By BRETT MARSHALL
It's been a gradual progression for South Gray football coach Jeff Blattner and his Rebels.
When Blattner moved from Haviland to South Gray for the 2009 season, the Rebels had just completed their final year under Joe Price with a 5-4 record.
The 22-year veteran coach took the reins of the Rebels and guided them to a 6-3 record in his first year, and then saw his team go 6-2 in 2010, just missing the 8-Man Division I playoffs by a single loss.
This year, the Rebels have had a breakout season, and now sporting an 11-0 record, are on the threshold of a first accomplishment for the small southwest Kansas school located in Montezuma.
Saturday, at 11 a.m. at Fischer Field in Newton, the Rebels take on defending champion Madison for the state championship. While the Rebels own multiple state championships in boys' basketball, they've never laid claim to a football crown.
"It's been exciting for the kids to see them accomplish so many things," Blattner said. "The school has been to sub-state once (2005). They've worked hard for what they've accomplished."
When Blattner realized Haviland would eventually be closing its school — which it did a year after he left to consolidate with Greensburg to create Kiowa County High School — he looked at other schools in the western part of Kansas.
"I love western Kansas and the total program at South Gray was really impressive," Blattner said. "When South Gray called, it just seemed like a good place to go and I've not been disappointed one bit. It's a great school, a great community (Montezuma consolidated with Copeland in 1992 to form South Gray)."
The Rebels, despite owning an unblemished record and averaging more than 50 points per game, will be an underdog against the Bulldogs, who are averaging 54.4 points per game while riding a 25-game winning streak that included a 52-44 shootout victory over Hill City in the 2010 title game.
"They're a run-heavy team, much like us," Blattner said. "They use a lot of play-action passes but they're really a lot like us. They don't run the same style as we do, there's some different schemes they like. Just when you think you've about seen it all, somebody comes up with a different scheme. They do some neat things."
For the Rebels to bring home the championship trophy, they will have to have the same performance from their dynamic 1-2 running duo of Coulter Croft and Wyatt Slaven.
"They've certainly grabbed a lion's share of who people talk about, but I can tell you that the reason we're where we are is our line," Blattner said. "I don't care how good a back you are — if there's no blocking — you're not going anywhere.
Croft and Slaven have produced monumental numbers this season. Croft leads the way with 2,352 yards on 220 carries (10.7 average) and has scored 38 touchdowns. Slaven, who quarterbacks the Rebels, has added 1,568 yards on 172 carries (9.1 average) and scored 33 touchdowns. The Rebels have thrown the ball only 26 times all season and Slaven has completed only six of those.
Madison counters with its own potent running attack, led by 190-pound senior Kole Schankie, who has scored 115 career touchdowns and accumulated more than 5,000 rushing yards in his four-year career.
"He's a strong runner and just seems to bounce off tacklers," Blattner said. "At this stage, it really comes down to which team gets their reads right, lines up right and then give yourself a chance to make plays. If you're out of place at this level, you'll pay for it."
While many believe the 8-man game is won at the corner and then utilizing speed, Blattner said the Rebels have had a lot of success with their inside running game.
"In 8-man, you've only got two levels of defenders versus three in 11-man," Blattner said. "A lot of our biggest plays have come from our inside running. It's all about blocking up front, and our line has really performed well all season."
Blattner had high praise for those players in the trenches — ends Colton Dirks and Ronald Mertens, guards Joe Carter and Caleb Watts and center Hunter Brown.
"Controlling the line of scrimmage, sustaining our blocks and limit turnovers are keys to victory," Blattner said. "Defensively, we have to control the line of scrimmage there, too. We can't give up the big play to them."
What: Class 8-Man Division I, State Championship
When: Saturday, 11 a.m.
Where: Fischer Field, Newton
Who: Madison High School
League: Lyon County
Head Coach: Fred McClain (13th year, 131-32)
2011 Record (12-0)
Sept. 2--at Yates Center, W 46-0
Sept. 9--PLEASANTON, W 60-0
Sept. 16--HARTFORD, W 59-6
Sept. 23--at Colony/Crest, W 52-0
Sept. 30--at White City, W 52-0
Oct. 7--MARAIS DES CYGNES VALLEY, W 63-22
Oct. 14--at Lebo, W 50-44
Oct. 21--SOUTHERN COFFEY CO., W 66-0
Oct. 27--at Burlingame, W 57-0
Nov. 1-- MANKATO-ROCK HILLS, W 46-8#
Nov. 5--at Central Burden, W 50-18#
Nov. 11--LAKESIDE DOWNS, W 52-6#
Nov. 19--vs. South Gray at Newton##
#-Indicates Playoff Game.
Who: South Gray High School
League: Southern Plains/Iroquois
Head Coach: Jeff Blattner (3rd year, 25-5, 31st overall)
2011 Record (11-0)
Sept. 2--at Kiowa Co./Greensburg, W 34-6
Sept. 9--SOUTH CENTRAL, W 30-16
Sept. 16--JETMORE, W 50-6
Sept. 23--at Spearville, W 46-0
Oct. 7--at Kinsley*, W 54-8
Oct. 14--DEERFIELD*, W 60-14
Oct. 21--at Ness City*, W 72-40
Oct. 27--MINNEOLA*, W52-6
Nov. 1--PRETTY PRAIRIE#, W 60-12
Nov. 5--at Claflin/Central Plains#, W 52-6
Nov. 11--at Osborne#, W 42-38
*Denotes District Game; #-Denotes Playoff Game.
Scoring avg. 50.2 54.4 Defense avg. 13.8 8.7
South Gray Starting Lineup
Offense: E-Colton Dirks, 6-1, 185, jr.; Ronald Mertens, 6-1, 180, sr.; G-Joe Carter, 6-0, 215, sr.; Caleb Watts, 5-10, 215, jr.; C-Hunter Brown, 5-8, 165, sr.; QB-Wyatt Slaven, 6-1, 165, sr.; FB-Luis Gallegos, 5-11, 190, sr.; TB-Coulter Croft, 5-9, 170, sr.
Defense: E-Dirks, Watts; NG-Carter; LB-Brown, Gallegos; CB-Croft; Storm Mosher, 5-9, 190, sr.; S-Slaven.