to this day, but that’s history, and it can’t be changed.
    Now, when it comes to being a “Trojan” well, that’s a bit more difficult. Being born and raised in Paola in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, let’s just say it wasn’t “cool” to associate with Osawatomie people. In fact, it was about like the United States and the Soviet Union. It was like we were the good guys, and they were not, the two really didn’t mix, and the feelings were mutual. 
    It made for some really heated sports contests, and, quite frankly I couldn’t have cared less back then if the Trojans ever won a game. When was the last time you saw a basketball player, after fouling out on their opponents home court, and of course, taking a ton of harassment for it, turn at half court and flip off the home fans with not one, but two hands? It happened in Paola, my senior year, and I’ll remember it for ever, like it happened yesterday. My, my how things have changed!
    It’s not like that anymore, and for the most part it’s a good thing. I’m sure there’s people out there that long for things to go back to the way they were and have the Panthers and Trojans as bitter rivals, but that’s just not going to happen. Part of me is saddened, because I see, not too many years down the road the day when Paola and Osawatomie don’t play each other in football, and the end of that Tom-Tom game traditions would be a shame.
    But the bitter rivalry days are over, and that’s a good thing, because 30 years ago, I couldn’t do what I’m doing now. I couldn’t say I’m a “Trojan” guy, but I can now, and I’m glad that it’s that way.
    Just a case in point, while I watched the Panthers defeat the Trojans last Friday night by a series record score, part of me reveled in the fact that the Panthers were doing so well, but another part of me felt the disappointment the Trojans players, coaches and fans had to feel. I was on the losing end of a game like that against the Trojans my junior year, I remember how I felt, and I could now look at it through the Trojans eyes also. It hurt for me back then, and I hurt for me now.
    Those feelings of empathy for the Trojans didn’t diminish the feelings of happiness for the Panthers, they just continue to drive home the point that I now have three “home” teams and I fell good when they win and bad when the lose, even when they’re playing each other.
    So, while the point of this blog is the fact that with three “home” teams, it’s hard sometimes to compliment one without the slighting one of the others, it’s always going to be my intention to give the kids that participate in the sports programs at each of the three schools all the support that I can.
    I will, to be best of my ability try and keep messages positive, but sometimes, positive for one is negative for the other, it’s a fact of life, and I’m not always going to be able to avoid it, so forgive me, in advance, if something I write compliments one school, but not another. Please don’t tell me “you’re a Paola guy.” The fact is, I’m a “Paola” guy, a “Louisburg” guy and an “Osawatomie” guy. I do this for the kids, and every school has great kids, doing amazing things and playing their hearts out for their team.
    I hope that each and every one of those players take the field and give 110% for their team, if they don’t they’re not only hurting themselves, but their team mates, their fans and their school, and that would be a shame. But in the end, it’s just a game, and everyone needs to remember that.

