Pleasanton returns to 11-man football with

Pleasanton QB Kaden McKee passes to brother Kasen during the Blu-Jay scrimmage. (by Makia Looney)
By: Conor Nicholl for
Sep 4, 2018

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Pleasanton’s Dustin Johnson has learned from multiple coaches at several levels.

Johnson uses the motto “Row the Boat,” a well-known expression from P.J.  Fleck, the current charismatic University of Minnesota head coach and master motivator. Johnson and Fleck follow each other on Twitter.

Johnson has put the slogan, centered around goals and continuing forward in all areas of life, on shirts. He also incorporates Fleck’s saying of FAMILY – “Forget About Me, because I Love You.”

“We got the whole school talking about Rowing the Boat,” Johnson said.

Scheme-wise, Johnson, in his fourth year as head coach at his alma mater, runs the high-tempo Air Raid attack, a key reason for a big Pleasanton turnaround, and an offense rarely run in southeast Kansas.

Last year, the Blu-Jays went 6-4 and made the playoffs in Eight-Man, Division II, the school’s first winning season and postseason appearance since ’08.

This fall, Pleasanton bumped to 11-man in Class 1A and opened the year with a 42-14 win against Northeast-Arma.

Pleasanton finished the game with more than 600 yards of total offense. Senior quarterback Kaden McKee completed 18 of 28 passes for 371 yards and five scores.

His brother, junior Kasen, hauled in 11 catches for 230 yards and four TDs and picked off two passes. All the offensive totals are considered Pleasanton 11-man school records.

“The Air Raid is one of those offenses that you can really go fast, and you can keep things simple,” Johnson said. “And you can keep it on a level where kids maybe who don’t just worship football all the time, it’s simple enough that they can understand it.”

This Friday, Pleasanton faces Southeast-Cherokee, which ended a 28-game losing streak with a 20-6 victory against Uniontown. Southeast coach Jerrad Hansen has stressed tackling this week.

“A two-yard pass can be an 80-yard touchdown,” Hansen said.

Johnson calls Fort Scott Community College head coach Kale Pick, a former standout at Dodge City and University of Kansas, one of his best friends. Pick has turned around FSCC with the Air Raid.

The two communicate often and watch film together. Before Fort Scott’s opening game this year, Pick asked Johnson to use Pleasanton’s headsets since the Greyhounds’ ones weren’t working.

“In my opinion, he is an expert on the Air Raid offense,” Johnson said.

Johnson has soaked up information from spread and Air Raid coaches like Jackson State’s Hal Mumme, Washington State’s Mike Leach, West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen, Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury, Tulsa’s Philip Montgomery and former Baylor coach Art Briles.

Johnson, who lived part of his life in Iowa, watched how Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz has built great offensive lines and strong teams without marquee recruits.

An avid NFL fan, Johnson still remembers running home from church at nine years old to watch the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday afternoons. He has watched the Chiefs for 30 years.

Johnson recalls former Kansas City coach Marty Schottenheimer’s slogan of “don’t let the last play affect the next play.” Johnson instills the line into the Blu-Jays – everyone makes mistakes, just take it one play at a time.

Unlike many high school football coaches, the outgoing Johnson didn’t play college football, doesn’t have a college degree and is not a teacher. Instead, his knowledge comes from watching and listening to coaches at all levels.

“I have studied,” Johnson said. “I have worked for good people. I know coaches. I’ve talked to coaches, and I have pretty much grinded my way to this point.”


Johnson, a 1998 Pleasanton graduate, went 1-8, 4-5 and 6-4 in his first three years as head coach. His father, Gary, taught at Pleasanton for several decades. Johnson had moved to Iowa and met his wife and started coaching.

The Air Raid attack formed at Iowa Wesleyan when Mumme was head coach and Leach served as an assistant. Mumme and Leach installed the Air Raid in 1989. Holgorsen later was an Iowa Wesleyan quarterback. Johnson prefers Holgorsen’s  Air Raid style with more two running back and H-back looks.

“I’ve always been kind of drawn to Mike Leach a little bit and my wife is from Iowa,” Johnson said. “And I lived in Iowa for nine years, and that’s kind of where it started there at Iowa Wesleyan.”

