By BRETT MARSHALL
Over the past 15 years, few high school football programs in Kansas have been equated with success more than Conway Springs.
Only Hutchinson can be spoken with in the same breath as the Cardinals' program, each school owning seven state titles in its respective classification.
So when the Scott City Beavers, who have four state titles of their own, once again head to Conway Springs for a 4 p.m. Saturday kickoff in a Class 3A quarterfinal battle, it will be tradition taking on tradition.
This will be the third meeting between the two elite programs, having previously met two times at Conway Springs — 6-0 winners over the Beavers in 2007 and a 39-21 victor in 2011 — both at this same quarterfinal stage. The 2011 victory was as close as anybody played the eventual 3A state champion Cardinals that year in the playoffs.
A year ago, a second-round ouster of the Cardinals by Garden Plain avoided another potential matchup, and instead the Beavers rocked the Owls in the quarters en route to claiming their first state title since 1991.
Both programs have produced elite athletes in recent years — the best being Conway's Tanner Woods, now a redshirt at Kansas State University, and Scott City's Ron Baker, who now plays basketball at Wichita State University.
Both have proven winning and veteran coaches — Scott City's Glenn O'Neil is 73-11 (.869) in eight seasons, while his counterpart, Matt Biehler, is 56-5 (.918) in his five seasons after serving as an assistant for more than a decade.
So what will be the critical components for the Beavers to bring home a victory against a Conway team that is once again using its mystifying single-wing offense to put up mammoth numbers?
"They're big, big, especially on the unbalanced side and they have a big power back," O'Neil said of the Cardinals. "They've got a ton of size. They've got tradition, but we tell our players that wearing the blue and white uniform always gives them a chance, and we'll use that to build a fire under them."
There's no denying that the Beavers will have their hands full, trying to stop another juggernaut offense and trying to figure out a stingy defense.
The Cardinals come in averaging 43.9 points a game, 365.6 yards rushing (8-yard average per carry), and while only throwing for 62 yards a game, they do average 29.5 yards per completion, and one of every four completions has gone for a touchdown.
For obvious reasons, Conway's Biehler likes the way his team has been playing, and likes its makeup.
"I'm proud of the kids as one of our goals is to be playing at the pinnacle of the season," Biehler said in a telephone interview earlier this week. "We know with Scott City, we're getting the same type of team. They're still very physical and extremely well-coached in all facets of the game."
The front five of the Cardinals average 236 pounds, that with a 155-pound center. That group is like a road grader clearing the way for junior fullback Tanner Wood (Travis' younger brother) and senior quarterback Dakota Finstad, who have rushed for 1,385 and 1,057 yards, respectively, and combined for 32 touchdowns. The Redbirds' other back, JJ Fisher (6-2, 225), has added 596 yards and tallied 12 TDs.
"We've had new kids step up, and in our single-wing, they've done a good job of filling in the seniors we graduated a year ago," Biehler said. "Our O-line is doing a great job, and they are a veteran group. With our backs carrying out their fakes and the deception that comes with the offense, they've just done a good job."
For O'Neil and the Beavers, that will be the key, the primary test. Reading what the Cardinals are doing in the backfield and being able to react quickly.
Neither happened in the 2011 39-21 Conway victory as the Cardinals rolled up more than 400 yards rushing and never punted in the game.
"I think our defense has gotten more confident as the season has progressed," O'Neil said on Wednesday. "They're better at their reads and more confident in understanding their keys. Early, with new kids, it was a guessing game. Now, they trust what they see. It's a learning process, and it has helped with the mental part."
While the Beavers are without their speedy and power backs of the past, they still have put together an offense that averages 208 yards on the ground and another 138 through the air. Senior Paco Banda, who will be back in the lineup Saturday, leads the ground game with 539 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Wyatt Kropp has 426 yards and five scores. Three other backs have rushed for more than 250 yards. By design, it's been run by committee.
"Our consistency has improved on the offensive side of the ball," O'Neil said. "Since week eight, we've had the same kids on the line and that has just been a big part of our improvement."
The Scott City offense is engineered by junior Trey O'Neil, the coach's son, who has taken over for his graduated brother, Brett. The younger O'Neil has been efficient with the passing game, completing 76-of-132 passes (57.6 percent) for 1,160 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has been intercepted five times. His favorite target has been Brayden Strine, who has 28 catches for 581 yards and five touchdowns.
Not many times in recent years have the Beavers gone into a game as the decided underdog, but this might be one of them. Still, as O'Neil and Biehler both know, there will be two outstanding teams at Shinn Field.
"For us to be successful on defense, we'll have to get penetration and get them in long situations," O'Neil said. "We've got to find a way to attack the pillars of their formation. That said, it is a tough task. There's a lot of motivation for these kids. Nobody thought they'd be here. They've worked hard to get where they are."
The Cardinals are giving up just 10 points a game, while yielding just under 200 total yards. The Beavers, meanwhile, have yielded just 10.9 points for the year, and in their seven wins since suffering their lone loss to Class 4A Ulysses (25-6), the defense has recorded four shutouts and given up just 42 points (6.0 avg.).
