Central Plains completes historic season with 8M-I title

The Central Plains defense suffocates a Solomon player on Saturday. (Everett Royer, KSportsImages)
By: Conor Nicholl for Kpreps.com
Nov 25, 2018

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NEWTON – The foundation for the best eight-man scoring defense in at least 15 seasons is traced through playoff losses in 2013 and 2017.

The Claflin-Central Plains unit does not feature any starters more than 202 pounds, had two transfers from nearby Ellinwood, four others who were hurt most of last year and one defensive end who did not play football as a freshman.

The pathways yielded another elite defensive performance in a 52-6 victory against Solomon in Saturday’s Eight-Man, Division I state championship game at Newton’s Fischer Field.

The game was called with 10 minutes, 24 seconds left in the third quarter because of the 45-point mercy rule.

Central Plains (13-0) captured its second state championship, first since 2014. Solomon (11-2) advanced to the title for the first occasion in school annals. The Oilers finished with nine shutouts and allowed just 34 points this fall.

“Discipline – we all come down to doing our job,” senior defensive end Brett Liebl said. “We bend, but don’t break. That’s our motto. Everybody has to do their job, and everything will fall into line.”

Previously the recent standard for eight-man scoring defense came in 2003 when Jetmore permitted 40 points. Since 2006, no eight-man squad has allowed less than 5.5 points per contest before this year.

Solomon had 24 plays for minus-23 yards. The Gorillas scored their only touchdown on a kickoff return. Central Plains continually swarmed to the ball. Solomon was 1 of 6 passing for minus-3 yards.

“It’s like they had 12 guys out there sometimes,” coach Solomon coach Steve Tiernan said. “They were very good. That’s as good a defense as I’ve probably seen. They really did. Usually you break one here or there, or at least gain some yards.”

Steiner, a Claflin graduate, coached the last season at his alma mater before Claflin and Quivira Heights consolidated before 2011. In 2013, the Oilers finished 9-2 but lost to eventual runner-up Hodgeman County, 44-36, in the second round of the playoffs. That year, Central Plains permitted 24.4 points a contest.

The following year, the Oilers captured the state crown, went 13-0 and improved its defense to 10.2 per game. From ’14-18, Central Plains has permitted the fewest points of any eight-man program. The last three seasons, the Oilers’ 3-2 look has allowed 10, 15.1 and 11.1 points a game.

“They put a-whoopin on us, and we decided, ‘OK, we can’t outscore everybody,’” Steiner said. “We have got to start playing defense, and we’ve really focused hard since then, and our kids have just bought into it. They really hang their hat on it.”

Last season, Central Plains lost to Spearville, 32-28, the third straight second round loss to the Lancers. The Oilers fell on the final offensive play of the game.

Multiple current starters, including Liebl, junior cornerback Lawson Oeser and senior linebacker Alex Hickel, were injured part of last season. Senior quarterback Myles Menges was able to play offense but was held out defensively most of 2017.

This year, Liebl returned at defensive end, and senior nose guard Mason Doll and senior defensive end Grant Heldstab held down the other two line spots. Liebl started in the Spearville contest, and Doll played at nose guard.

Heldstab wasn’t a starter in 2017 and has led the team in tackles and tackles for loss this year. Heldstab, who has 12 siblings, previously lived in nearby Holyrood and has moved to Claflin.

“It was horrible,” he said of his freshman year. “Just went to every football game and wishing I could be out there with them, but I couldn’t.”

The Spearville loss changed multiple small aspects of the program, including no more team breakfast on Saturday games, a longtime tradition. Steiner said Central Plains “regrouped.”

“This group has been salty, nasty, bad taste in their mouth since that game last year,” Steiner said. “Not to take anything away from Spearville, that was a phenomenal game. We felt like we were the better team. I would have liked to have had this d-line.”

Doll and Menges each came from Ellinwood. Steiner said this was the best defensive line he has ever coached.

“These guys are just so fast,” Steiner said. “They are really strong, they are really long. That helps out so much with what we do with how long they are, and they can still play low with being that long. That’s huge. That d-line is pretty impressive, they really are.”

They helped the Oilers finish with five tackles for loss and five sacks.

Central Plains opened the game with a blocked punt after Solomon netted minus-11 yards on its first drive. Menges scored from three yards out. On the conversion, Menges fumbled but the ball popped into the air, senior Devin Ryan caught it at the goal line and scored.

“Probably their discipline, speed, strength,” Tiernan said of Central Plains’ best defensive qualities. “How good they were, I mean it all stuck out. But yeah, everywhere they were supposed to be, that’s where they were.

“You can always expect to catch a guy cheating here or cheating there,” he added. “They didn’t cheat. They did their job. Their front three were good enough, they could drop those back five and kind of have their way with it.”

Central Plains bumped the lead to 16-0 on an 11-yard run from senior Alex Hickel with 2 minutes, 17 seconds left in the first quarter. He later scored on a 52-yard run for a 24-0 advantage with 11:45 left in the first half. Hickel delivered seven rushes for a team-high 74 yards.

“We definitely improved a lot from last year, probably the most from between last year to this year,” Heldstab said. “Just worked all that much harder for our senior year, and it all came together. Just watch (Brett) and make sure to jam, and squeeze it and stay outside.”

Solomon responded with a 67-yard kickoff return touchdown from sophomore Alex Herbel. Then, Gorilla senior Jobe Fowles, who also delivered two sacks, had an interception on a great play. Solomon took over at the Oiler 24-yard line. However, Solomon had minus-6 yards on the drive.

“Their front line was really plugging the holes today,” Fowles said. “It was just well-coached.”

Last week, Solomon had wider offensive line splits, a change that gave Canton-Galva problems. On Saturday, Solomon sometimes had a big gap between center and guard.

“They want to get those d-ends way outside, because they know in the 3-2 how important the d-ends are,” Steiner said. “Coach (Tiernan) has coached that defense. He knows what he is doing. He knows the holes in it, so that was the game plan. We talked about it coming in.”

Still, the Oilers continued to adjust. After the game, Steiner and Tiernan met. Tiernan told Steiner he “couldn’t believe” how well Central Plains “kept adjusting” to Solomon’s offense.

“It gets about as good as it gets right here, absolutely,” Steiner said. “It really is. That was a great job by our whole team. (Solomon) did a lot of great things, and nobody is going to believe that by the score, of all the things that Solomon did to work us.”

Menges found Heldstab for a 46-yard touchdown when he broke multiple tackles down the left sideline for his longest catch of the year. Earlier in the game, Heldstab had a 23-yard grab. Oeser delivered a three-yard scoring run to bump the lead to 40-6 with 1:55 remaining in the first half.

“People don’t realize what a great receiver he is,” Steiner said. “He is a phenomenal receiver. He was a phenomenal receiver last year. … Grant has got phenomenal hands, and the kid is fast. He is very elusive is how he looks. All year long, we have been trying to get him the ball a little more, and doing some things a little more.”

After the break, Menges hit a wide-open Oeser on a 40-yard scoring pass on the third quarter’s first offensive play. Three snaps later, Central Plains junior linebacker Jerred Bieberle finished the season on a pick-six.

Bieberle blocked well offensively and had four rushes for 53 yards. Steiner said the 170-pound Bieberle is “so football smart” and “plays way bigger than he is.”

“I just can’t give enough credit to our d-line and how well our d-line plays, but part of that is because the guys behind them, they give them so much confidence that they are always going to take care of stuff,” Steiner said.

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