Kpreps GameDay: Riley County & Olathe West in the semis

Riley County's Garrett Harmison (right) & Mikey Waggoner (left). (by Chad Simon)
By: Conor Nicholl for
Nov 16, 2018

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Riley County has been a consistent winning program under 35th year head coach Steve Wagner. From 2006-17, the Falcons won between five and eight games every season but one, a 4-6 mark in 2013. Riley County, though, had not defeated Mid-East rival Silver Lake in 22 years and hadn’t played past Week 10 since 2011.

Last year, Riley County had its second straight solid 7-3 season. The Falcons averaged 331 rushing yards a game and more than eight yards per rush. Senior quarterback Tyler Halstead led with 1,045 yards.

Riley County completed just 15 of 43 passes for 311 yards, all from Halstead. In the offseason, Wagner decided to incorporate the spread and throw the football more frequently with junior quarterback Garrett Harmison.

“It’s more fun to play that style of ball, and it seems to be the trend,” Wagner said. “And we wanted to make some adjustments, and he is kind of a classic drop-back quarterback, but he has the ability to run some.”

Additionally, Riley County wanted to become multi-dimensional with plenty of skill position depth, traits Wagner believed would pay off deep in the playoffs against big, physical teams with stout run defenses.

“You better have something to go to,” he said.

Riley County finished 7-2 in the regular season with a 31-12 road loss to Silver Lake in Week 3, and a 23-21 home district defeat versus Southeast of Saline in Week 7. The Falcons, which still earned the district crown on tiebreakers, led Southeast of Saline 21-0 at halftime.

In the last two rounds of the playoffs, Riley County avenged both losses. The Falcons easily defeated Southeast of Saline, 33-14, and then, led by a record-breaking passing performance from Harmison, had a remarkable comeback in a 40-34 quarterfinal overtime win versus Silver Lake.

“As you get a little older, your ego tends to go by the way side,” Wagner said. “And you are in it to help make a positive experience for the guys, and the people around you, and  to see the excitement, and joy from Friday night on that field afterwards – I am not sure I have ever seen anything quite that ecstatic.”

It marked the first time Riley County defeated Silver Lake since 1996, also the last occasion the Falcons reached the semifinals.

“When you lose those games, you are more than likely I think sometimes to make more adjustments,” Wagner said. “When you win, you think, ‘Well, you won, why would you change a whole lot?’ So sometimes it’s better to be on the down side of that, other than you have to have the mental capacity to believe that you are going to win.”

“So I think our guys felt that way going to Silver Lake,” Wagner said. “Even though we lost to them the first time, we felt like we could play better than we did, and we seemed like we were playing better football as the season progresses, and we went over there with the expectations we would find a way to win, and we were able to do so.”

Silver Lake led 34-21 with two minutes left. Harmison threw a 66-yard touchdown pass to senior Mikey Waggoner to cut the deficit to 34-28. Next, the Falcons recovered an onside kick, and had a game-tying 17-yard pass from Harmison to sophomore Nic Allen. The Falcons had a potential game-winning extra point blocked by Silver Lake and the contest went to overtime.

Riley County scored on its first overtime possession, but missed the extra point. Then, Silver Lake opened at the 10-yard line, the starting point for all Kansas high school overtimes. The Eagles gained five yards on first down. Riley County’s defense held, as Silver Lake quarterback Mason Griffin found Wyatt Heiman on a fourth down pass, but Riley County tackled him just short of the goal line.

“I have never had a finish quite like that,” Wagner said. “I don’t think many teams will have.”

Wagner said one of Riley County’s hallmarks has been key critical plays this fall. The Falcons’ 3-4 look has allowed just 16.6 points per game with defensive coordinator Erik Willimon, line coach Derek Winter and defensive backs coach Ian Peters. It is the best scoring defense for the program since 2011.

“Our defense stood up and found a way to get them out of the end zone, and so we have had more of those this year than I think we can remember – where we really had some defensive goal line stands, and big stops on fourth and short,” Wagner said.