And Biehler insists he expects nothing less than a dogfight from the Beavers.
"They're used to traveling, and they've got another great group of kids," Biehler said of the Beavers. "Coach O'Neil does a great job of getting his kids ready. They tackle well, and they do a great job."
The winner moves on to the semifinals, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 22 against the winner of Beloit and Sedgwick, which are scheduled to play at 7 p.m. today in Beloit. A Scott City win likely would provide the Beavers home field for the sub-state title game.
Know the Foe
What: Scott City at Conway Springs
Class 3A Sectional Championship
When: Saturday, 4 p.m.
Where: Shinn Field, Conway Springs
Last Meeting: 2011, Conway Springs, 39-21 (3A Sectional)
Mascot: Beavers (Blue, Navy & White)
League: Great West Activities Conference (District 15)
Coach: Glenn O'Neil, 8th year (73-11, .869)
Projected Starting Lineup
WB--Brayden Strine, 6-0, 165, Sr.
RB--Chris Pounds, 6-0, 165, Sr.; Wyatt Kropp, 5-8, 160, So.
FB--Paco Banda, 5-7, 195, Sr.
TE--Warren Kropp, 6-0, 190, Sr.
QB--Trey O'Neil, 6-2, 175, Jr.
G--Cooper Griffith, 6-1, 205, So.; Wyatt Eitel, 6-0, 215, Jr.
T--Lane Hayes, 5-10, 220, Jr.; Cole Birney, 5-8, 255, Sr.
C--Keigun Wells, 6-1, 205, Sr.
PK--Tre Stewart, 5-10, 185, Fr.
E--Keigun Wells, 6-1, 205, Sr.; Warren Kropp, 6-0, 190, Sr.
T--Chantz Yager, 5-9, 150, Jr.; Matthew Tuttle, 6-0, 300, Sr.
ILB--Paco Banda, 5-7, 195, Sr.; Cooper Griffith, 6-1, 205, Jr.
OLB--Sloan Baker, 6-1, 170, Jr.; Chris Pounds, 5-11, 170, Sr.
DB--Brett Meyer, 6-4, 150, Jr.; Brayden Strine, 6-0, 165, Sr.; Trey O'Neil, 6-2, 175, Jr.
P--Marshall Hutchins, 5-8, 150, Jr.
Season Results (10-1)
Sept. 6--ABILENE, W 40-13
Sept. 13--COLBY, W 28-12
Sept. 20--at Holcomb, W 31-28
Sept. 27--at Ulysses, L 25-6
Oct. 4--HUGOTON, W 28-0
Oct. 11--GOODLAND, W 28-14
Oct. 18--at Hoisington*, W 14-0
Oct. 25--at TMP-Marian*, W 51-7
Oct. 31--RUSSELL*, W 54-0
Nov. 5--LAKIN-##, W 43-0
Nov. 9--at Phillipsburg-##, W 24-21
*--Denotes District Game; ##-Denotes 3A Playoff Game.
Mascot: Cardinals (Red White)
League: Central Plains (District 9)
Coach: Matt Biehler, 5th year (56-5, .918)
Projected Starting Lineup
WB--Alec Stanley, 5-11, 180, Sr.
QB--Dakota Finstad, 5-9, 175, Sr.
FB--Travis Wood, 6-1, 175, Jr.
BB--JJ Fisher, 6-2, 225, Jr.
TE--Drake Kreifels, 5-8, 215.
C--Sheldon Holland, 5-10, 155, Jr.
T--Logan Creek, 6-4, 275, Jr.; Thomas Berntsen, 6-1, 260, Jr.
G--Michael Ramirez, 5-11, 215, Jr.; Ethan Roth, 6-0, 255, Sr.
E--Ethan Roth, 6-0, 255, Sr.; Clayton Stevens, 5-10, 200, Sr.
T--Logan Creek, 6-4, 275, Jr.; Thomas Berntsen, 6-1, 260, Jr.
LB--Alex Gillespie, 6-0, 190, Sr.; Travis Wood, 6-1, 175, Jr.; Luke Fisher, 5-10, 195, Jr.; Drake Kreifels, 5-8, 215, Jr.
CB--Dakota Finstad, 5-9, 175, Sr.; Alec Brozovich, 5-5, 140, Sr.
FS--Jacob Koch, 5-11, 170, Sr.
2013 Schedule/Results (11-0)
Sept. 6--at Bluestem, W 62-0
Sept. 13--Caney Valley, W 21-6
Sept. 20--Wichita Independent, W 70-6
Sept. 27--at Cheney, W 35-6
Oct. 4--at Wichita Trinity, W 34-14
Oct. 11--Garden Plain, W 27-8
Oct. 18--at Belle Plaine, W 35-6
Oct. 25--Chaparral, W 55-23
Oct. 31--Douglass, W 35-8
Nov. 5--Wichita Independent-##, W 54-12
Nov. 9--at Kingman-##, W 34-23