Like many high school sports teams, the Holcomb Longhorns football squad began back in August with many, many unanswered questions about how their 2017 season would unfold.
Gone was 2016 Telegram Player of the Year Dillon Williams at both running back and linebacker, as was tight end/defensive end Conner VanCleave. Other critical positions also were lost to graduation for a team that had won a Class 4A-II state title in 2015, and then lost in the semifinals in 2016 by eventual champion Pratt.
When the Longhorns opened the season on Sept. 1 with a less than lackluster, 15-12 come-from-behind win over Cimarron, there may well have been cause for concern.
"We were very fortunate to win," Holcomb head coach Kent Teeter said recently when looking back at the Longhorns' season. "We were not very good in the red zone, and we knew our offense had to get better."
It didn’t get much better in Week 2 as Holcomb saw an early 14-0 lead over rival Scott City turn into an eventual 23-14 loss.
"Early in that game, I thought, 'Hey, we're getting better from week 1," Teeter said. "Afterward, though, I knew we weren't as good as I had thought earlier in the game. Still, a lot of work to do with the offense. The defense wasn't that bad, good enough to win a game for us."
Teeter and his staff went back to the drawing board and made it abundantly clear to the team that things needed to change if they were going to mature into the team he had envisioned.
Still, in the third week, the Longhorns were embroiled in a battle with a Ulysses team that would struggle all season. At halftime of that Week 3, the Longhorns found themselves trailing 8-7, and still in that position toward the latter portion of the third period.
"We were scratching our heads at halftime," Teeter said. "We knew we had to get more out of our leaders. We told our leaders it was up to them. The senior captains told us to step outside the locker room, and they had a talk just amongst the team. It was a big turning point in the season, I think, when I look back."
Then, and perhaps in a transformative moment that turned a moribund performance into an eventual champion, the Longhorns found their old ways of the previous two seasons. An explosive final 14 minutes propelled them to a 35-8 triumph, and from there the ‘Horns were unbeatable.
Oh, they did have their anxious moments, beating Goodland, 26-14, in a somewhat lackluster performance, but then in the middle of the season, with positions battled and secured and players growing into their new starting slots, the Longhorns recorded three consecutive shutouts over previously unbeaten teams — Colby (27-0), Lakin (21-0) and then a 36-0 rout of Kingman.
"During that stretch, I thought our defense was outstanding, improving each week," Teeter said of the middle portion of the schedule. "We saw small, incremental improvements in the offense, but still hadn't really found our stride."
That set up a late district showdown with nemesis Pratt, a team that had handed the Longhorns their only two losses in 2016. This time, the Longhorns prevailed in a barnburner, 19-14. A convincing win over Hugoton ended the regular season, and that set the plate for the playoffs.
"The Pratt game was big, because we knew the winner would likely win the district and be able to play at home," Teeter said. "The loser was going to have to go on the road and probably have to play at Scott City. It was a great feeling to beat Pratt after they had beaten us twice in 2016, so it was a big game all the way around."
Opening at home against GWAC foe Colby, the Longhorns stormed to an early lead and dominated the Eagles, 46-15, and it could have been worse.
Hitting the road for the following week’s second round game at Smoky Valley, the Longhorns once again used a stifling defense and opportunistic offense to produce a 26-6 victory over the Vikings.
"The Smoky Valley victory on the road showed us that we had gotten tougher and could hold our own against teams that were bigger and had good running games," Teeter said. "Everybody back there was talking about how good they were with just one loss, so again, our defense was outstanding and our offense started to click a little better, especially in the first half."
In a much-anticipated rematch and a showdown between the state’s two top-ranked teams (Scott City unbeaten at 12-0) and Holcomb (11-1), the Longhorns picked off two early passes by the Beavers and returned them for touchdowns to take a 14-0 lead and never looked back.
