When the Lakin Broncs take to their home field Friday night against the Norton Bluejays, it will be the first time in recent memory they do so in Class 2A.
With redistricting, both teams drop from Class 3A to what has become a highly competitive classification.
Record-wise, the Broncs are one of seven teams in Class 2A with a 7-1 record, with four other schools sitting at 8-0.
It’s the best start in the four years coach Chris Bamberger has been at the helm, and the best start for the Broncs since 2004.
In that season, they lost their season opener before running off eight straight wins, losing to Garden Plain in the playoffs.
This season, the only blemish on the Broncs’ record was an 18-14 loss to Cimarron in week eight. Lakin led that game until a touchdown by the visiting Bluejays in the final minute on a long pass.
Friday, it’s a different Bluejays team that will travel to Lakin.
Norton enters the contest at 4-4, losing to both undefeated and top-ranked in Class 2A Phillipsburg and and top-ranked and one-loss Smith Center in 1A. The 'Jays also lost to playoff contenders Plainville (1A) in week one and Hoisington (2A) in week eight.
In those four losses, Norton was outscored 176-61, but they are a team steeped in winning tradition.
They won back-to-back state championships in 1985 and 1986, and have had just one losing season (3-6 in 2011) under Lucas Melvin, now in his 13th year as head coach.
The Broncs have faced Norton twice in postseason play, and lost both times — 21-0 on the road in 2008 and 62-22 at home in 2009.
Norton averages 135 yards a game through the air and 157 on the ground, led by junior quarterback Kade Melvin, who is averaging nearly 16 yards a pass, with favorite receivers Carter Jones, Gavin Sproul and Hayden Wiltfong combining for more than 800 yards this season.
Melvin, Sproul and Ryan Lively make up the bulk of the 'Jays' running game.
Brandon Vacura, a junior at 6-1, 175 pounds, leads the team with nearly 11 tackles per game.
“They’re very physical. They have a lot of speed and they have a good running and passing game,” he said. “Their losses are to very good teams, so they’re going to be battle tested.”
His Broncs are up for the challenge, though, despite not posting huge offensive numbers most of the season.
Lakin’s offense relies mostly on the ground game. The Broncs average just under 241 rushing yards a game and 34 yards in the air. Juniors Kayden Christiansen (857 yards, 12 touchdowns) and William Gilleland (318 and 6) have carried the bulk of the rushes.
Senior quarterback Juan Banuelos (over 500 yards, six scores) and sophomore Trey Hayzlett (200 and 5) are also big threats.
Defensively, senior Logan Gugelmeyer (55 tackles, five sacks) and junior Hadley Panzer (52 tackles) anchor a solid defense.
With only a few experienced seniors, the Broncs have had to look to underclassmen to step into bigger roles than they have had to in the past, especially on defense.
“Our defense has been pretty solid, even in our one loss,” Bamberger said. “Each week we seem to be getting better as more of the kids find their roles.”
He noted that Norton is similar in that respect, with very few seniors, so it will be interesting to see how younger players step up in this playoff atmosphere.
“Norton’s got a lot of good size, too,” Bamberger added. “We’re going to have to be ready for anything.”
Lakin doesn’t score a lot of points compared to some of the other top teams in 2A, Bamberger said of the Broncs’ 32.6 points per game.
“But we’ve relied on our defense a lot this season to keep us in games,” Bamberger said. “We’re looking for a lot of the same for Friday.”
He said the Broncs had a good practice Tuesday and hoped for similar effort the rest of the week leading up to a 7 p.m. kickoff Friday, when temperatures are expected to be in the upper 60s.
UPDATE: A previous edition of this story had incorrectly listed Norton's losses. The Bluejays lost to Smith Center, Plainville, Phillipsburg and Hoisington.