Signing Day '18: D2,NAIA schools benefit from home state

Brody Flaming of Mill Valley signed with Baker University. (by Matt Gilmore)
By: Conor Nicholl for
Feb 10, 2018

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Mill Valley quarterback Brody Flaming served as a two-year starter for the Jaguars. He helped Mill Valley win the Class 5A state championship as a junior and reach the state semifinals last fall. At 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, Flaming threw for 5,732 yards with 59 scores and rushed for 2,295 yards and 14 TDs in his career.

Eighth-year Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee called Flaming, a first team all-state selection, one of the best leaders he has ever coached. Flaming received an offer from Nebraska Wesleyan, a Division III located in Lincoln, Neb.

Division II’s Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State were interested but only for Flaming to walk on. Both schools had given a scholarship to another quarterback.

Baker University, a NAIA power located in Baldwin City, knew Flaming through offensive coordinator Jake Morse. He had served his student teaching under Applebee. Flaming received an offer from Baker on Dec. 12.

Flaming discussed his choice with his family, girlfriend and closest friends, including Jags offensive lineman Mitchell Grissom. Known for his faith, Flaming, guided by verse John 3:16, prayed about the decision every night. Flaming kept asking: What’s best for me?

“Honestly, the end goal was to get a national championship,” Flaming said.

On Jan. 26, Flaming announced via Twitter he had committed to Baker. Grissom committed to the Wildcats, too. The Mill Valley’s duo signing highlighted a larger trend for 2018 National Signing Day – the increased number of Kansas high school recruits signing with in-state Division II and NAIA schools.

“Mitchell had been offered by several of the MIAA schools, and Brody as well was getting some heavy interest, but Baker just did a great job,” Applebee said. “They were in here a lot. Coach Morse was the coach that recruited him, did an outstanding job of really selling the program at the high level that they play at, and they both ended up deciding that was the best fit.”

This year marked the second season of the new junior college rule that allows Kansas junior colleges unlimited out-of-state signees.

In his Signing Day press conference Wednesday, Fort Hays State coach Chris Brown said he is “enjoying” the newer rule and is “going to take full advantage of it.” The rule change has already paid on-field dividends for multiple schools, including FHSU, Baker and NAIA Sterling College.

“Instead of a junior college, community college, it’s more of a national search for them now, instead of they could only have so many (out of state),” Brown said. “For us, I really think it helps us out tremendously, because they are not recruiting those Kansas kids as hard as they were.

“Before it was we are recruiting against every juco in Kansas, we are recruiting against every DII in Kansas,” he added. “We are getting Missouri schools coming in recruiting these kids as well, so the heat isn’t on these kids as much as it had been in the past. I think it’s really helped us get some of these Kansas kids that we haven’t been able to get in the past.”

“It’s helped me get into the bigger schools”

Overall, more than 300 Kansas seniors signed to play at the next level, according to Kpreps’ Signing Day data, the high number in recent history. That number is expected to continue to grow in the coming weeks.

In the three previous years, that number was 249, 240 and 238.

While Kpreps attempts to compile a list every high school football signee, it is nearly impossible to ensure an all-inclusive list.

In 2014, helped by massive numbers from multiple junior colleges, 379 Kansas seniors signed with colleges. A percentage of those players never made the official roster.

That same year, perennial power Butler County signed 38 Kansans, with 23 eventually listed as freshmen on the roster.

Fort Scott had 38 with 32 listed as freshmen. Highland and Hutchinson combined to ink 84 commits, though 50 made the official roster.

This winter, Butler led all in-state colleges with 29 Kansas pickups, while Coffeyville collected 11.

Garden City, Hutchinson, Independence and Dodge City combined for just eight in-state pickups. Last year, those four schools averaged 3.5 pickups. From ’14-16, those four schools combined for 16.4 in-state recruits a year.

“I don’t know if it’s 100 percent direct from the rule change,” Applebee said. “I think it does have a factor in it for sure. Obviously, they have changed the way that they are recruiting, and understandably so.

“When the rules are the way they are now, you are going to change the way you recruit in the junior college, and I understand that,” he added. “But I do think, though, you will seep in the end – I really truly believe this – the cream of the crop programs will continue to recruit a core group of Kansas kids, I have no doubt.”

The total uptick for in-state commits came in much bigger numbers from NAIA and Division II.

Baker inked 23 Kansas high school seniors, according to Kpreps. From ’14-17, the Wildcats had 12, three, eight and 15 in-state signees.

