Central Plains, Solomon will decide 8-Man, Div. 1 title

L to R: Solomon's Alex Herbel (14) & Central Plains' Lawson Oeser. (Mike Courson & Tessa Lickiss)
By: Conor Nicholl for Kpreps.com
Nov 22, 2018

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The foundation for Central Plains’ elite defense came from longtime former Little River coach Shane Cordell, who learned it in Oklahoma. Central Plains coach Chris Steiner still uses Cordell’s projector slides when he teaches the 3-2 look.

Steiner is often asked about the 3-2 at coaching clinics, eight-man all-star games and when coaches call him for tips. Steiner tells everyone the Oilers “don’t look in the backfield.” Steiner doesn’t think people fully believe him.

“We totally read steps,” Steiner said. “It’s everybody. Our corners, our safeties, the linebackers, it’s all reading steps by those guys.”

Steiner’s approach has yielded the best eight-man scoring defense in well over a decade. Central Plains has scored 576 points and permitted just 28 with nine shutouts.

On Saturday, the Oilers (12-0) will play Solomon (11-1) in the Eight-Man, Division I state championship game at Newton’s Fischer Field. Start time is 3 p.m.

Central Plains last won the title in ’14, and Solomon, with a six-win improvement from last fall, is in a championship game for the first time in school history.

“Our kids just do a really good job of staying disciplined,” Steiner said.

Since 2006, the best eight-man scoring defense came in 2012 with Ness City. With coach Chris Bamberger, the Eagles went 13-0, won the Division I state title and permitted 71 points for 5.46 per game, according to Prep Power Index archives.

Before then, the top defense was the 2003 Jetmore team that earned the Division I crown, finished 13-0 and permitted just 42 points for four points permitted a contest. Bamberger, now the Lakin coach, was a standout player on the defense.

Current Wallace County coach Kevin Ayers led the Jetmore team that defeated Baileyville B&B in the championship, 42-6, the only points the squad allowed in the playoffs.

Coach Steve Tiernan, currently Solomon’s coach, was B&B coach’s that year. Tiernan said Central Plains’ defense “has got to be up there” for the all-time best defenses he has seen.

Tiernan attended last Saturday’s 42-0 Oiler sub-state home win against St. Francis. Central Plains, with no defensive starter more than 202 pounds, limited St. Francis’ single wing to under 100 rushing yards. Tiernan noticed St. Francis was “quite a bit bigger” than the Oilers, but “it didn’t matter.”

“(CP) reminds me a lot of that,” Tiernan said of Jetmore. “Not the size. They didn’t have a Chris Bamberger at linebacker, but these guys have eight just really good athletes. … Fast, strong, you know they are strong. Those guys kind of live in the weight room there, I think, and they are very good. Very disciplined.”

Tiernan has taken three squads to title games, a rarity, and won titles with B&B and Osborne. Last year, Solomon went through pronounced injury issues.

This year, the Gorillas, with limited depth, have been much healthier. Solomon allowed 40.4 points a contest in 2017 and had permitted 14.5 this year. Solomon had previously reached sub-state in 2012 and ’15, Tiernan’s first season.

“This year has just been really fun, for the fact to see the excitement in these kids’ eyes,” Tiernan said.

In the last four games, the Gorillas have forced 17 turnovers, including five last week in a 28-12 win against Canton-Galva. In district play, Solomon lost, 38-20, at Canton-Galva. Solomon has averaged 44.7 points a contest.

“We did spread them out,” Tiernan said of the second Canton-Galva game. “Even up front, we just widened our splits, kind of spread those guys out where those defensive ends were out wider.

“Their defensive ends are very physical, and our one side on our offensive line is 135 pounds, so that doesn’t work out too good,” he added. “So we split those guys out to where it really didn’t matter if we couldn’t block them, because those guys had a long ways to run.”

