Just one step away: The story of the 2013 SM East football team (part II)

First-year head coach Dustin Delaney stood in front of a banner laying out the team's accomplishments at the annual football banquet Sunday.
First-year head coach Dustin Delaney stood in front of a banner laying out the team’s accomplishments at the annual football banquet Sunday.

Read part I of this story here.

A short eight days after Dustin Delaney was introduced as the new coach of the SM East football team, he met with the players in the school’s weight room.

Class was out, which meant summer conditioning needed to begin – regardless of how much or little time the coaching staff had to prepare.

It was Delaney’s first real chance to see what he’d be working with when the players took the field in the fall. And his concerns emerged almost immediately.

Summer camp brought concerns for Delaney, who had to get his team up to speed on his unusual offensive scheme.
Summer camp brought concerns for Delaney, who had to get his team up to speed on his unusual offensive scheme.

“I was worried we weren’t very strong, honestly,” he said. “We had a lot of work to do in the weight room.”

Then the team actually got out on the field for summer camp in June – and Delaney’s concerns only grew. Some of the offensive linemen didn’t know the basics of a three point stance. Quarterback Christian Blessen had been trained to run a spread offense out of the shotgun. He still needed to learn the basics of Delaney’s flexbone offense, where the quarterback usually takes the snap under center.

“It felt really off to me,” Blessen remembers. “It felt so awkward making the steps like that.”

After a few days of camp, Delaney texted his friend and mentor Randy Dreiling, Hutchinson’s head coach: “I think we’re going 0-9 this year.”

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But then something shifted.

Delaney had been pushing his team from day one to work like he worked: hard and fast. He wanted their weight training sessions to be quicker and more intense. When they practiced, he wanted to them to be practicing at game speed.

As the team adopted his no-nonsense approach, things began to mesh. By the time the team held its first scrimmage, Delaney was seeing signs of hope. His defense, led by longtime Lancer assistant coaches Chip Ufford and Jason Filbeck, looked solid. The offense was still plenty rough around the edges. But there was time.

The team’s attitude also underwent a fundamental shift.

During that first 10-minute meeting with the team, Delaney had introduced the idea that the team’s ultimate goal should be — had to be — winning a state title. That idea became a constant refrain. He wanted winning the state championship to be a consideration in every decision his staff, the team, and the teams’ supporters made.

It represented a major shift of frame for the players, even those who had seen success under Sherman.

“He said it all the time, just getting that idea in our minds,” Blessen remembered of the team’s early conditioning. “Whenever we were in the weight room, we were always thinking state championship. It was foreign to everyone at East. Just thinking in that way — thinking it was possible — helped us get through hard workouts.”

Still, attitudes can be stubborn to shift, and getting people to buy into the idea that a program as frequently underwhelming as SM East’s should be thinking of itself as title-worthy in 2013 took some persistence.

Gridiron Club president Jeff Spivak remembers that he and some of the other club parents bumped into that expectation early in the school year when they were working to schedule the annual team banquet. Traditionally, the banquet was held the weekend before Thanksgiving – which happens to be the weekend before the state championship.

“We were trying to get this thing on the calendar for that same weekend we always did it,” Spivak remembers, “and Delaney says, ‘Heck, no we’re not having it then. We can’t have a banquet until after the title game is done.’ I won’t say we thought he was delusional — but I guess we kind of laughed at the idea that our season wouldn’t be over. I’m not sure anyone really thought it was realistic, except maybe Delaney.”

The offense and attitudes about what the team’s goal should be weren’t the only things that changed. Delaney also had the Lancers’ uniforms redesigned, taking a cue from the more modern apparel favored by college teams like Oregon and Missouri. Gone were the straightforward black and white jerseys from Sherman’s era. The Lancers instead introduced a scheme that included a full steel-grey combination with digital-camaflouge black and Columbia blue accents. A severe-looking knight debuted on their helmets.

There would be no mistaking 2013’s squad from 2012’s when the Lancers opened their season on the road against Leavenworth.

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Christian Blessen helped keep his team's composure as the faced seemingly long odds in the closing minutes of the Olathe Northwest game.
Christian Blessen helped keep his team’s composure as they faced seemingly long odds in the closing minute of the Olathe Northwest game.

Even as the season got under way, though, Delaney and the rest of the coaches had a hard time gauging just what they were working with. Yes, they beat Leavenworth in opener – but they fumbled the ball half a dozen times.

Yes, they beat Lawrence in week two, but the Lions had lost their best players from the year before and appeared to be in a down phase.

Still, 2-0 was nothing to sneeze at. And the solid start to the season had the school community riled up heading into week three’s matchup against the Olathe Northwest Ravens. And their new head coach, Chip Sherman.

“When Sherman left, we were all circling week three on our calendars,” remembers senior Mitchell Tyler, who received post-season honors for his play on both sides of the ball. “I remember we were all fired up Monday, a lot of people saying, ‘I can’t wait to beat Sherman.’ But Delaney said, ‘We’re not going to make this about that. We’re going to make this about what we can do.’ He did a good job of keeping us focused.”

Focused or not, it was an ugly game. After three quarters of sloppy play on both sides, SM East recovered a Ravens fumble for a 78-yard touchdown return that put the Lancers up 21-14 with 2:32 to play. The SM East stands went nuts.

And then the Ravens responded by mounting a drive that culminated in a touchdown with :30 left. The score was 20-21.