“I definitely think they are doing a great job of signing Kansas kids,” Flaming said. “Because there’s a lot of those Kansas kids that don’t get the looks from the big schools, but they are still great athletes and they are great guys, too. And I think that’s what Baker does – and they find those sleeper guys is what a lot of people like to say. And I definitely think that Baker has found a lot of those sleeper guys this year.”

Among other NAIA schools, Friends had 13 in-state commits after 12 combined the last three years. Bethel tallied eight. The Threshers had six combined in the previous four years.

Tabor collected six in the last two seasons after three combined in the three seasons previous.

St. Mary has recorded eight apiece in the last two after just six from ’14-16. Southwestern picked up seven, its best in the last five years.

“It’s important you find the good players in your area,” 14th-year Baker coach Mike Grossner said. “You want them to stay home. You want your families to be able to watch them play and not make the big hassle to come over.

“It creates excitement on game day when you have family members and significant others there watching them live, so I think it’s important that we take care of this area and get the best of the best that we can,” he added. “I think our success has led to us recruiting against the MIAA, and I think that’s kind of where we are at.”

Sterling, the defending KCAC champions, signed two total Kansas seniors from ’14-16 before 13 last year and eight this winter.

Ottawa collected 21 Kansas players in 2018, their highest total in the previous four years. Benedictine picked up nine from Kansas, its best showing in the last five years.

“The obvious answer is the junior college rule,” Sterling coach Chase Hansen said of the Warriors’ increase. “It changed. It helped us maybe not with the smaller town kids, especially with western Kansas, we have always done pretty well out there. We have had just a ton of connection with the small-town Kansas kids, but it helped me get into the bigger schools.”

Hansen, a Mulvane graduate, is in his sixth year with Sterling and was named head coach shortly after last season. He has recruited Wichita area hard since he arrived at Sterling but had limited success with Class 4A and above schools, including at his alma mater.

Last year, Sterling broke through with Mulvane offensive linemen Layne Becker and twins Marcus and James Chancellor along with Andale quarterback Taylor Richter.

Labette County running back Isaiah McPherson was another key pickup. Hansen had known the Chancellor family since they were little. He recalled playing basketball with the Chancellors at the Mulvane rec center in past Thanksgivings and Christmases.

Hansen labeled James Chancellor, listed at 6-foot-4, 341 pounds, with prototypical Division I size and athletic ability. Chancellor first decided to go to Hutchinson CC on Signing Day 2017. In the first day or so of fall camp at Hutchinson, Chancellor wanted to transfer and called Hansen.

“I knew what type of player he was first of all, but then also the relationship that I built for years,” Hansen said. “That was important for me to help him out and get him a spot on the team.”

James Chancellor and Becker anchored the right side of an offensive line that sometimes started four freshmen. Sterling lost returning All-American quarterback Cedrick Phillips in the season opener. The Warriors, led by a rushing attack that averaged 199 yards a game, finished 9-3, 8-1 KCAC for the second conference title in school history.

Chancellor earned all-conference honorable mention honors. Hansen believes Chancellor could become the KCAC’s best linemen in the future. Richter played in seven games and recorded a touchdown.

For 2018, Sterling’s recruits from larger schools included Mulvane defensive lineman Dylan Jorns, Andover Central offensive lineman Jace Lewis, Augusta’s Chance Whitehead and Buhler linebacker Brayden Lock. Hansen believes Lock could play immediately.

“It added some legitimacy to the type of football we are playing here,” Hansen said. “It just kind of snowballed a little bit, so we have seen the fruit of a lot of hard work and just kind of continuing on that this year.”

Additionally, Sterling kept its strong small school recruiting, including Hutchinson Central Christian J.T. Duree, a consensus all-state eight-man lineman. Duree received a late scholarship offer from Emporia State before he remained with Sterling. Duree said he received no junior college interest.

Maize South quarterback Ethan Richardson has transferred in from Coffeyville and is expected to compete for the starting quarterback position. From last year’s freshman class, Hansen believes McPherson, one of the state’s best running backs his senior season, and offensive lineman Justin Schowengerdt (Class 6A Dodge City) could step into key roles.

“The more guys that are recognizable names I think adds legitimacy to your program,” Hansen said.

“The MIAA does such a great job”

Brown, a Liberal graduate and former Pittsburg State All-American, just completed his seventh year with the Tigers. He led FHSU to an 11-1 record, best in school history, and undefeated MIAA championship. Senior running back Kenneth Iheme, a Wichita Heights product, finished the year with 1,690 all-purpose yards and was a finalist for the Harlon Hill Award, the Division II version of the Heisman Trophy.

