By SCOTT PASKE
MEDICINE LODGE – When opportunity started knocking almost from the opening kickoff Friday night in the Class 1A quarterfinals, Medicine Lodge did what any experienced team would do.
The Indians pounced.
Turning a fumble recovery on the game’s first play and an errant punt snap into 14 quick points, Medicine Lodge held the key to keeping Valley Heights at arm’s length throughout in a 48-30 road victory that put the Indians in the state semifinals for the first time since 1987.
“It was going through the roof,” Medicine Lodge junior quarterback Ke’Veon Ruiz said of the early momentum boost. “I could tell it was going to be a great night.”
Medicine Lodge (9-2) won its seventh consecutive game to earn a rematch with the last team to defeat the Indians – Conway Springs. The Cardinals fought off Medicine Lodge 40-34 when the Central Plains League teams battled Sept. 22.
Coach Nick Schmidt said a veteran presence is the biggest difference between his first season – when the Indians finished 3-6 – and now. Medicine Lodge had no seniors on last year’s roster.
The Indians entered this season with 13 players with starting experience.
“Leadership is an undervalued part of the equation to win,” Schmidt said. “Our seniors have stepped up. It started happening during last basketball season. They were third in the state in basketball, made it to state in baseball and here we are in football. Those leaders showing that they are willing to put in the work has really trickled down to our juniors and sophomores, and it will trickle down to the freshmen. That change in mentality is a big part of the difference from last year to this year.”
Medicine Lodge’s senior group includes Harlem Miller, a 5-foot-10, 285-pound guard and noseguard who earned unanimous All-Central Plains honors on both sides of the ball. Linebacker Carter Cunningham is one of the defensive leaders along with Derrek Randels, who had 15 tackles, a blocked punt, a scoop and score, and seven receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns in the win over Valley Heights.
“A lot of guys have stepped up,” said Ruiz, a two-year starter at quarterback who has passed for 1,933 yards and 19 touchdowns this season. “Our line has improved a lot since last year and Derrek has had a great season. Our defense has definitely improved from last year. More people are going downhill. Our DBs are playing really great. It’s not just one person tackling, it’s the whole team coming up and finishing tackles. That’s a big thing we didn’t always have last year.”
Medicine Lodge was 2-2 after back-to-back losses to Garden Plain and Conway Springs. While Schmidt wasn’t pleased with finding a silver lining in a loss, he said the Conway Springs game served as a springboard for the success the Indians have enjoyed this fall.
In that game, the Indians gave up 322 rushing yards and three touchdowns to Cardinals standout Brayden Kunz. But after trailing by three touchdowns in the first half, Medicine Lodge stormed back to make it a game.
“We played a great second half, and that correction from the first half to the second half, it honestly carried over,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think we gave up any points in the third quarter the rest of the season except for Inman.”
In the quarterfinals, Medicine Lodge drew an opponent that rushed for more than 500 yards in a win over Sedgwick. After building a 35-8 lead midway through the second quarter, the Indians gave up 14 unanswered points. But they needed just three minutes to push the lead back to 41-22 and added another score to put the game out of reach.
“We gave up some rushing yards to Garden Plain and Conway Springs, and we knew we’d have to taper that against Valley Heights,” Schmidt said. “We went in thinking it would be a dogfight, kind of like it was against Conway.
“We knew the red zone percentages would have to be up from those two games to make this a positive game for us. And we were able to do that.”
ELL-SALINE PASSES TEST
For everything Ell-Saline experienced on its way to the state quarterfinals, one thing had been missing.
A close game.
The Cardinals got one Friday in their Eight-Player Division I matchup against visiting Hoxie. And after a wild fourth quarter in which it trailed twice, Ell-Saline pulled out a 44-42 victory behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Marshall Johnson.
“I thought we did great,” said Ell-Saline coach Joe Roche, whose team earned a semifinal matchup with reigning champion Wichita County. “There was never a bit of panic on our side. It didn’t surprise me because we haven’t panicked all year, even when we lost our first game against Moundridge.”
Ell-Saline’s victory stretched its winning streak to 10 games, and avenged a season-ending 44-12 loss to the Indians a year ago.
This season, the Cardinals transitioned from the graduated Kade Wilson to Johnson at quarterback, and moved senior Ryder Dent from the line to running back. Johnson has completed almost 69% of his passes for 1,250 yards and 18 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Dent leads Ell-Saline in rushing with 923 yards and 22 touchdowns.
“Marshall has been wonderful,” Roche said. “We’ve worked together a lot through his years on the JV. … He’s had his struggles. He puts a lot of pressure on himself, but he’s such a facilitator.
“We threw the ball to five different kids the other night. That makes it tough on a defense.”
Dent, who also plays linebacker, had 13 tackles against Hoxie. His position change on offense filled an area Schmidt felt the Cardinals needed to upgrade.
“We needed a hammer,” Schmidt said. “We were good in the shotgun, but sometimes in short-yardage situations, we weren’t all that tough. We needed somebody could use as a dive option back, and the guy never leaves the field.”
The Cardinals have another versatile senior in Joe Hiechel, who has run for 686 yards and 12 touchdowns, and is the team’s leading receiver with 21 receptions for 395 yards and five scores. Sophomore wide receiver and defensive back Kas Kramer has 20 receptions and four touchdowns, one of which was a 53-yarder that helped Ell-Saline take the lead for good against Hoxie.
Schmidt knows the Cardinals will need all of their weapons in their first road playoff test against Wichita County, which has a 24-game winning streak.
“We definitely feel like we have earned the right to be here,” Roche said. “Nobody probably expects us to win this game. But I like being the underdog.