Instead of going for the tie and heading to overtime, Sherman directed his team to try for a two-point conversion. Quarterback Cole Dalhquist found Chase Gitlin on a slant to put the Ravens up 22-21. The air was sucked out of the Lancers’ cheering section.

But not the sidelines. Delaney instructed his offense to run out patterns, hoping to pick up about 15 yards at a time on passing plays. The offense made it to the Ravens 36-yard line with :03 left in the game. Blessen took the final snap, waited a couple of beats, and then hurled a Hail Mary into the endzone. What happened next will be part of school lore for years to come:

“Obviously, we want to win the game no matter what,” Blessen said. “But with him having left to another school, yeah, you just want it even more. It was incredible. You couldn’t have asked for a better ending.”

While the victory over Olathe Northwest might have gone a long way toward exorcising whatever demons the seniors carried around from being abandoned by their former coach, it was the next week’s game that really buoyed Delaney’s confidence in his Lancers.

Dominique Atkinson's huge safety set the Lancers up for a confidence-building win over Olathe North in week four.
Dominique Atkinson’s huge safety set the Lancers up for a confidence-building win over Olathe North in week four. Photo by Don Austin.

Sunflower League powerhouse Olathe North was widely regarded as the most talented team in the eastern part of the state. Despite the Eagles’ size and speed, the Lancers hung close enough that Dominique Atkinson’s fourth quarter safety tackle put the Lancers in position to score another last-minute game-winning touchdown. SM East hung on to win a 23-22 game that put them at 4-0 on the year.

“After that I thought, maybe we are pretty good,” Delaney said.

The results for the rest of the season certainly bear that out. After tripping up against Lawrence Free State in an overtime loss, the Lancers won out the rest of their games – including a second victory over Olathe North in the sub-state playoffs round that earned the school its first trip to a 6A title game, where they were set to meet one of the most prolific offenses in Kansas high school history.

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The Derby Panthers were really something.

With two seniors having accepted offers to play at elite DI NCAA programs next year – tight end DeAndre Goolsby to Florida and offensive lineman Cole Hansen to Air Force – and a handful of others still weighing their DI options, it was clearly one of the most talented teams in the state. And they’d used that talent to amass a 11-1 record (their only loss being the first game of the season) during which they’d scored an average of just under 50 points while allowing an average of less than 13.

As one of the sports reporters who’d been watching the team all season put it, “They aren’t fun to cover because every game is a blow away.”

The word going round football circles was that fans at Yager Stadium on the campus of Washburn University should expect a lopsided victory. The Lancers heard people saying as much – they just refused to buy in.

“Leading up to the game, everyone was like, it’s going to be a blowout,” Blessen said. “You know, ‘We don’t have any standout athletes.’ But people were always doubting us and talking us down — even after Olathe North. We just blocked that out and focused on who we were playing next.”

When the Lancers kept the Panthers from scoring any points, and even from getting a first down, in the first quarter, they had themselves – and the Panthers – believing that this was going to be a game.

“Going into halftime with a 14-7 lead, you would think we were losing by 20 points,” Derby’s Travis Young told the Derby Informer after the game. “The team didn’t know what to do.”

Delaney and the 2013 Lancers had to watch at the 6A trophy was handed to Derby this year — but current players say they know the program can win the title.
Delaney and the 2013 Lancers had to watch as the 6A trophy was handed to Derby this year — but current players say they know the program can win the title.

Alas, with the game tied at 21 late in the fourth quarter, the Panthers coupled a big punt return with a touchdown pass to go ahead. And there wasn’t enough Lancer magic left in the bag to put together one final comeback.

SM East would have to settle for runner-up status after its first trip to the big game.

It was a painful moment for the team and its first-year coach. But it also created one of Delaney’s favorite memories from 2013.

“I know it probably sounds bad to say it like this, but one of my favorite moments from this season was going into the locker room after that Derby game and seeing how crushed those kids were,” Delaney said. “Because when you saw how crushed they were, you knew they believed they should have won. No one thought we had a chance against Derby. Our kids thought we would win — really believed it. I can’t tell you how happy that made me. I was so proud of those guys.”

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Gunnar Englund, who took over at quarterback after Christian Blessen suffered an injury, is one of the more than a dozen players from 2013 who will return to the team in 2014.
Gunnar Englund, who took over at quarterback after Christian Blessen suffered an injury, is one of the more than a dozen players from 2013 who will return to the team in 2014.

A week later, the team members, their parents, and the coaching staff packed into the SM East gymnasium for that annual banquet the Gridiron Club had been trying to schedule early in the school year.

A banner hanging behind the podium outlined the team’s many accomplishments: A school record 11 wins. League champs. District champs. Regionals champs. Sectionals champs. Sub-state champs.

And Kansas 6A state runners up.

“It’s taken a while, but we’re starting to kind of take a look back and think about what we accomplished,” Tyler said before the banquet. “We wish we would have won that last game. But, yeah, we’re pretty proud of it.”

And while Tyler, Blessen and four other senior starters won’t be back to mount the next campaign, they say they’re excited to see what 2014’s team can do. More than a dozen sophomore and junior starters from 2013, including quarterback Gunnar Englund, who stepped in after Blessen suffered an injury, will be back next year.

“We know that with Delaney, the way he runs things, we’re going to be able to get back to where we were this year,” Blessen said. “We’re just waiting for the next team to get where we got — and hopefully get past that and win the state championship.”