Johnson is always tinkering with motions, shifts and schemes. His goal is for the defense to have two high safeties.

“Be as multiple as possible,” Johnson said. “You can watch that film until your eyes bleed, but you are never going to guess what I am thinking. … If I can get my best dudes matched up on your worst dudes, people are in trouble.”

Around seven to eight years ago, Johnson’s mother, Ann, was sick, and the family moved back. Currently a maintenance worker for Pleasanton school district, Johnson first coached with the junior high and served as a varsity assistant for two years before he took over as varsity coach.

“The No. 1 thing is that he is so eager to learn,” Chris Brindle, the former Pleasanton head coach and now assistant at Kansas City Piper, said. “He is at clinics and stuff all the time. He is talking to the coaches and trying to just continue to add to his knowledge base on the whole program as a coach,  not just the Xs and Os stuff, but taking care of the kids and what’s best for the players and their future.”

He is married with five children, ages 14 years to two months. His wife, Jennifer, a day care provider, helps with the football program, too, including making play cards.

“I am pretty lucky in my opinion to be where I am at to be a head coach, because a lot of schools wouldn’t even give a guy like me a chance,” Johnson said.


In his first year, Pleasanton played the last three games with just eight players. This fall, the Blu-Jays list well over 20 on the roster, including junior Blake Pohlmeier, a transfer from the Topeka area.

“We’ve done a good job the last couple of years of really working the halls, and the players have done a great job of getting their classmates,” Johnson said.

Pohlmeier rushed for 108 yards in the season opener. Pleasanton returned seven starters on both sides. The McKees are the third and fourth brothers in family of six children, all boys. The McKee family lives on the same farm that their mother grew up on.

“You are not just playing for you,” Kasen said. “You are playing for the guys that played in front of you, and the guys that are going to play after you.”

Last fall, Kaden amassed more than 2,000 yards of total offense with 22 scores, along with 80 tackles and three interceptions. He has taken every snap since his freshman year. Kasen collected 47 catches for 760 yards and 16 scores. Kaden started to play flag football in third grade.

Their dad served as coach, and he put Kaden at quarterback and Kasen at running back. They ran the speed option, a look also used in junior high and high school. Quite often, they will throw the football or baseball around in the front yard.

“We are usually on the same page,” Kaden said. “If I am rolling out, and he’s just kind of on the sideline, he will run up the sideline, too, and I will just throw him one. It’s like he always knows what I am thinking right when I am in the middle of thinking it, so it’s kind of great that I’ve got someone like Kasen to throw to.”

Senior wide receiver Ben Hockman, senior end Austin Ralle, senior lineman Turner Dent, senior center/linebacker Jeb Ralle and sophomore running back Tim Anderson are returning starters. The coaching staff, with Dillon Roberts, Jason Toms, Seth Gabbert, and B.J. Skipper, is full of Pleasanton alum.

In 2014, Pleasanton went 1-8 and averaged 15.3 points per contest and permitted 50.9.

The next year, the Blu-Jays’ 1-8 season yielded 22.9 points a contest and 53.8 allowed. In 2016, the 4-5 record had 31.1 points a game and 33.1 allowed.

The 20.7-point per game defensive drop ranked sixth among teams that played eight-man in ’15 and ’16.

Four current seniors – Kaden, Dent and the Ralles – started as freshmen. They keyed the defensive improvement, especially Kaden at linebacker and Dent in the middle. Dent moved to nose guard as a sophomore. Last year, the 6-foot, 180-pound Dent recorded 60 tackles with 12 sacks.

“He is the most dominant defensive player I’ve ever personally coached, and I would argue he’s not the best defensive nose guard in southeast Kansas just off effort alone,” Johnson said. “And Kaden is a great linebacker. He is one of those kids that has got that natural ability to just always be in the right place, and he’s a good tackler.”


Last year, Pleasanton bumped to 44.6 points a contest, the school’s best offense since at least ’06. The defense permitted 25.4 points a contest, lowest since ’09. The 13.5-point offensive improvement was fifth-best in eight-man last year.

