Blue Valley North looks to end Derby's three-peat bid

L-R: Derby RB Brody Kooser & Blue Valley North QB Graham Mertz (Matt Gilmore & Logan Brockschmidt)
By: Brad Hallier for
Nov 24, 2017

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Few Kansas high school football programs have the pedigree Derby does.


Saturday, Derby makes its ninth appearance in a state championship game when the Panthers take on Blue Valley North at 1 p.m. at Emporia State.


Derby will also be seeking its fifth state football championship and fourth since 2013. The Panthers are actually two playoff losses to Hutchinson, in 2012 and 2014, from possibly going for their sixth straight state title.


It’s safe to say Derby is in the midst of another large-school dynasty, similar to Lawrence from 1984-1995, Olathe North from 1996-2004 and Hutchinson from 2003-2014.


On the other sideline will be a state-championship newcomer. Blue Valley North actually has little history to speak of. Before this season, Blue Valley North had four playoff wins in its history, two of which came last season.


While that might seem like a stark contrast between the two programs, Derby coach Brandon Clark actually seems similarities between his program and Blue Valley North’s. Twelve years ago, Derby wasn’t a state power. From 1998 to Clark’s first season in 2006, Derby had modest success with one state semifinal appearance.


“When I first got here, it was getting to the playoffs, just making the playoffs,” Clark said. “By year three, we were saying, ‘Let’s go win state.’ Four times, we made the semifinals before we got there.”


Andy Sims is in his fourth year coaching at Blue Valley North, and likewise, has taken quick steps toward building a state champion. In his second season, North reached the round of 16. Last season, North advanced to the state quarterfinals, the team’s deepest postseason run since the 2003 team made the semifinals.


This year, North is one victory from a state title. After going through the rugged Eastern Kansas League with losses to 5A finalist St. Thomas Aquinas, 4A Division 1 finalist Bishop Miege, 6A semifinalist Blue Valley and 5A semifinalist Mill Valley, the Mustangs were as tested as any team in Kansas.


Blue Valley North’s offense gets a lot of attention, and deservedly so. Quarterback Graham Mertz, a Wisconsin commit, has passed for 3,222 yards this season. Dylan Freberg is Mertz’s favorite target, as he has 955 receiving yards. The Mustangs have scored at least 34 points in each of their last eight games.


But to Clark, the Mustangs’ defense doesn’t get enough credit.


“I never saw them until I saw them on film,” Clark said. “Everyone talks about their offense, but defensively, they’re big, they’re huge, and they fly to the ball. I hoped they’d be undisciplined, but they’re well coached. We’re going to have to play a perfect game to win against a team like this.”


Based on North’s big-play ability, and Derby’s similar high-flying offense, this has the looks of a white-knuckling shootout with enough fireworks befitting Independence Day.


Derby has been in a few of those games this year. The Panthers beat 5A finalist Bishop Carroll 54-45, Lawrence Free State 55-49 in overtime, and Wichita Northwest 53-41.

Quarterback Hunter Igo has been a reliable dual threat and has accumulated more than 2,000 yards of offense. He has also transitioned to play both ways, as have fellow offensive standouts Cade Lindsey and Josh Hoffmeier.


Adjustments were necessary after the second game of the season, when Goddard annihilated Derby 50-20, snapping Derby’s 23-game win streak.


“Win or lose, we’ll take something good out of it,” Clark said. “I’m under the impression that a loss is never good for a team, but we’ve had a lot of victories where after we would walk away from the film room not feeling very good. We had some injuries that week and a bunch of young guys weren’t ready at the beginning of the year, but they got better.”


Much like Blue Valley North, which was 1-3 at one point this season.

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