When Class 6A made the switch in 2016 to a 16-team seeding process for postseason high school football playoffs, the majority of coaches at the state’s largest classification were happy campers.
Count Topeka High’s Walt Alexander and Garden City High School’s Brian Hill among that group.
Now in its second go-round of seeding each of the 16 schools in the east and west portions of Kansas, the benefit to both the Trojans and Buffaloes couldn’t look more promising.
With first-round victories safely behind them last Friday, one a Topeka High blowout of Wichita South (61-6) and the other a Garden City survival over Topeka-Washburn Rural (7-0), the two programs will go toe-to-toe at 7 p.m. Friday night at Hummer Sports Complex in Topeka in a regional championship match-up.
The winner will advance to the Nov. 10 sectionals while the loser turns in uniforms and equipment on Monday.
The Trojans come in as likely the highest scoring team in 6A, averaging a heady 50.8 points per game while the Buffs have been among the top defensive teams this season, yielding just 11.3 points an outing, which includes three shutouts.
It brings to mind the paradox of an unstoppable force vs. the irresistible force. Who comes out on top?
That remains to be seen, but there’s no doubt that the Trojans (8-1) — the No. 3 overall seed of the 16 west teams — are favored against the Buffs (7-2), who come in as the No. 6 seed.
For Garden’s Hill, who is 4-4 in postseason playoffs and 52-26 overall, it’s daunting, challenging, and yet one he is excited about.
“The nice thing about seedings is that you get some great match-ups the deeper you go into the playoffs,” Hill said Tuesday. “I enjoy that. It’s refreshing to play teams that you typically don’t see. It was that way last week with Washburn Rural.”
Alexander, now finishing his 12th season at the Trojan helm (70-45), the opportunity to face someone other than Derby, Hutchinson or Wichita Heights is also a time to be appreciated.
“This (seeding) is a lot better because you get rewarded for the whole season,” Alexander said in a Tuesday telephone interview. “We’d been playing Heights, Derby and Hutch in the first round nearly every year, and didn’t fare so well.”
The Trojans have not enjoyed much success in the playoffs during Alexander’s tenure, going just 2-6 and never advancing past the second round. Garden, too, has had limited success, reaching the semifinals in 2013.
But Alexander may very well have his most talented group on the field this season, and the statistics bear that out.
The Trojans are putting up astrological numbers on offense — 348.3 yards rushing while averaging 9.28 yards per attempt; 148.2 yards passing while averaging 14.04 yards per reception.
“That’s what happens when you have that type of athlete, who is capable of scoring from anywhere,” Hill said of the Trojans. “Without question, they’re as big and physical as anybody we’ve played since Lawrence-Free State last year (a 42-7 exit loss in the second round by the Buffs).”
The explosive ground game is spearheaded by 190-pound sophomore Ky Thomas, who has rushed for 1,672 yards on 144 carries (11.6 avg.) and has 23 touchdowns. But he’s not the only threat.
His backfield sidekick, Jacqez Barksdale (205-pound jr.), has netted 730 yards on 63 carries (11.6 avg.) with 11 TDs.
Sophomore quarterback Da’Vonshai Harden is the igniter of the offense, though, and has provided the balance that Alexander wants by throwing for 1,258 yards (51-of-93, 19 TDs, 3 Int.).
“We’re fortunate to have some players who have been able to be productive behind a big, athletic front line that averages 291.8 pounds. It is the biggest group Garden has come up against all season.
“We don’t have a bunch of blazers, but as a group they can run, and they play very well together,” Alexander said. “More than anything, though, it’s our five seniors up front that makes us go. They’ve got a lot of experience, they’ve worked hard to improve their strength and we try to stay balanced and take what’s there from the other team’s defense.”
Hill will be hoping that his team will find an offensive spark after two rough weeks. The Buffs dropped their regular-season finale against Great Bend (20-7) and then managed just one second-quarter TD against Rural.
The GCHS coach said he wasn’t sure if senior running back Quinton LaPointe (710 yds., 7 TDs) will be available. He suffered an injury in the first half of the Great Bend game and had to sit out the Rural victory.
That may well mean if the Buffs need to get a running game established, they might insert David Arteaga into the Wildcat formation at QB.
“Everything’s on the table in this game,” Hill said. “Nothing is to be left undone or untried.”
Arteaga saw limited run duty early, but then finished the Rural win with 20 carries for 72 yards, most of that in the fourth quarter when the Buffs controlled the clock.
“It’s critical that we strike first and control the game,” Hill said. “We’ve had some close games and the kids haven’t panicked and I think they’ve always played to win.”
Topeka High, meanwhile, has had just one close game, and that resulted in its lone setback of the season (21-14 against Manhattan in Week 4).
“They haven’t played very many close games, so I guess we’ll see if they’re as seasoned a team as we are,” Hill said. “We can’t miss the opportunities when we have them. We have to limit mistakes, and we have to catch the tough passes.”
Alexander, too, said that Garden poses many challenges that the Trojans haven’t seen all year.
“They don’t allow a lot of points and they have great size,” Alexander said of the Buffs defensive line. “They fly to the football and are very aggressive.”