By JASON ELMQUIST

jelmquist@gctelegram.com

PITTSBURG — It's a 355-mile trip from Ness City to Pittsburg. Another 50-plus miles from Scott City to the same destination. But no matter the mileage, the three towns are now connected. All because of football.

Alex Kuhlman, who played football for Dighton-Ness City, has given a good name to the level of competition at high school in the western half of Kansas. The Ness City native has become a leader on defense for the No. 5-ranked Pittsburg State University football team. He's gone from a small, Class 3A high school football program to a Division II powerhouse.

And for Kuhlman, the pressures are high. Last year, Kuhlman garnered first-team All-MIAA and second-team All-America recognition as a sophomore.

"There's a lot of pressure," said Kuhlman, a 6-3, 202-pound free safety. "Last year, I didn't have anything to prove, I just went out there and played and had a very good season. Our team had a very good season, therefore I had a very good season. This year, I'm expected to be a leader and I'm expected to make big plays and when I don't it's just very depressing for myself and it pretty much hurts the team. So there's a lot of pressure."

Kuhlman had the opportunity for a big play Saturday against the University of Central Oklahoma. The Ness City native nearly had an interception on Central Oklahoma's second drive of the game on a deep pass down the middle of the field. The result of the drive eventually led to a 41-yard field goal by the Broncos.

"I guess that's why they put me on defense. I hate to have to hear myself say that," said Kuhlman, who finished the game with six tackles (third best the team) and one pass break up. "Early on, UCO did a good job of keeping us on our heels. They were quick-striking and quick-calling and we were on our heels. I just wasn't in a real good position and got over there and hit off a shoulder pad and next thing I knew it was in my hands and after that it was on the ground."

Kuhlman played the bridge between high school district rivals when Levi Kuntzsch of Scott City came on a recruiting visit to Pitt State.

"It's awesome. His dad and my dad, they don't work together but they are in the same business, so they knew each other," Kuhlman said of Kuntzsch. "I knew his brother. I took his brother on a recruiting visit down here and I took Levi on a recruiting visit, too. I couldn't get Colton to sign down here, but we got Levi and he's a good kid."

The connection was instantaneous and still long-lived. The two western Kansans now united in the southeastern part of the state.

"We talk pretty much every day," Kuntzsch said. "When I came out for my visit, he was my host so we got to know each other then and I had heard of him in high school so it was pretty cool to meet him and see how successful he's been here."

For now, Kuntzsch will have to wait to become a college success story. The Scott City native was red-shirted this year but was still on the sidelines, not in uniform, for Pitt State's season opener on Saturday.

"It was something I kind of expected and it makes for an easier transition," Kuntzsch said of being red-shirted. "I'm kind of thankful for getting it now, because I don't think I'd be ready for it right now. The football is crazy at this level."

But Kuhlman believes that come next year, his fellow western Kansas teammate will have what it takes to also shine for the Gorillas.

"We've got some good freshmen that are going to be some real good players and he's going to be one of them," Kuhlman said. "He's long, he's athletic and he could be a real good player for us."

As for Kuntzsch, a wide receiver, he said he's been fortunate enough to avoid facing the Ness City native in practice, .

"We haven't really gone one-on-one, but I'm not sure if I'd really want to," Kuntzsch said. "I don't think I'm ready for that."

Though he may not be ready for Kuhlman, Kuntzsch still believes he's ready to play at a higher level. And growing up in a small western Kansas town may have something to do with that.

"The thing with the western Kansas kids, Levi and myself, we play football, we play basketball and we do track and we play baseball or playing something over the summer," Kuhlman said. "It's never just one sport, you learn adversity in everything you do. With small school kids we're expected to do different sports, so I think that's something the big city kids don't get a chance to do. The big city kids will play a sport or two and they'll be good at it and they'll come in here with having more experience because they've been playing at a higher level, but as far as adversity goes, there's only so much you can see in different sports and I think that's an important thing out there for the small town kids.

"I think with the small town kids you have to be very mentally tough because you're playing both ways and special teams and when football is over you're playing basketball and when that's over you're doing track. You just have to be very mentally tough to know that you have to do your job when you're put to work. Every small town goes through that and you have kids that are just a product of hard work."

And it's the hard work that Kuhlman says makes the difference. That was his final word of advice for those small town western Kansas football players wanting to be t level.

"The real thing is there is only so much that you're blessed with by God and the rest is hard work," Kuhlman said. "The weight room, on the practice field, in the classroom. And when you figure it out — the non-God-given aspect of it — when you figure that out, the rest just falls into place."