5A: Traditional powers clash in 5A state championship
Blue Valley running back Justin Fulks (left) and Hutchinson quarterback Trevor Turner lead their teams into a 5A state title showdown. (Photos courtesy of PrepsKC & Yee Mar)
By Mark Schremmer for Kpreps.com
Posted: November 24, 2011 - 11:45 PM
The Blue Valley – Stilwell Tigers and the Hutchinson Salthawks have been two of the best football programs in the state over the past 15 years. Specifically, Blue Valley and Hutchinson have combined to win 10 state championships since 1998.
However, the two traditional powers have never faced in a state championship game.
That is, until now. The Tigers will try and defend their Class 5A state championship against the Salthawks at 1 p.m. Saturday at Emporia State University’s Welch Stadium.
“The matchup is a long time in the making,” Hutchinson coach Randy Dreiling said. “We’ve had some tradition, and they have been a steady force throughout the years.
“They are awfully good. We will have to play an outstanding game.”
The matchup is finally here, but both teams had their work cut out to get this point.
Blue Valley (11-1) nearly missed the playoffs, let alone return to the state championship.
The Tigers’ 45-35 loss to Pittsburg in district competition put their playoff hopes in serious jeopardy. But Blue Valley responded the next week with a 40-6 win against Gardner-Edgerton. Since then, Blue Valley has won playoff games against Lansing, Bishop Miege and Gardner-Edgerton.
In retrospect, Blue Valley coach Eric Driskell said the loss to Pittsburg appears to have been exactly what his team needed.
“I think it was a big eye-opener for us,” Driskell said. “It kind of made the kids realize they had to go back to work and focus on the details.”
The Tigers have been led all season by quarterback Kyle Zimmerman. The senior has passed for more than 1,700 yards and 20 TDs this season.
“He’s just a great leader for us,” Driskell said. “He’s a kid who you want to have the ball in his hands during crunch time. He’s a great competitor.”
The Tigers’ running game has been led by running back Justin Fulks, who has rushed for more than 1,800 yards and 22 TDs.
“He’s a guy that if he gets out in space on you, it’s over,” Dreiling said. “Once he’s out in the open, he’s really dangerous. We’ve got to tackle him early.”
Hutchinson (10-2) also had to work to get to the title game. The Salthawks had won six consecutive state championships before losing in the semifinals to Bishop Carroll last season.
It appeared like Bishop Carroll could deny Hutchinson again after winning 32-24 in the regular season.
However, the Salthawks got revenge 29-21 in this year’s semifinals.
“It feels real good to be back after a one-year absence,” Dreiling said. “It makes you realize how much you miss it.”
Hutchinson hasn’t dominated the way it has in past years, but the team has grown throughout the season.
“It’s certainly not one of our stronger teams from top to bottom,” Dreiling said. “But you can’t find a more enjoyable group of guys to coach. They work hard.”
The Salthawks have rushed for 380.2 yards per game led by running back Ja’mon Cotton with 1,961 yards and 33 TDs on the season.
However, Hutchinson is expecting Cotton to be hampered by a hamstring injury.
“We’re working hard to get him back,” Dreiling said. “But hamstrings are tough to overcome. Any reps we can get out of him will be a bonus. We’re not counting him out though, because he’s a tough kid.”
If Cotton is unable to go, expect to see a healthy dose of running back Lucas Munds. He’s rushed for only 607 yards on the season, but 188 of those yards came last week against Bishop Carroll.
Hutchinson quarterback Trevor Turner also is a more than capable runner with 1,036 yards and nine TDs.
Driskell said he knows that stopping Hutch’s running game will be a challenge.
“They’re the best in the state at what they do,” Driskell said. “It poses a big challenge on us to be physical. They’re extremely well coached. I respect the heck out of their football program. We’re excited to get the opportunity.”