This Friday, Riley County plays host to undefeated Humboldt, in the state semifinals for the first time in school history. Riley County has never won a state title with runner-ups in 1989 and ’93 and semifinals in ’91 and ’96. This year marked the first time in the quarterfinals since 2000. The Falcons have won their most games since 2005.

Riley County and Humboldt join a group of 2018 teams that are in the semifinals for a rare time in school history. In Class 2A, Hoisington has matched 2016 for the best finish in school history. In Class 6A, Manhattan has reached the final four for the first time since 2006. In Class 5A, Olathe West has bumped into the semifinals in its inaugural season as a varsity program.


In the Silver Lake victory, Harmison completed 24 of 46 passes for 353 yards with four scores against one interception. He set a school record for most completions in a single game.

For the year, Harmison has completed 128 of 215 passes for 1,798 yards with a 23/9 TD/INT ratio. Wagner believes Harmison is around 20 yards off the Falcon mark for single season passing yards.

Assistant coach Jason Klein, a Riley County graduate, handles all of the Falcons’ video and technology and spends a significant amount of time  - “crazy hours,” Wagner said – from Friday night to Monday. During games, Klein is up in the press box and helps Wagner with the offense.

“He came up with a couple of big play calls,” Wagner said.

Riley County has rushed for 2,320 and passed for 1,837, a much more even split than last year. Harmison also threw for 250 yards versus St. Marys. Before this season, Riley County’s biggest passing output in the last nine years was 219 yards versus Marysville in 2009.

Wagner has been highly impressed with Harmison and listed positive attributes such as resiliency, overcoming adversity, leadership, athleticism and a strong arm. Since the loss to Southeast of Saline, he has a 14/3 TD/INT ratio and posted at least a 98 quarterback rating in every game.

“He has all the attributes that you want in a quarterback,” Wagner said.

Waggoner, known for his toughness and downhill running style, has his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season with 1,020 yards.

Senior Tristan Kulp is a dynamic player with 91 offensive touches for 1,031 yards and 15 offensive scores. Four players have at least 200 rushing yards. Six enjoy at least 153 receiving yards, led by 34 grabs for 531 yards and six TDs from senior Wyatt Earhart.

Riley County has tallied 39 points a contest, an improvement from 34.6 points a game last fall, and the team’s best scoring offense in at least 13 years.

“That’s been a big part of our success,” Wagner said of the depth.

The offensive line has four seniors and four returning starters. Senior tackle Brett Halstead is a highly decorated player and switched from end to mainly linebacker on defense. Senior 6-foot-4, 280-pound Dylan Anderson moved from tackle to center.

Wagner said Anderson has done “a really outstanding job” after he had no varsity snapping experience. The Falcons snap everything from shotgun. Senior Wyatt Thurlow starts at left tackle, and junior Kameron Brown is the starting left guard and nose guard.

Senior Trystin McCoy is at right guard and defensive end. Thurlow and sophomore Jack White have rotated at defensive end. Earhart has enjoyed a big season at cornerback with 79 tackles, 17 for loss, and Waggoner is second with 69 stops.

Senior defensive backs Keaton Koenig and Luke Richard have been key “glue guys” with 69 combined tackles.

“They bring those things that a lot of times you have to have on teams – doing things the right way, showing up every day and being good teammates,” Wagner said. “And if you get enough of those guys together, you are going to have a better football team.”

Olathe West in 5A semifinals

Last season, Olathe West fielded only a junior varsity squad in its first year of existence. The Owls had seven JV contests and an exhibition versus Junction City’s varsity.

This season, the Owls’ key contributors are not just those who played JV in 2017, but also some who saw eighth-grade and freshmen time.

“We prepared for our JV games much like we do this year for our varsity games,” coach T.J. O’Neill said. “We tried to get film and put together scouting reports and watch opponent film and our own film just like we do this year, just to try to get our kids prepared for what this year was going to be like. They did a good job from the very beginning of buying into that, and preparing, and I think it has really helped us this year.”

