Pratt, Hayden will try and run to the 4A, Div. II title

L to R: Pratt's Hunter Kaufman (by Joey Bahr) & the Hayden O-Line (by David Jackson)
By: Peter Euler for
Nov 23, 2016

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One team has three state titles in six championship game appearances, and is seeking its first title in eight years.

The other team has only one title, which came 21 years ago.

In order to advance to this point, both had to go through a team that played in last year’s championship game.

Both ride seven-game winning streaks, one of them after an abysmal 1-4 start.

One faced seven playoff-bound teams in the regular season, one faced five.

One has a coach with almost two decades on the sidelines as a head coach and knows playoff success. The other is guided by a fourth-year head coach whose team has been to the postseason, but had little success until this season.

Both feature run-dominant offenses.

And now one will bring home another state title, as Topeka Hayden (8-4) and Pratt (11-1) prepare to square off at Salina Municipal Stadium for the Class 4A, Division II championship at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Ask Hayden Coach Bill Arnold about those early season struggles, and he believes they will pay off, as that 1-4 start was all against tough Centennial League opposition, a league in which Hayden is the only 4A school.

“I think it prepared us,” he said.  “Year in and year out, it’s tough.  We got through it relatively injury free.  All told, I am very pleased with the progress this team has made, and to finish it with playing in the state championship game is pretty impressive.”

There is no doubt both teams will try to dominate the line of scrimmage early, and it has the potential to be a smash-mouth type of football game.

Hayden has rushed for over 3,000 yards, led by senior Tomas Stringer’s 1,023 yards and 18 touchdowns on 168 carries.  Pratt has almost 3,600 yards on the ground, led by sophomore Travis Theis (1705 yards and 20 touchdowns) and senior Hunter Kaufman (890 yards and an identical 20 touchdowns).

But both coaches know that in order to take home the championship trophy it will take more than simply getting their ground game going and stopping the other’s rushing attack.

“We both definitely want to run the football,” Pratt coach Jamie Cruce said.  “They (Hayden) have a really good and really big offensive line.  But they also have a really good quarterback and a big receiver,” he added, referring to juniors Sampson Huston and DeShawn Hanika, who have connected 34 times for  441 yards and five touchdowns.

Both Arnold and Cruce stated that a strong defensive effort will be key, as the Hayden Wildcats have outscored their opponents 372-240 (31 ppg to 20 ppg) and Pratt has an even larger margin of 461-202 (38.4 ppg to 16.8 ppg).

“We need to do a good job tackling,” Arnold said.  “They (Pratt) are very explosive on offense and they have lots of speed.  We have got to line up correctly and can’t allow them to get out in the open field.”

“Hayden plays the Wing-T, so that’s new and it will take some getting used to the angles and their schemes,” Cruce said. “If we don’t play good defense, we won’t have a chance.  We need to do our best to limit their scoring opportunities.  A team like Hayden is going to get a couple of scores, so we’ve got to play good defense and score when we have the opportunity.”

And while both the Wildcats and the Greenbacks had easy wins in their first two playoff games, they each had their hands full in the state semifinals.  Both teams advanced by again beating teams they had faced earlier in the season.  Arnold’s Hayden team knocked off his alma mater Holton 20-8, and Pratt came from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat defending state champion Holcomb 21-14. Holcomb defeated Holton 21-0 in the 4A, Division II title game a season ago.

Hayden encountered a similar scenario last season when they defeated Andover Central in the regular season only to lose to them in the state semifinals.  That loss has fueled this year’s squad.

“We encountered some of that last year,” Arnold said.  “We beat Andover Central in districts, but when we had to come back and play them in the postseason, the tables got completely turned.  We knew we didn’t want to experience that again this year (with Holton).  Our group of kids this year is focused and fun to coach.  They come out and play hard every week and get better.”

As for Cruce’s Greenbacks, who missed the playoffs last season, the ability to rally against Holcomb in the regular season allowed them to maintain the confidence to do it again last Friday – this time at Holcomb.

“Ball security wasn’t great, but we played physical and matched their intensity knowing it was going to be difficult,” he said. “We had to go out on the road and play them out there.  Being down seven entering the fourth quarter, we knew we had to fight back, and we did, we tied it and then we took the lead.”

Now the only thing that is left is the championship game.

Saturday’s forecast calls for a high of 64 degrees, much warmer than the frigid temperatures in last year’s title game, with highs in the 20s and a slick surface due to hard freeze on Thanksgiving night.  But that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

In the end, one of these two teams will raise the championship trophy.  It will either be the fourth in school history for the Hayden Wildcats - and first since Arnold’s second season in 2008, or the Greenbacks will win their second – and Cruce’s first.


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