By BRETT MARSHALL
SCOTT CITY — Just more than a week earlier, basketball practices began for the Scott City boys team, the two-time defending state 3A champions.
But missing at the gymnasium each night since has been head coach Glenn O'Neil and seven players from the 2012 championship team.
They've had other important matters to address — getting ready for the Beavers' first appearance in a state football championship game in nearly two decades — at the top of the list.
At 1 p.m. on Saturday, at Hutchinson's Gowans Stadium, the 13-0 and No. 2-ranked Beavers, will take on 13-0 and No. 1-ranked Silver Lake to lay claim as the best football team in Kansas' middle-sized class.
O'Neil, completing his sixth season as the head football coach, has three state basketball title to his credit (2006, 2011, 2012), but this will be his first football title appearance. On the other sideline will be legendary coach C.J. Hamilton, who in 37 seasons has guided the Eagles to a 357-83 record (.811) while the Beavers have gone 62-10 (.861) under O'Neil.
"This is what everybody dreams of when the season begins back in August," O'Neil said Tuesday in his office next to O.L. Darner Field, after his team completed its Tuesday practice in advance of Saturday's game. "It's been a long time for Scott City to play for a championship so that makes it exciting for the players, the coaches, the community. It's a week we usually do our alumni (basketball) scrimmage, so that's all on hold. Our wrestling stuff gets pushed back, too. But nobody's complaining."
The Beavers have been workmanlike in their postseason run in which they have outscored their opponents by a margin of 201-40. Included in that was their 42-26 semifinal victory over previously unbeaten Beloit a week ago on the Trojans' home field.
In a game where the Beavers trailed at halftime, 18-14, they came back to dominate the final 24 minutes and eventually won going away. They did so with a balanced offense (228 yards rushing, 187 yards passing) and a stifling defense that kept the Trojans' pulverizing running game in check over the final two quarters (75 yards after yielding 247 in the first half).
"It was a physical game where both teams went at each other with their best shot," O'Neil said. "But that's now in the past and our focus is solely on this next game."
Between the two tradition-packed programs, they have 10 state championships. The Beavers claimed three Class 4A titles in the short span of four seasons (1988-1990-1991) and were runners-up in 1994. The victories came against Baldwin (31-14, 1988), Marysville (13-0, 1990) and Riverton (48-32, 1991) while they lost to Paola, 28-8, in their 1994 contest.
After getting over their quarterfinal hurdle in resounding fashion two weeks ago (49-0 over Garden Plain), the Beavers then took down Beloit in their first semifinal appearance since 2002 when they lost in 4A to Wellington.
Now, they take on the high-scoring Eagles.
"They've got a hall of fame coach and year-in, year-out they have great teams," O'Neil said of Silver Lake. "They're fundamentally sound in everything they do. They run a spread and try to get as close to 50/50 pass/run and I think he (Hamilton) was probably ahead of his time with his offensive philosophy. They do things right and they play within the system he's put in and it's been successful."
Indeed, Hamilton has guided his teams to seven state championships, most recently in 2010 when the Eagles defeated longtime nemesis Conway Springs, 27-21. Five times, including last year's 49-7 blowout by Conway, the Eagles have lost to the Cardinals.
"Anytime you're still playing in late November, you're excited and your kids are excited," Hamilton said in a telephone interview. "We've been fortunate to have had a lot of great experience in championship games. We've won some, lost some. You just look forward to the opportunity to see the kids play and what they can accomplish."
The Eagles' spread offense has averaged just more than 220 yards a game on the ground and 175 yards through the air. The Beavers average 303 rushing yards and 152 passing yards.
Both teams are stingy on defense, the Eagles giving up just 103 points (7.9) while holding a plus-16 turnover margin. The Beavers' defense has given up 91 points (7.0) and has a plus-22 turnover margin.
"To win any game, but especially a state championship game, you've got to win the three areas — offense, defense, special teams," Hamilton said.
Both teams have excelled in all three. Both have big-time returners — Silver Lake in Peter Pfannenstiel, who burned Rossville with a 90-yard kickoff return right after a Bulldogs' TD had made it a one-score game in the second period.
Scott City has the same game-breaker in Dalton Buehler, who broke Beloit's will with his own 90-yard kickoff return in the fourth quarter after the Trojans pulled to within nine points.
"I think Scott City's very similar to us on offense," Hamilton said. "They try to create balance and when you have a team that can throw and run the ball, it stretches your defense. You have to take good angles and tackle in space. With them you can't key on any one or two players."
Buehler has racked up 1,886 yards and 25 touchdowns, including his best output of the season against Beloit (26 carries, 222 yards, three TDs), and quarterback Brett O'Neil has thrown for 1,849 yards and 27 TDs while being intercepted only twice.
Silver Lake's offense revolves around junior quarterback Dailin Kruger, who has rushed for 1,082 yards (18 TDs) and passed for 1,872 yards (28 TDs). Pfannenstiel has rushed for 1,174 yards and 12 touchdowns.
"We've seen some similar styles on offense," O'Neil said of Silver Lake's spread formation. "They try to spread the field, so you've got to stay in your sets, tackle in space and you've gotta stop the run first. I've always believed if you take care of the run, then you deal with the pass as it comes."
Hamilton said he had enjoyed this year's Eagles season after absorbing a 49-7 thrashing to Conway Springs in the 2011 title game. That same Conway team had eliminated Scott City, 39-21, in the quarterfinals.
"Scott City's very physical, and they're very aggressive," Hamilton said. "They tackle well. They've got very skilled people in the secondary, and they can make plays. It comes down in big games as to who takes care of the ball. You can't be too predictable in what you do. I think we're very similar in special teams and in the way we've played defense. Both can score in a variety of ways."
Silver Lake linebacker Blake Baird had a pick-six in the second quarter to help give the Eagles a 28-14 halftime cushion in their semifinal triumph.
"Their linebackers are playmakers and physical," O'Neil said of Baird (6-0, 200) and Brock Swartz (5-9, 205). "We've got to get blockers on them, take their defensive linemen 1-on-1 and try to get the fullback to their linebackers. Their secondary is sound, and they're not going to get beat. We'll want to establish the run first, that's always our focus, and then see what adjustments we need to make."
O'Neil said it didn't matter that the game has the state's two top-ranked teams all season vying for the title.
"We don't talk about rankings or who the team is that we're playing," O'Neil said. "We put numbers up on the report and tell our kids to take care of their own responsibilities. We focus on what they do and then try to stop it. We focus on their defense and try to find where we can attack. You're playing a team with great tradition, but what has happened in the past doesn't really matter."
For O'Neil, delaying basketball practice by another week has been the least of his concerns.
"It's been a blast getting ready to play for a state championship," he said. "This is why you get into coaching. You have the opportunity to be the last team standing and to be a state champion. The kids have worked so hard to get here, we'd like to finish the job."
The Beavers will have that opportunity at 1 p.m. Saturday.
See Know the Foe in Scoreboard, Page B2.