Success has been the norm over the past half-dozen years at Frontenac and Holcomb High School’s football programs.
Since Mark Smith assumed the reins of the Raiders’ program in 2012, the southeast Kansas community has reached the quarterfinal round in each of the last four seasons, while Smith has guided the team to an overall record of 47-18.
When Kent Teeter took over the head coaching position at Holcomb in 2014, he oversaw a program that had a modicum of success but had not reached the deep rounds of the state playoffs. But since then, the Teeter-coached Longhorns have compiled an impressive 42-7 record, won one Class 4A-II state title (2015) and have now played in four consecutive semifinal games.
It will be those two powerhouse programs that will clash for the 2017 4A-II state crown when the teams kickoff at 1 p.m. Saturday at Salina Stadium.
Holcomb brings in an 11-1 season record, having overpowered Great West Activities Conference rival Scott City, 34-13, Friday in the sub-state title game in Holcomb. It was Scott City that had handed the ‘Horns their only loss in week two back in early September.
Frontenac, meanwhile, finally leaped through the quarterfinal bracket, toppling nemesis Holton, 55-21, before knocking off favored Topeka-Hayden, 37-21, at home a week ago in the eastern bracket semifinals. The Raiders, winners of their last six games, are 9-3.
There is 370 miles of road between the western Kansas Longhorns and the eastern Kansas Raiders (just outside of Pittsburg), but with Salina’s neutral site about the halfway point (208 vs. 239), there will be no home field advantage.
But there are many similarities between the two schools, and both coaches are aware of the challenge.
“They remind me of us," Smith said. "Only they’re a little bigger than we are.”
Smith said that the Longhorns, like his Raiders, like to establish the run first, play physical on both sides of the ball, and use the pass when they want to, not when they have to.
“There’s no doubt, we’re a run-first team,” Smith said. “We’ve evolved through the season. We threw a lot early, and that got us into trouble. We didn’t have a good identity of who we were early on. But for the last month, we’ve really come on and are playing at a high level. We’ve started to gel when we started running the ball better.”
Leading the Raiders’ ground attack is senior running back Jake Wilbert, who has rushed for 1,172 yards on 163 carries for a 7.2 average and 21 touchdowns. Quarterback Peyton Brown complements the ground game with his arm, completing 84-of-150 passes (56 percent) for 1,370 yards and 18 touchdowns while being intercepted just nine times.
“They’re a spread team, and have been unpredictable on offense,” Teeter said of the Raiders. “Their quarterback is mobile and he does a great job of making big plays when scrambling. They’re aggressive, and they play hard and you can see that they’ve gained confidence as the season has progressed.”
Brown’s favorite target has been senior Broc Ginovan, who offers a target unlike any the Longhorns have seen all season — 6-4, 220-pounder — who has hauled in 33 catches for 574 yards (17.4 avg.), with nine of those going for touchdowns.
In a game that is close, Teeter said the edge might go to Frontenac kicker Trey Harris, who has booted a 41-yard field goal, made 47-of-57 PATs and kicked off 26 times into the end zone.
“If you have to start your drive on the 20 a number of times, you’ve got to find ways to keep the chains going,” Teeter said.
The Longhorns, meanwhile, counter with perhaps the most balanced offense in Kansas.
Through 12 games, they have averaged 169.1 yards through the air and 169.8 yards on the ground.
And Frontenac’s Smith observed that it puts a lot of pressure on his defense, which is yielding just 14.9 points per game.
“They’re very balanced, and that puts a premium amount of pressure on your defense,” Smith said of the Longhorns. “They run a lot of motion, they run between the tackles, but they can break it outside, and then their quarterback (Trey Gilbert) commands the ball and plays with a lot of poise.”
If there are any teams that either team has played this season that is similar to Saturday’s opponent, both Smith and Teeter had difficulty in finding one. But they did agree on one thing.
“They’re a lot like us in how physical they play, and how they like to establish the run,” Teeter said of Frontenac. “They play with an attitude. They’ve made a lot of big plays, so that’s what we’ve got to be sure to not let happen.”
Both teams are senior-dominated, and thus leadership has played pivotal roles in the two schools’ success this season.
“We lost 10 starters on offense from 2016 (10-1 record),” Smith said. “It took us some time to find our identity. It's the chip on the shoulder with this group. Not many other people thought we'd be here.”
For Teeter, it has been rewarding to see this current crop improve and find its way back to the title game, after missing out in 2016.
“Not a lot of people thought we could get back here,” Teeter said. “They’ve been on a mission — they call it ‘Unfinished Business.’ They didn’t like the taste of losing last year, so they’ve worked so hard to get here.”
Holcomb’s balanced offense starts with Gilbert, who has amassed a sterling senior season in which he has completed 137-of-234 passes (58.5%), while throwing 23 TD passes and being intercepted only six times.
His favorite target has been senior sidekick Chance Rodriguez (46 catches, 721 yds, 11 TDs). But he’s also found Carter Blackburn (26-370-5), Andrew Morss (20-369-4) and Peyton Leonard (20-278-2) when the occasion was called upon. Running the ball has been spread between senior Kaden Tichenor (146-795, 6 TDs) and junior Reece Morss (83-514, 9 TDs).
It has been noted through the years that defense wins championships, and perhaps that will be the big key on Saturday for both teams.
The Longhorns have been stingy, giving up just 9.9 points a game and owning a plus-8 in turnover ratio. The Raiders, meanwhile, also own the turnover ratio battle, with a plus-9 for the season, forcing 16 interceptions and 11 fumbles.
“Their linebackers are probably the best we will have seen all season,” Smith said of Holcomb’s Paden Cornelson, Reece Morss, Rodriguez and Tichenor. “They play fast, and don’t give up the long play.”
Certainly, it’s no accident for either of these teams to get to the title game. Both played tough schedules, with the Longhorns facing the previously No. 1-ranked Beavers twice, and taking on quality teams such as Kingman, Smoky Valley and 2016 state champ Pratt.
Frontenac, meanwhile, suffered its losses to Labette County (9-2, 4A-I quarterfinalist), Galena (11-1, 3A quarterfinalist) and Pittsburg-St. Mary’s Colgan (10-2, 2-1A finalist). So, the Raiders also feel like they belong, after suffering through three straight years of quarterfinal losses.
“It’s a tremendous accomplishment, and we’ve had some growing pains along the way,” Smith said. “Once we hit our stride, we’ve been pretty good. I had high expectations for this team. It’s a great senior class and they know how to win. We’ve been playing with a lot of confidence, playing loose. We’ve been the underdog all year, and I’m sure it will be that way Saturday.”
Teeter, too, reflected his counterpart’s observations about his group of seniors, many of whom are first-year starters.
“They’ve watched the success of previous classes, and they’ve been a part of a lot of wins,” Teeter said. “They’ve played better each week. The big thing for us is to look for weaknesses and then attack from anywhere. It’s a great atmosphere to be in, and we’re anxious to get there.”
Contact Brett Marshall at firstname.lastname@example.org