Tiernan said the high turnover creation has come from putting defenses into long down-and-distance/passing situations and Solomon players focusing on their responsibilities. Solomon has forced 33 turnovers.

“I am just going to do what I have got to do, and that’s worked,” he said.

Senior linebacker Eli Basvic leads with 120 tackles, 25.5 for loss. Last year, Basvic had a heart condition and was taken off in ambulance during a game. Basvic’s heart rate wouldn’t go down, and he ended up having heart surgery. He did return in 2017 and finished with 37 tackles.

“He is a great linebacker,” Tiernan said. “Reads as good as I have seen in quite a few years. He reads the guards, and he flies, and then he makes tackles. He is a smart guy, where he is going to get low and just take legs. He is not a real big guy, but he does a heckuva job.”

Senior Jobe Fowles has 22 TFLs, while senior Logan Krause has delivered 18 TFLs. Senior Braden Neilson has intercepted nine passes, and senior Tyler Marfise has picked off five passes in a breakout season. Marfise is under 135 pounds.

“He is a good athlete, and he is a very smart football player,” Tiernan said. “He knows the ins and outs of what we are doing.”

Offensively, Solomon moved Fowles from the offensive line to fullback. He has rushed for 767 yards and six TDs.

“Our depth is not real good,” Tiernan said. “In a way, it’s a minor miracle that we are where we are – not that we are not good enough – but we managed to stay healthy. We drop pretty significantly if somebody goes out.”

Krause, a state qualifier in the track sprints last spring, has delivered 136 carries for 1,119 yards and 25 scores. He moved from defensive back to the line.

“I told him all summer, ‘There is going to be one time where you are going to tackle somebody,’” Tiernan said. “’You are just going to put that foot in the ground, and accelerate through a guy, and you are going to like that feeling, and you are going to keep doing it.’ And he did – and he has taken off.”

Neilson is one of the state’s top eight-man quarterbacks. He has thrown for 894 career yards with a 16/5 TD/INT ratio. Neilson has rushed 152 times for 1,066 yards and 21 scores.

“The Neilson kid, he orchestrates the whole thing,” Steiner said. “He’s good. He’s very deceiving.”

For Central Plains, senior quarterback Myles Menges has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,152 yards with a 23/4 TD/INT ratio. Senior Alex Hickel has 98 carries for 867 yards. He and junior Lawson Oeser have tied with 16 rushing scores.

Defensively, the top-four tacklers are all seniors, the top-three are defensive linemen: Grant Heldstab, Mason Doll and Brett Liebl. Heldstab has 137 tackles, and 16 TFLs. Doll has 113 stops, 17 TFLs. Liebl has recorded 97 tackles with 18.5 sacks. Hickel has 88 stops.

Steiner is very pleased with his unit on staying home on backside plays.

“They don’t get to go pursue until it passes the line of scrimmage,” Steiner said. “They have got to be very disciplined on the backside and just do their job. It’s not easy, especially when you are a high school kid. You want to go, especially athletic kids sometimes.”

Menges has picked off a team-high seven passes. Central Plains has forced 28 turnovers and is plus-20 in turnover margin. The two teams know each other well. Menges’ and Krause’s dads are friends. Steiner helps every year with the Solomon powerlifting meet. Claflin to Solomon is 76 miles apart, and the two have often been in the same district.

From 2011-15, Central Plains went 5-0 against Solomon. That included a 56-52 win in 2012 and a 58-0 victory versus a banged up Gorilla squad in 2014.

That year, Central Plains was considered the underdog in playoff games versus Spearville and Hanover, but pulled off victories by a combined 14 points. This week, Steiner has often evoked ’14. Central Plains is the favorite, and Solomon is the underdog. Steiner has been pleased with the preparation.

“I have told our kids every day since we found out we were playing Solomon that they better take this game like we do every other game like we are preparing for the best team in the state, because we are – they are now the best team in the state,” Steiner said. “I exactly told them that ’14, we were the underdogs every single ball game.”

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