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.