In Week 1, Pleasanton fell to St. Paul, the eventual Division I state runner-up, 32-8. Johnson said the Blu-Jays moved the ball well with drives inside St. Paul’s 10-yard line “at least six times” but had trouble scoring.

Pleasanton didn’t play in Week 2 and then encountered a strange schedule. On Sept. 15, The Blu-Jays beat Marais des Cygnes Valley, 54-8.

On Sept. 19, the Blu-Jays won at Osceola (Mo.), 38-26. On Sept. 22, Pleasanton knocked off Lebo, 60-14.

Three games in eight days. The latter two were the first half of four straight road contests.

Against Lebo, Pleasanton was down 8-6 at the end of the first quarter and then scored 42 points in the second quarter.

“It was at that point, that our team learned that you can push through anything,” Kasen said. “That you can play three games in eight days and still win all three games, just a real big step forward for the whole team, just keep your nose to the grindstone and keep doing what you are doing, but it was hard.”

Pleasanton fell to Wichita Homeschool, a non-KSHSAA school, 64-42, and then played Waverly close in a 44-28 road loss.

The Blu-Jays finished the regular season with three straight blowout shutouts before a 66-34 playoff loss at Hutchinson Central Christian. Pleasanton took a significant jump in students and is back to the 11-man ranks for the first time since 2009 in Class 1A, District 1.

“I am just so used to eight-man right now that it’s kind of hard to recognize all the reads and everything, but it’s coming along slowly but surely, so it was definitely a big jump, but nothing I can’t handle,” Kaden said.

District 1 includes Uniontown and Yates Center, teams that opened 0-2 and scored a combined six points, and a key battle against Colgan, the defending state runner-up.

It marks the first time Pleasanton will face Colgan since 2009, a 39-0 loss. Qualification for the playoffs could yield the Blu-Jays’ second 11-man playoff win since 1979.

“I prefer 11-man football,” Johnson said. “I love eight-man, it’s fun, we can do some fun things, but in my mind, being a schemer, in eight-man, I am pretty limited on what I can do on the board. I think we covered all the bases. We couldn’t run the true Air Raid in eight-man.”

Southeast-Cherokee ends losing streak

Last season, Southeast Cherokee finished 0-7 with two open dates. The Lancers lost 16-12 versus Uniontown in the season opener. In the next six contests, Southeast’s closest losses came by 20 and 29 points. Even with the margins, Coach Jerrad Hansen saw continued growth with his squad.

“We did a great job of improving every single week,” Hansen, now in his fifth season, said.

This year, the Lancers returned 10 starters on both sides. Southeast opened with a 20-6 road win against Uniontown. While multiple teams, notably Wichita North and Gardner-Edgerton, ended long losing streaks, the Lancers halted a 28-game losing skid. Nine teams snapped double-digit losing streaks in Week 1 with Southeast ending the longest.

“I couldn’t be more happy,” Hansen said.

Southeast has four seniors, notably quarterback Brett Malle, running back Jaret Brumback and offensive lineman Noah Newcomb. All three of them have started since their freshman year. For the second straight fall, Malle and junior Bryce Petersen split reps at quarterback.

“Really turned into some great leaders for us,” Hansen said of the seniors.

Hansen, from Missouri, learned his offense from Lamar coach Scott Bailey, one of Missouri’s best football coaches. The offense has some misdirection with some spinner, Wing-T and spread concepts. Hansen stresses to the team to churn out yards and not have penalties.

In the first quarter, Southeast had a 15-play, 65-yard drive and led 6-0 late in the first quarter. Uniontown tied the score late in the first half, and the Lancers stopped the two-point conversion and kept the score at six. Hansen called the defensive play key.

“Really stood out and kind of set the tone for that second half,” Hansen said.

In the second half, Southeast delivered a scoring drive off a Uniontown fumble. The Lancers scored again off another Uniontown fumble and tallied the game’s final score with 48 seconds left.

“We were able to finish on that drive,” Hansen said of the eventual game winning score.

Junior running back Jakob Tavernaro finished with 17 carries for 130 yards and a score. Malle and Petersen combined for 84 rushing yards, and Malle threw for 130 yards. SE ran 55 plays for 408 yards, and Brumback led the team with 10 tackles.


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