Louisburg is favorite for Volleyball Sub-State

Originally Posted, Monday, October 18, 2010

    Now don’t take this as gospel, and don’t go and book rooms in Salina, at least not yet, but a week from now, the Louisburg Wildcat Volleyball team should be practicing for their shot at the big time, the Kansas Class 4A State Volleyball Tournament.
    I don’t have a crystal ball, and I’m sure not very good at predicting the future, because if I was, I’d have won the lottery, and I’d be sipping some cool beverage in some exotic location, but I’m not, an the way my luck runs, I’m not going to any time soon either.
    No, all I have is my own two eyes, and the time it takes to watch quite a bit of volleyball with a bunch of different teams through the course of a season.
    When the sub-state tournament assignments were made by the state, it was pretty obvious that the Louisburg Sub-State was going to be a three team race, with the favorites being the Wildcats, along with their Frontier League comrades, the Spring Hill Broncos and the Paola Panthers.
    The remaining five team are the Fort Scott Tigers, the Anderson County Bulldogs, the Iola Mustangs, the Prairie View Buffalos and the Osawatomie Trojans.
    Let’s face it, there’s just no “Powerhouse” team in this sub-state. It’s about as evenly matched as it can be, so even in fact that the state did just the opposite this year in assignments than what they did to Paola two years ago when it was their turn to host a sub-state.
    In 2008, if you remember, the Panthers had one of the best teams in the eastern half of the state, and one of the top two teams in the Frontier League. And what, in it’s infinite wisdom did the state do that year?
    All the KSHSAA did in 2008 was load up the Paola sub-state with the St. James Thunder and the Ottawa Cyclones. St. James was the NUMBER ONE ranked team in the state in ALL Classes that year, and Ottawa was the number four ranked team in Class 4A.
    All THREE teams deserved to be in the state tournament, but only one could go. The Thunder, of course, wiped out the field in the sub-state and the state tournaments that year, (and last year too!). But the point is, two of those three teams didn’t stand a chance!
    Well, that’s not the case this year, quite the opposite, I think there’s three teams again that have a chance to win this year’s sub-state at Louisburg, and here’s my take on it in ascending order.
    Third, the Paola Panthers. Just about a month ago, I had the Panthers in the favorite spot. And, that’s interesting, because they had just come off a lackluster performance in the Baldwin Tournament, and were not playing very good volleyball. But something happened between the Saturday playing of the Baldwin tournament and the next Tuesday when the Panthers traveled back to Baldwin to take on the Bulldogs in a Frontier League match.
    The Panthers destroyed the Bulldogs on their home court that night and really started to play “Panther Volleyball”, and that continued for the better part of September and October. Although the Panthers stock slipped a bit following the Spring Hill Tournament, that was more a product of the rise of Spring Hill rather than bad play by the Panthers.
    But the Panthers stock slipped badly last weekend at the Frontier League Tournament, when they went 1-5 on the day, and have started to tinker with their line-up which has caused confusion at times, and seriously damaged their changes, at least in my opinion.
    Second, the Spring Hill Broncos. Like Paola, the Broncos fortunes have risen and fallen through the course of the last couple of weeks. As I said above, the Broncos rose to the top of my favorite list after their performance in their own tournament. The took on all comers, falling short of the championship, but playing good, inspired volleyball against some very difficult, bigger class schools. Plus they defeated their two sub-state rivals in head to head matches, and rather easily.
    But again, like Paola, the Broncos were not sharp in the Frontier League event, and were beaten badly by Louisburg, and although they beat Paola, they won the first game 31-29 before losing the second 25-10. If one point would have gone the other way late in that first game, the Panthers would have won, and the outcomes of later matches might have been different. The Broncos struggled to a 2-5 record in the tournament and have to have confidence issues heading into next weekend.
    First, the Louisburg Wildcats. Let me preface these remarks by saying, there’s a whole host of reasons why I think the Wildcats will win this tournament, and one very big reason why they might not.
    We’ll get the bad news out of the way first -- host teams seldom win their own sub state tournaments. I don’t know why, but just look back a couple of years, 2009, at Spring Hill, Paola defeats Ottawa for the championship. 2008, at Paola, well, I already told you about that one.
    So, now that I’ve told you why the Wildcats have a big strike against them, I’ll tell you a few reasons why I think they will succeed. 
    First and foremost, they’re playing pretty good volleyball, at the right time of the season. They have the best front row of the three team’s I’ve mentioned and when they’re on, they can hit with just about anyone. Marisa Mackey, Colleen O’Brien and Emily Lemke are very tough, and they you bring in Anna Bell off the bench and there’s very little drop off in play. Kate Dixon is efficient and accurate in distributing the ball, and every one of those girls know how to get down to the floor to dig and return shots.
    Second, and maybe most importantly, they’ve played, AND BEATEN, every team in the tournament with the exception of Anderson County, and with apologies to the Bulldogs, I don’t think they will be a factor in the event. Every other team the Wildcats might face in the bracket they have played and beaten, some multiple times.
    The Wildcats are not a lock, they haven’t been an unbeatable team this season, far from it. They have a nasty habit of not finishing games, getting ahead and then not putting teams away. But they demonstrated a bit more of a killer instinct on Saturday, and if they can harness that, they can win.
    Anything can happen, witness the Panthers last year. It’s a one and done, three game sprint, but right now, for my money, I’m betting on the Wildcats.

Paola can win with "One Dimensional" Football!

