When the Lakin Broncs and Cimarron Bluejays step onto the respective fields Tuesday night of their Class 3A bi-district playoff games, they will be trying to remove the stench of nearly two decades of playoff frustration.
Not since 1999 for the Broncs, when they beat Leoti/Wichita County, and in 1998 for the Bluejays when they toppled Holcomb, have the two Hi-Plains League teams managed to win a postseason Class 3A contest.
But there may be a transformation in the process for both programs, starting with their coaches — Lakin with third-year mentor Chris Bamberger, highly successful and a state champion while at Ness City, and Cimarron with first-year coach Greg Koenig, who guided Beloit’s hugely successful program for more than a decade, including state runners-up in 2013.
The Broncs, 7-2, will hit the road for their bi-district battle with Larned, 5-4, a team that won its district and has losses to 2016 4A-II state champion Pratt, talented Hesston, No. 5-ranked 4A-II Nickerson and No. 2-ranked and unbeaten Phillipsburg in 3A.
The Bluejays, also 7-2, will be playing host to Hoisington’s Cardinals, 6-3, with their losses coming against Wichita Collegiate, Larned and Pratt while owning a victory over Nickerson.
Both games are slated for 7 p.m. kickoffs, with the winners advancing to Saturday’s regional championship games.
For Bamberger, the meticulous construction of the Broncs has seen steady strides since his arrival in 2015. His first team went 2-7 and last year improved to 5-5, losing in the opening round of the playoffs to Hoisington (56-13).
“Anytime you’re trying to build a program into a consistent winner, and you begin to see the results, all the credit goes to the kids,” Bamberger said. “They’ve worked hard. There has been a buy-in to what we’re coaching, and the assistants have had a large input into that process. It’s a good group of kids, and a lot of them are seniors, so we’ve had them three years now.”
If the Broncs are to claim a rare first-round playoff win, they will need their running game to be effective against the Indians.
A quartet of seniors in the backfield have borne the brunt of the rushing attack, with Clay Michel leading the way with 634 yards, Dawsen Shalberg with 485 yards, Johnney Perez with 301 yards and quarterback Hunter Kirby next with 264 yards. That group has accounted for 25 of the team’s 27 rushing TDs.
“They’ve had a lot of snaps in the three seasons, so we have an experienced group of players,” Bamberger said.
Lakin’s two losses have come against Cimarron (32-8) and Class 4A-II state-ranked Holcomb (21-0).
“You hope you learn something from those games because there’s a lot of good kids on the field,” Bamberger said. “This time of year, those types of games pay off for you.”
Bamberger is not taking Larned lightly, a team that beat Cimarron 35-0 a year ago in the first round of the playoffs.
“They’re a battle-tested team, and they play some of the best teams in this part of the state,” Bamberger said of Larned. “They present a lot of challenges. They’re big, they’re pretty athletic and physical. What I see when I watch them is a very competitive bunch.”
When the Broncs have wanted to throw the ball, which is about six times per game, Kirby has been efficient, completing 34-of-62 passes (.548) with 11 TDs and three interceptions.
And what does the veteran playoff-tested coach think of how to help prepare his Broncs for the latest challenge?
“You have to practice at the level that you want to play,” Bamberger said. “You want to be rollin’ along and build momentum at the end of the season. Everything is a bigger deal. You try to treat it the same and make things as routine as possible.”
In a nutshell, Bamberger said the playoffs were quite simple.
“This time of year, your successful teams find a way to win,” he said. “You play sound football, special teams have to be good, and you try to play mistake-free ball and come out on top.”
For Cimarron and its new boss, the challenges look eerily similar to those facing Bamberger and Lakin.
“The expectations for what we wanted to accomplish started back in the summer,” said Koenig, who was 93-31 in 11 seasons at Beloit and is 126-81 overall as he completes his 19th season at the high school level. “You want to be the best you can be and improve every day. It’s developing a mindset and being mentally tough.”
Koenig has brought his tried-and-true double-tight end, double-wing offense to Cimarron and has delivered a crunching ground game this season.
The Bluejays have rushed for 3,158 yards (350.9 avg.) and scored 50 rushing touchdowns while throwing only 45 times.
Senior Josh Seabolt has been the workhorse, and the current 182-pound 3A state wrestling champion has thrived in the new offense.
He’s rushed for 1,488 yards and scored 16 touchdowns, but he’s far from the only weapon for the ‘Jays.
Younger brother Tate Seabolt has 408 yards, senior fullback Jaylen Pickle (6-6, 280) has 329 yards and 13 TDs while Irvin Lozoya has 278 yards.
“When I took the job, I knew about Josh from his wrestling days,” Koenig said. “I knew he was a really good athlete, but I wasn’t sure how fast he would be playing that position.”
Koenig says that Seabolt’s lack of breakaway speed is more than made up by his toughness.
“He’s as physical a running back as I’ve had and he just wears people out,” Koenig said of the 5-9, 205-pound Seabolt. “The rest of our running game is done by the committee approach and they can be a real benefit because they give us a variety of looks.”
Like his Lakin counterpart Bamberger, Koenig is leery and respectful of his opening-round foe.
“They’ve got a lot of playoff experience and they’re a solid team,” Koenig said. “Their linebackers are as good as any we’ve seen.”
The Cardinals may be close to a mirror-image of the Bluejays, rushing for an average of 281.7 yards per game and passing for just 18 yards an outing.
“Well, it might be a quick ball game,” Koenig joked of the two run-oriented offenses. “At this stage for us, it’s all about keeping the chains moving. If we do our job, the offense is difficult to stop. You’ve got to minimize mistakes — fumbles, penalties — and we have to dominate the line of scrimmage if we want to win.”
Koenig points to the two losses his team suffered during the regular season — 15-12 to Holcomb and 34-6 to Scott City — both among the top three teams in Class 4A-II with a combined 17-1 season mark.
“Our kids have been competitive and we understand how to compete with tough, physical teams after playing Holcomb and Scott City,” Koenig said. “We’ll see how that translates in the playoffs.”
If the two HPL teams prevail Tuesday, then the Broncs would get the Marysville-Norton winner, with the likelihood of it being at home. Cimarron, meanwhile, would face the Phillipsburg-Riley County winner, with home field to be determined on the basis of who played at home in the opening round.