“It’s always easier being the hunter rather than the hunted, but man, they are good. They are well-deserving of a 24-game winning streak. We’re going to have to contain them and hopefully force some fumbles and timely turnovers. I think our ability to run and pass can only help us out.”
6A – Derby’s Grady Jesseph kicked a 26-yard field goal with 37 seconds to play to give the Panthers a 23-21 victory over reigning 6A champion Manhattan. Quarterback Braxton Clark passed for 287 yards, including a 59-yard touchdown to Colton Ruedy on Derby’s second offensive play. Clark and Derek Hubbard also scored rushing touchdowns for the Panthers, who marched 62 yards for the game-winning points after Derby stopped Manhattan on downs with 3:49 remaining.
Wichita East’s state title bid and eight-game winning streak came to an end with a 35-14 loss to unbeaten Washburn Rural. Quarterback Dae’Onte Mitchell and running back Rayvelle Leak scored touchdowns for the Blue Aces, who fell to Rural for the second time this season and finished 8-3.
5A – Kapaun Mt. Carmel earned a spot in the 5A semifinals for the second time in three seasons as senior Omari Elias ran for 346 yards and six touchdowns in the Crusaders’ 57-47 victory over Maize South. Elias, who had 39 carries, scored twice in the final 6:09 to help Kapaun reclaim the lead after the Mavericks had scored three consecutive second-half touchdowns for a 47-43 edge. Quarterback Dylan Hamilton passed for 153 yards and a touchdown, and ran for another score for Kapaun, which improved to 10-1. Maize South quarterback Tate McNew completed 22 of 38 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns – all to Landen Gatto, who had 10 receptions for 151 yards. Sammy Dresie had eight catches for 149 yards and Braxton Bigley ran for 142 yards and a score for the Mavericks, who finished 8-3.
Eisenhower shook off a slow start and ended Maize’s Cinderella run as 5A West’s No. 11 seed, scoring the final 35 points in a 35-14 victory. The Tigers, who improved to 10-1, got a pair of touchdown passes from quarterback Derek Morgan and two scoring runs from Lucas Dickman. Morgan completed 12 of 22 passes for 205 yards, connecting with Chase George and Carter Pabst for touchdowns. Dickman finished with 33 carries for 152 yards. Drew Kemp completed 21 of 35 passes for 231 yards and a touchdown to Bryson Hayes for Maize, which finished 5-6.
4A – Jace Jefferson passed for 157 yards and four touchdowns, including a pair to Jace Adler as Andover Central defeated McPherson 28-21. Jefferson completed 19 of 26 attempts with scoring passes of 4 and 17 yards to Adler bookended around a 14-yard TD to Brandt Stupka and 7-yard TD to Andrew Bolan. The host Jaguars were limited to 212 yards of total offense, but led 28-7 after three quarters.
Wellington’s seven-game winning streak ended with a 49-0 loss to 2022 state runner-up Wamego. Junior Brody Weir caught three passes for 84 yards, but the Crusaders were plagued by four turnovers.
3A – Top-ranked Cheney kept its unbeaten season alive, edging visiting Clay Center 23-21 on Grady Kuehn’s 32-yard field goal on the game’s final play. Cheney, which lost to Clay Center in the quarterfinals a year ago, led 20-7 early in the fourth quarter. But the Tigers rallied to take the lead with two touchdown passes, the latter coming with 25 seconds to play after Clay Center took over at Cheney’s 9 following a Cardinal punt that struck a Cheney blocker. Down 21-20, Cheney started its winning drive in Clay Center territory following a facemask call on the Tigers and moved into field-goal position with a pair of completions by quarterback Josh Burdick.
Senior Gage Prosser ran for 226 yards – the most by an Andale back this season – and scored three touchdowns as the host Indians defeated Wichita Collegiate 50-25 to advance to the semifinals for the seventh consecutive season. Prosser scored on runs of 58, 5 and 53 yards as Andale defeated Collegiate for the second time this season. Cooper Marx added touchdown runs of 44 and 24 yards as the Indians, who improved to 10-1, rolled up 458 yards on the ground and 510 overall. Hudson Ferralez threw for a pair of touchdowns for Collegiate, which finished 9-2.
2A – Hoisington prevailed in the state’s lone battle of unbeatens, scoring 35 first-half points and holding off Southeast of Saline 49-42 to improve to 11-0. Quarterback Tony Moore completed 7 of 10 passes for 158 yards and a touchdown, and added 13 carries for 130 yards and two TDs for the Cardinals, who have won their first 11 games five times since 2015. Teron Kraft ran 31 times for 156 yards and two touchdowns, and hauled in a 17-yard screen pass from Moore on a third-and-14 play late in the game that allowed Hoisington to run out the clock.
1A – Senior Brayden Kunz ran 37 times for 194 yards and four touchdowns – one in each quarter – to boost Conway Springs to a 28-20 victory at Marion and back into the 1A semifinals for the second straight season. Kunz scored on a pair of 5-yard runs, a 10-yarder and from 17 yards out to lead the Cardinals to their ninth consecutive victory. He also added a team-high eight tackles. Quarterback Jack Lanning ran for 139 yards and a touchdown, and passed for another score for Marion, which finished 9-2. The Warriors led 6-0 on Trevor Schafers’ 51-yard touchdown run before Conway Springs scored the next 21 points.
6-MAN – Dylan Halderson returned two interceptions for touchdowns and Luke Albers added one as reigning Six-Player champion Cunningham rolled to a 70-6 victory over Pawnee Heights. The Wildcats yielded their first points since the season opener when Pawnee Heights’ Leighton Munk returned a kickoff for a touchdown, but still won by the 45-point mercy rule at halftime as Will Wegerer passed for four touchdowns. Luke McGuire scored on a 16-yard pass and 20-yard run for Cunningham, which scored 54 points in the first quarter.