"To be honest, I told myself that I couldn't believe that they just ran that play," Teeter said of the pick-6 by Peyton Leonard of a Peyton Gooden pass. "It was a big momentum changer to start the game that way. The thing I remember is that we were able to have an answer every time Scott City did something good. The defense was outstanding once again, and we were able to control the line of scrimmage.
"I'd said all along that those two teams might be the two best in 4A-II, and so I looked at it as State Championship Game 1. They had a terrific team, and I'm sure that if they had won against us, they would have won against Frontenac, too."
The convincing 34-13 victory catapulted the Longhorns into the state championship game for the second time in three seasons, this time against a surprising Frontenac team that had dismantled a highly-favored Topeka Hayden team in the semis.
Returning to Salina Stadium this time around, the Longhorns found the weather and Mother Nature much more to their liking as temperatures in the 60s with barely a wisp of a breeze was the rule of the day. Only two years earlier, the Longhorns had blanked Holton 21-0 in what has become known as Ice Bowl Day across Kansas for all of the state championship games that year.
"When I was thinking about the weather and the difference between 2015 and 2017, it was like the first was taking a vacation to Alaska and the second was taking a vacation to Hawaii," Teeter said of the 40-degree temperature variance as well as sunny skies vs. an icy, frozen field. "I'll take the Hawaii vacation any time. But truthfully, when you play in a state championship game, you don't care about much of anything else."
With the cooperative Mother Nature, the Longhorns did the same as they had done in the win over Scott City the week before, intercepting early passes and turning them into scores.
By the time the game was over, the ‘Horns had easily prevailed over Frontenac, 40-20, thus cementing their second football crown in school history.
"I had a hard time believing that Frontenac tried the same thing as Scott City did by throwing those passes early," Teeter said of two Longhorn thefts early on that set up eventual TD drives. "They were doing something by playing to our strength because our defense had become so disciplined, that our guys were just never out of position. They didn't know that, but teams were having a tough time running against us, so maybe that's what their thought process was."
Quarterback Trey Gilbert had a monster season as the signal caller for Teeter, passing for 2,293 yards and 28 touchdowns with just 7 interceptions, while Kaden Tichenor and Reece Morss traded taking turns running roughshod over defenses, combining for more than 1,200 yards on the ground. A young and improved offensive line was a dominating force down the stretch as the Longhorns averaged 36.5 points in the four-game run to the title.
"One of the big keys in looking back was our decision to have Kyle Hammond move to center on offense," Teeter said. "He had never played the position. He had missed most of his junior year with a torn ACL, and also had torn one earlier in his career. So it was a big question mark. But he took the position and basically just said, 'I'm gonna get the job done.' And he did."
The defense, meanwhile, held its opponents to just 54 points and finished with a plus-8 in the turnover department in the four wins.
"Moving Reece Morss from outside linebacker to inside linebacker made our defense stronger right from the start," Teeter said. "Because we had some early injuries, we moved some players around and they gained some experience. At one point, we were able to put Andrew (Morss) on the defensive line, and his strength and quickness made us that much better against the run. But we did the same thing with Brayden Goddard and moved him to nose tackle. He was able to use his athleticism to out-quick a lot of linemen."
This group of Longhorns, overlooked by many at the outset, had deemed their season as “Unfinished Business.”
"I think winning in 2015 was such a big relief because it was the first time for the school to win in football," Teeter said. "There's that elation of winning that can't be replicated. This time, there was a great sense of satisfaction in seeing a group of young men put their minds to an objective and did everything possible to win. It was as satisfying to win the second one as the first because of how far this team improved during the season."
They took that motto to heart, and at the end of the three months of Friday Night Lights, the Longhorns produced another championship season. They basked in the warm sunshine of Salina Stadium on a Thanksgiving Saturday that proved once again that championship teams are the sum of the parts. In this case, Teeter and his staff had found all the right combinations to bring the Longhorns to the crowning achievement of a singular season — a state football championship.
Contact Brett Marshall at email@example.com.