By Jim Misunas
LARNED — When Jeromy Bartz plays in Larned High’s first football playoff game in 28 years, he’ll think of his father.
He always does.
Larned (7-2) travels today as a heavy underdog against state-ranked Andale (9-0), a Class 4A perennial state contender.
But Jeromy and his freshman brother, Brandon, are accustomed to accepting challenges without their father Michael, who died in July due to a heart attack. Their parents, Michael and Sandi, were Larned High classmates who were destined to be together.
Jeromy’s father, Michael Bartz, played on Larned’s last playoff team in 1985. But Michael didn’t get a chance to see the first playoff appearance for his sons. Michael was the owner of Bartz Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning. He coached Larned junior football along with wrestling, baseball, soccer and Sacred Heart basketball.
“We’d talk about football often,” Jeromy said. “I know he’d be proud of us. I think about him all the time.”
Nothing has come easy for Larned football, which has slowly gained momentum the past two years under the quiet confidence of head coach A.B. Stokes.
Pratt High led 14-7 last week in the fourth quarter against Larned, which had its playoff hopes on the line.
“Last year, we might have panicked, but this year we’ve been behind and come back,” Bartz said. “We’ve learned to stay calm and keep fighting and winning one play at a time.”
Sure enough, Larned quarterback Easton Palmer flipped the momentum with a 66-yard touchdown pass to Brayden Smith. A few plays later, Trey Kraisinger returned an interception 32 yards for the game-winning touchdown. Jamil Shoemaker added an insurance touchdown for good measure in a 27-14 victory. It marked Larned's first victory over Pratt since 1996.
“It took a long time to sink in what we’d done because nothing like has ever happened to us,” Bartz said. “I give all the credit to our whole senior class working together as leaders.
“This year, we expected more out of ourselves,” he said. “We figured ‘Why not us?’ We worked hard every day and no one deserved it more.”
Jeromy is the Indians’ most versatile players. When the 5-8, 185-pounder lines up in the backfield, he’ll wear No. 5. But coach Stokes occasionally plays him at offensive guard when he’s No. 58 or No. 66, which his uncle Arlan Bartz used to wear for the Larned Indians. He’s one of Larned’s leading tacklers at inside linebacker.
“I’d rather play defense,” he said.
Jeromy credits coach Stokes and his staff for gradually instilling a more positive attitude.
“When I started high school, no one talked about the football team and when we got behind, we stayed down,” he said. “But coach Stokes changed our attitudes and started stressing the weight room.”
Stokes’ other message was the football players needed to support the school’s other teams. More than 20 football players attended Larned’s first state volleyball appearance since 1971 last weekend.
“It was good team building,” he said.
He said the Indians are matching opponent's work ethic. The Indians have met the challenge physically at the line of scrimmage.
“Now, we’ve gotten guys talking about football and guys out who haven’t played football before,” he said. “The big difference is we’ve gotten on the weights.”
Jeromy has big playoff dreams, but he’s realistic.
“It’s really a good opportunity to test our mettle against one of top teams in Class 4A,” he said.