Olathe West opened 0-4, though lost in Week 3 and 4 by a combined 11 points. In Week 5, Olathe West earned its first varsity win with a 40-14 road game against Shawnee Mission West. The Owls have won five of their last seven games and, in one of the more unique seasons of 2018, have advanced to the Class 5A sub-state title game. Olathe West will travel to No. 1 St. Thomas Aquinas (10-0).

“The improvement of our guys from this summer through game one, and really all the way through has really given us the opportunity to play in this game this week,” O’Neill said. “Really both sides of the ball, we are playing more physical, and playing at a faster pace – I think that was the biggest adjustment for our team throughout the season.”

It is the first time in recent state history that a new squad has enjoyed such success. Multiple newer programs, including Maize South and Goddard-Eisenhower, have started in the decade and both had one semifinal run. However, Maize South went 2-6 and 4-6 in its first two seasons in 2009-10, and Eisenhower was 1-7 in its first year in 2012.

Among recent school openings in the Kansas City area, Blue Valley Southwest was 3-7 in its first fall in 2010. Olathe Northwest finished 2-7 in its inaugural season of ’04. Blue Valley West started in 2001 and went 3-6. Lawrence Free State went 1-8 in its first year of ’97.

“At this point in the season to say that we get a chance to play in the semifinals here has been unbelievable, and honestly I don’t think it has hit all of us yet, just because you are in game week mode, and ready for the next one,” O’Neill said. “But we all take pride in what we are doing, and we feel a huge responsibility to make sure that we start the program the right way and make sure we do things the right way, so that we can continue to have success in the future.”

O’Neill is a 2000 Salina Central graduate and served as a ball boy for longtime Mustang coach Marvin Diener, who retired at Gardner-Edgerton after the 2017 season. His dad, Rick, has coached since 1978 and served on Salina Central’s staff since 1985. O’Neill was previously a longtime assistant at Mill Valley before he came to Olathe West.

The No. 11 seeded Owls entered the postseason 2-6 and had a break in the bracket when it faced back-to-back Kansas City/Atchison League schools, a conference that historically struggles in the postseason. The Owls beat KC Washington, 27-20, and KC Schlagle, 49-15. Last week, Olathe West pulled an upset with a 24-7 win at De Soto, a team that finished 8-3.

“We would have to gain experience throughout the year,” O’Neill said. “Something we’ve been talking about all summer is making sure we are the best we can be Week 9, and we saw a great opportunity, but at the same time, with of our kids, they had never been through the playoffs before, and I’m proud of our guys for battling through and preparing like they did against the teams we faced.”

Senior quarterback Zac Krause, an Olathe North transfer, has completed 147 of 277 passes for 1,854 yards with a 17/10 TD/INT ratio. In the last seven games, he has an 8/3 TD/INT ratio.

“With our offense, he is responsible for a lot both before the snap ever happens, and obviously after the snap as well,” O’Neill said. “And so I think it took a little bit just for timing, and to really get comfortable in what we are trying to do. He has really done a great job of not only making big plays, but managing situations as they come up throughout the game.”

Junior Gavan McDaniel has delivered 169 carries for 1,074 yards and 10 scores. Juniors Connor Delong and Caden Barnard have combined for 84 catches and nine TDs. Against De Soto, Olathe West had 68 plays for 385 yards and held the Owls to 55 plays for 287 yards.

The Owls have been very strong on special teams the last two weeks. Senior Brendon Bolden returned a kickoff for a score versus Schlagle, and Delong kicked a key 27-yard field goal versus De Soto.

The last several games, Olathe West has started freshman center Dane Hutchins, three sophomores (right guard Luke Zegunis, sophomore left guard Cole Turner, right tackle Josh Clark) and junior left tackle Sam Verhulst on the offensive line.

“For being a young group and pretty undersized, they are produced a lot of big games,” O’Neill said.

The top-two and three of the top-five tacklers are sophomores, including free safety Trey Krause, Zac’s brother. Linebacker Sam Butler (90 stops), Kobe Poindexter (67 tackles) and senior Kellen Welsh (15 TFLs) have helped lead the defense.


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