By BRETT MARSHALL
It has been nearly five years since Jason Kenny and the Ulysses Tigers (9-2) matched up with the Holton Wildcats (9-2).
It was Nov. 26, 2005 at Salina Stadium and the venue provided a monumental battle for the Kansas Class 4A state championship.
A missed 2-point conversion pass in the second overtime left the Tigers on the short end of a memorable 28-27 score that ended in Holton's second state championship in three seasons.
Fast forward to Saturday, the site this time will be Holton High School Stadium and the stakes are still high, but this time the two 4A powers are meeting in a 5 p.m. quarterfinal contest, with the winner advancing to next Friday's semifinal against the winner of tonight's Topeka Hayden-Buhler game.
The coaches are the same from five years ago. Jason Kenny coaches in his 11th season at Ulysses (92-27, .773) while Brooks Barta is in his 15th season at Holton (149-27, .847).
The players, though, have changed. The group of seniors for both teams were in middle school when that championship game was contested.
But outside of the players being different, nothing else has really changed in the past five years.
Holton still has a powerhouse running attack as 175-pound senior running back Gunnar McKenna rushed for 1,180 yards on 179 carries (6.6 average) and 10 touchdowns to pace a ground game that grinds out 367 yards a game.
The patented Wishbone offense, a product Barta learned from his father — the legendary coach and winner of nine state championships Roger — while playing at Smith Center.
"We don't change much here," Barta said at mid-week prior to the quarterfinal encounter with the Tigers. "We've struggled at times with the consistency of our offense, but we've been good defensively all year."
For a team that averages 40.5 points, defining struggling is all about perspective.
"They're tough to stop and they run downhill right at you," Kenny said in describing the Wildcat running game. "They're doing the exact same thing they did five years ago, just with different kids."
"The numbers are the same, but the kids have changed. I'm impressed with their skill players. I watched film for a couple of hours trying to figure out who their primary backs are because they just keeping sending them in."
Three other backs have rushed for between 464 and 694 yards, and while the Wildcats throw only rarely, they have 9 touchdowns off of 13 receptions.
The losses for the Wildcats came in their season opener to Class 6A Topeka High (33-22) and to top-ranked Topeka-Hayden 27-13 in their district opener.
Playoff wins have come against Rose Hill (32-25) and Andale (21-8). Ulysses, meanwhile, has dumped Pratt (32-7) and Hesston (47-21).
"We're going to have to find ways to make plays and use the athleticism and quickness we've relied on all year," Kenny said. "They are big, big, up front. They have those kids up front and they just get in front of keep pushing."
That front line consists of 265-pound Adam Luthi, with five sacks to his credit on defense.
Other members of that front five include 260-pound junior Kole Alexander, 250-pound senior Daniel Larrison, 265-pound senior Mark Kathrens and 305-pound junior Cory Herbers.
"We've been more inconsistent this season than in the past," Kenny said of his offense. "We've had a number of short field touchdowns and haven't really had any of those 15-to-18 play drives that we've had in the past. The potential is there, but we've just not had it. But I think we're getting close, we've been better in the playoffs."
In Ulysses, Barta sees a different Tigers team than the one they nudged out in 2005, and that is a worry for the Wildcat mentor.
"They're a little more of a big play team on offense now than they were the last time," Barta said. "Their quarterback (Braden Langston), fullback (Armando Sandoval) and tight end (Andy Simpson) make big plays. They've adapted their version of the wing-T to their specific skills, and they're good."
Ulysses' different offensive attack is guided by Langston, who has completed 61-of-105 passes for 1,064 yards and 17 touchdowns while only throwing four interceptions.
Jarnagin is the team's leading rusher with 1,392 yards and 24 touchdowns while Sandoval ranks second with 562 yards on just 77 carries (7.3 yard average) and has scored 4 TDs.
Simpson is the team's leading receiver with 22 catches for 337 yards and has 5 touchdowns.
Chase Newell ranks second on the team with 13 catches for 331 yards and leads the team with six touchdown receptions.
And while Barta knows his team has a significant size advantage, he knows that football is more than just which team is the biggest.
"It's all about execution and being in the right position," Barta said. "The team that reads keys, stays at home defensively and avoids giving up the big plays will likely win the game."
Kenny said the Tigers would definitely have to take advantage of their speed and quickness to come out on top against the Wildcats.
"We've got to get our players in space, a lot of 1-on-1 situations and win those battles," Kenny said. "It's gonna be a huge task, it is, but we've been the underdogs before and we know how to play in that role."
Offensively, the Tigers have averaged 40.7 points despite scoring only 20 combined points in their two losses, a 40-8 setback to Class 5A Liberal in the season opener, and a 38-12 decision to 3A Scott City at mid-season.
Since their last loss, the Tigers have won five in a row since the loss to the Beavers and the average margin has been 52-11.
Without saying so, Kenny would love nothing more to be in the same position against Holton as he was five years ago — an extra point conversion away from winning the game.
"I have never second-guessed myself on that call," Kenny said of going for two and the win. "They had physically worn us down and it was our best chance to win. I'd do it over again."
He hopes that the Tigers are in position to do just that.