By BRETT MARSHALL
It's Week No. 6 and Sublette's Steve Simpson realizes the importance of the "second season" of Kansas high school football teams.
Friday night, District playoffs begin for preps and the Larks will be at home against Elkhart as they open defense of last year's Class 2A District 14 championship. And Simpson knows that anything can happen, and he's not taking anything for granted when the Wildcats come to town for the 7 p.m. kickoff.
"We've played some good games, but at the same time, we've not finished some things either," Simpson said in assessing the team's season through its 4-2 mark thus far.
Sublette has suffered its two losses at the hands of Class 3A Lakin and Holcomb, games in which Simpson said his team had chances to post a victory.
"We certainly had the opportunities in the Holcomb game (12-6 overtime loss), and with Lakin we were tied at the half and then let them have a couple of big plays and the game got out of hand," Simpson said.
Spearheading the Larks' defense is senior running back Mason Hibbard, the 6-2, 175-pounder who has established himself as one the top running threats in the area. His breakaway sprinter speed (he placed in both sprint races in helping the Larks to the Class 2A state track title last spring) has made him the big-play threat for Simpson.
"Mason's also become a much better blocker, and his vision of finding the holes has improved," Simpson said. "He's making good cuts and making good strides that you'd want from a running back."
It is on defense, though, where Simpson has seen Hibbard and Brandon Stokes (also the quarterback) excel. Between the two secondary positions, they have accounted for 17 interceptions (10 for Stokes and seven for Hibbard).
"That has been a big shot in the arm for us," Simpson said. "Plus, we've not had a lot of turnovers ourselves and that just gives you a much better chance to win."
Simpson said he expects Elkhart, 2-4, to come in and give the Larks everything they want, especially after beating the Larks 14-10 a year ago that could have prevented Sublette from winning its district. Elkhart ended a 33-game losing streak last season.
"They're scrappy and they play hard," Simpson said of the Wildcats. "They've got good speed, they use a lot of different formations, two tight ends and wings, use a lot of motion and misdirection. They're well-coached."
With the memory of how close his team came to losing that first district game last year, Simpson is taking nothing for granted.
"We've talked to the kids, they know what's at stake," he said. "It's an all new season. If you lose, you may be packing up and heading home before the season is even over."
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In one of the other big games involving area teams Friday night, the Jackrabbits of Greeley County travel to Minneola in an Eight-Man Division I District 6 battle. The Jackrabbits are 5-1 while Minneola is unbeaten at 6-0 and both are 2-0 in district play. Greeley County has not lost since its season opening, 44-20 setback at Sharon Springs, a perennial eight-man power.
"This will likely be the game to determine our district champion," said Greeley County coach Greg Brown. "Our defense has been the stronger part of our season because everybody is doing their job, covering their area because they can trust the player that is next to them. We've been able to stay at home and not leave any gaps which is the typical downfall of eight-man defenses."
The Wildcats toppled the Jackrabbits 38-14 in last year's meeting and Brown said his team, which returns the nucleus from 2008, is ready for the challenge.
"We feel good about our chances," he said. "They lost a bunch of their seniors and our kids are confident. We're playing our best football of the season."
Johnathan Miller has been the offensive ringleader for Greeley County, accounting for nearly 500 yards both rushing and passing while Stephen Houston leads the team in receiving with just under 400 yards and four touchdowns.
"We've been diversified in our offense, not getting the big 40 and 50-yard touchdown runs, but driving the ball down and keeping it away from the other team," said Brown.