Editor's Note: This is the third in a series of 10 stories counting down The Telegram's top 10 sports stories of 2011 as chosen by The Telegram.
By KEVIN THOMPSON
South Gray High School is more known for its basketball prowess than football glory. Maybe that will continue in the future.
But the 2011 football season will be one for the Rebels' history book. While the season did not produce a state championship trophy, second place is not the first loser, as the saying goes, but the runner-up to a title. And runner-up is pretty special, too.
And based on coach Jeff Blattner's philosophy that "If you work hard, good things will happen," runner-up feels just as good because the Rebels did it with style, humility and hard work.
The Rebels' magical season included going undefeated in the regular season (8-0) and working their way through the postseason one game at a time, leading up to a November clash in Emporia against defending champion Madison for the Eight-Man Division I crown.
That title game, a 30-12 loss, proved to be the only roadblock on an otherwise fun ride through the 2011 campaign, and Blattner has only fond memories and no regrets about his team's run.
"I'm just really proud of the kids," he said. "They just make everything special, and that's what makes it fun."
The second-place finish was the highest in the history of the consolidated schools that before 1992 were Copeland and Montezuma.
They got there by rolling through the first two rounds of the postseason, then holding on for a tough semifinal win to make it to the title game. In that semifinal, the Rebels preserved a four-point lead late against Osborne with an interception at the goal line.
For the year, the Rebels outscored opponents 562-182, or 47-15 per game.
Blattner has only been with South Gray for three of his 31 coaching seasons. As with every other place he's coached, it was the fans getting behind their team that made the season so successful.
"I think if we went 0-9, they'd still be out there screaming and yelling," he said. "They just support the kids so darn well."
But they didn't go 0-9. And that support followed the Rebels all season long. Fans shaking noisemakers all game long kept the crowd active as they watched something special unfold during the fall.
"Just like everything else, the pieces had to all fall into place," he said. "They did this year. That was fun."
Helping the Rebels' cause was a backfield punch of senior running back Coulter Croft and senior quarterback Wyatt Slaven, both named to The Telegram's first-team all-area team.
Croft scored 38 touchdowns and rushed for 2,416 yards on 240 carries. Slaven scored 33 times and carried the ball for 1,643 yards. That's more than 4,000 rushing yards for the season between the two.
Croft said that once the offense started clicking and Slaven got in the flow (he hadn't played football in three years), everything just fell into place.
Having two offensive threats made things so much easier for the Rebels, he said, but tough on opponents.
"It made it difficult. As soon as they were slowing one of us down, the other one was taking care of that," he said.
Another part of Blattner's coaching philosophy was, "The only time you'll find success before work is in the dictionary."
The Rebels worked, and as a result, they had success. Besides the offensive power, the Rebels' defensive unit was very successful.
"Our defense saved our bacon a lot of times," Blattner said. "We had several goal-line stands that just amazed me. Just like the offense, this was probably the best team defense I've ever had. They just did their responsibilities so well, they team-tackled well, and they converged on the ball well."
Everyone, Blattner said, felt like they were contributing to the team's success.
"That's what made this a special year," he explained.
Everyone felt they were big contributors," Blattner added.