Originally Posted, Monday, October 18, 2010

    How many times do we watch and listen to football coaches preach about being a “balanced” football team?
    Every coach expounds on the merits of having balance between the run and the pass. He will quote statistics of how you must first establish the run and that will open up the passing game. How if you can’t at least present the “threat” of throwing passes down field, teams will “load the box” and stop the running game and then suddenly your “one dimensional” offense will be dead in the water.
    Well fans, I’m here today to tell you this, if the Paola Panthers are going to make a run deep in the playoffs, they will do it as a one dimensional team.
    Now, this next statement is an oversimplification of the facts, because more factors were involved in the Panthers season opening losses to Baldwin and DeSoto than a few forward passes, but for the sake of my arguments right now, I’m here to tell you, one of the big reasons why the Panthers started out 0-2 and stand at 5-2 instead of 7-0 and heading for a REALLY BIG game against Louisburg in 10 day or so is this. 
    The Panthers started out the season THINKING they could throw the football! Now, the Panthers didn’t change their offense and go to a full fledged spread, tossing it around 40 times a game like the Osawatomie Trojans. No, they were more conservative, with Seth Kern tossing 29 passes in the opening two games.
    For a Paola Panther offense, that IS a spread offense! And, there’s more to those stats, first, the Panthers completed just 10 of those 29 attempts, a woeful completion percentage, and they gained just 108 yards, that’s just not very good. 
    But, there’s more to those stats than meets the eye. It wasn’t necessarily bad for the Panthers to throw the ball that many times, but, it was more a product of when the passes were thrown. During the Baldwin game, a couple of times, the offense got down field, deep into Bulldog territory running the ball, and then all of a sudden, boom, three passes in a row, and the drive stalled. It just didn’t make sense.
    Luckily for the Paola faithful, after those first two games, cooler heads prevailed and the Panthers scrapped the passing game and went almost strictly with a running offense. In the last five games, all blow out wins I might add, the Panthers have attempted just 10 passes, with one completion for a whopping 14 yards.
    But the rushing attack, that has flourished! After running for 217 and 315 yard is each of the first two games, not bad for most programs, but anemic by Paola standards, the Panthers have ripped opposing defenses for 471, 386, 305, 541 and 544 yards. The last two represent new school records, and it doesn’t look like there’s any end in sight.
    In fact, I’ll make this argument right now, even though the Panthers are almost exclusively a running football team, I will say right now they are far from “one dimensional.” I say this because the Panthers have more than one person that can torch a defense on the ground.
    Look no further than this set of stats: Skylar Hawkins is getting the lions share of the carries and had 1171 yards so far this year on 138 carries. But, Tyler Henness has 811 yards on 67 carries and Seth Kern has added 406 yards on 67 carries, that’s 1217 yards on 134 carries -- nearly identical stats to Hawkins. When you add in Tanner Staats who’s picked up 266 yards on just 24 carries, it’s pretty easy to see why Paola can line up and beat most teams just running the ball.
    Plus, the Panthers have the ability to take the ball up the middle, hit a crease at the tackle/tight end spot, or get to the edge and go outside. Teams that put 8-9-10 in the “box” better make sure they make the tackle within five yards of the line of scrimmage, because if they don’t these guys are off to the races.
    In the Panthers latest record setting performance against Osawatomie last Friday night, Paola’s longest scoring drive was seven plays -- seven plays and it went for 46 yards and took 2:28 off the clock. Paola had THREE, one play drives, going for 35, 34 and 77 yards, they had FOUR more drives that lasted just three plays, the shortest at 11 yards and the longest at 49 yards. Those are possession numbers that most PASSING teams would envy!
    Now, I’m not here to say the Panthers and win a state championship running the ball 50 times a game and never passing it, but I will say that it’s my opinion that the Panthers can go a long way in the playoffs without needing to throw a single pass.
    Somebody out there might have the horses up front, the linebackers and the speed at corner and safety to contain the Panthers stable of running backs, who knows, it might be Louisburg in 10 days or so, but I know one thing, the Panthers have been fun to watch the last five games, and they’re going to be even more fun to watch in the next five games, and beyond, maybe all the way to a state championship!