In the playoffs, Fort Hays struggled against Ferris State’s physicality and lost 31-21. Brown continued to focus on high-character recruits with high GPAs who usually came from winning programs.

“The coaches are getting much more detailed and much smarter probably in how they are recruiting and who they recruit,” Applebee said. “…I would say though, from what I have heard from coaches all across Kansas, the MIAA does such a great job of recruiting Kansas kids, because I think they know what they are going to get. They know they are going to get a tough-nosed, disciplined kid out of Kansas.”

Physical-wise, Brown wanted to emulate Ferris State’s roster with long, lean players. Fort Hays collected 31 high school players in its ’18 class, including 21 from Kansas. It marked the highest number among the four Kansas Division II schools.

In the last four years, FHSU tallied 10, seven, six and 17 Kansas high school signees. Emporia State tallied 12, just above its average of 11.3 in the previous four years.

Washburn inked 14 this year and 18 last Signing Day after 36 in the previous three seasons.

Pittsburg State tallied nine in-state Kansas players. Like ESU, the Gorillas averaged 11.3 Kansas recruits the previous four years.

“We needed some length,” Brown said. “We didn’t have a very tall team last year. We were a bunch of smaller guys that played hard every single play and played very physical and aggressive, and competed every down, but I just felt like we were lacking a little bit in height and length, and I think this class will bring some of that to our team.”

Brown, who said Twitter “drives him nuts,” doesn’t have an account. He looks to build personal relationships with possible recruits.

The 2018 class included McPherson all-state defensive lineman Wyatt Seidl (6-3, 230), Smith Center defensive lineman Dalton Kuhn (6-2, 230) and a trio from Goddard: wide receiver Owen Beason, defensive back Cole Caraway and quarterback Blake Sullivan. The Lions have been one of Class 5A’s top programs the last two seasons.

Kuhn, Sports in Kansas’ all-classification Defensive Player of the Year, was offered by Fort Hays last summer and had received a preferred walk-on offer from Kansas State. Even as the interest mounted, Brown and the coaching staff remained in strong contact, including attending wrestling matches for Kuhn, an elite 220-pound wrestler.

The 6-foot, 195-pound Sullivan, an accomplished multi-year starter and dual threat like Flaming, was the lone signal caller in the Tigers’ class.

“Does some things that a lot of quarterbacks can’t do,” Brown said. “He runs very, very well, and he throws a very good ball. He can extend plays and make things happen.”

“It would be cool to play together”

Grossner has delivered a 97-32 record the last 11 years, including five playoff appearances in the last six seasons. Two years ago, Baker finished 14-1 and national runner-up before a 10-2 mark last year.

Grossner gave credit to his assistants, including Morse and Jason Thoren, a former Lawrence High product, Simone Award winner and all-conference linebacker at Kansas. Thoren runs Baker’s defense and has served with Grossner all 14 years.

Thoren handles Lawrence, Topeka and the Sunflower League, a major recruiting area for the Wildcats.

“I’ve never opened a job here in my 14 years here,” Grossner said. “It’s always been guys that coach Thoren might know that played at KU or our own players.”

While the NAIA schools generally have higher costs, Baker sells other parts of the school and program. The Wildcats have been on TV multiple times in recent falls.

“If a kid is thinking about walking on at a KU or K-State or Missouri, we are going to make it to where cost-wise, it’s as good or better here, and a chance to maybe play earlier,” Grossner said.

Baker has enjoyed many accomplished Kansas products in recent falls, namely Blue Valley quarterback Logan Brettell, the NAIA National Player of the Year two seasons ago, and All-American running back Cornell Brown, a Baldwin product.

Two years ago, Lawrence running back J.D. Woods signed with Missouri Western. The Griffons went through a coaching change and Woods had trouble finding a spot. He reached out to Baker. Brown suffered injury, and Woods stepped in with 1,618 rushing yards to earn second team All-American honors.

“This is such a good academic school, so I think with what we are doing in football, and then the degree that these kids are getting, we are able to sell and go up against those MIAA schools, which they have a great conference,” Grossner said. “And at times, they are cheaper cost-wise, but we really hammer home our degree and the opportunity to play for a national championship.”

The national championship potential enticed Flaming, part of a Wildcat recruiting class with a high number of Kansas City/Lawrence/Topeka area players. Flaming has talked with De Soto’s Trevor Gress and Trevor Watts, also part of Baker’s large Kansas haul.

“It would be cool to play together, and we are all pretty darn good athletes that we can all bring our attributes to the table, and hopefully win the national championship,” Flaming said.

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Mill Valley, Brody Flaming, Joel Applebee, Mitchell Grissom