How the “narrow road” propelled Oakley to a remarkable turnaround
The Plainsmen won a defensive battle over Inman to reach 1A State
OAKLEY, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Jeff Hennick attended church since he was young and grew up in a faith-filled household. He first served as head coach at his alma mater, Wallace County-Sharon Springs. Hennick lost in the state semifinals in 2014, ’15 and ’16. The ’15 season ended in tragedy when three-sport standout Luke Schemm collapsed during a playoff game versus Otis-Bison. Schemm died the following day.
Hennick significantly increased his faith after Schemm’s passing. He took over as Oakley’s head coach in ’17 and has constantly preached Matthew 7:14 – “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it.”
Oakley entered this fall with eight total wins in the last four years. On Friday, the Plainsmen continued its surprising turnaround with a 9-0 home victory against Inman in the Class 1A state semifinals. Oakley bumped to 10-2 and has enjoyed a seven-win improvement from last fall.
The Plainsmen reached the first state championship game in school annals. In the last two weeks, Oakley avenged both of its district losses, to Smith Center and Inman, by a combined score of 29-0. The Plainsmen will face Olpe (12-0) in next Saturday’s title game at Fort Hays State University.
“We were kind of traveling down the wide road for a little bit this season on those two losses, but we knew we could come together, pick ourselves up and help each other out with our faith,” senior running back Ethan Abell said.
Earlier Friday, Hennick grew emotional when thought about the three semifinal losses and the path at Oakley. Afterward, as his team lined up for pictures on the field, Hennick’s face, partially covered by a white mask, again showed emotions.
“God put me here for a reason,” Hennick said. “And it’s been tough, but just like these kids, I traveled that narrow road with them. … For me to finally in my career get over that hump with these kids, it’s special. It feels good.”
Hennick immediately brought up the narrow road in his postgame speech to his team, a theme that echoes in Oakley’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes and bible studies.
“Just unbelievable,” Hennick said. “I am so proud of our kids. We talk about traveling the narrow road, and you know what, they traveled it this whole season. They never gave up, and that’s a testament to each and every one of these kids. That’s a testament to that staff. I am so proud of all of them right now.”
Oakley, ranked fourth in Class 1A, had previously made two state semifinals, in ’05 and ’09, and lost to Smith Center each time. Last week, Oakley defeated SC for the first occasion in school annals. Oakley was 0-13 versus the Redmen since ’03. Second-ranked Inman (9-3) tied the furthest advancement in school history.
“When we played Smith Center the first time, we still had the same game plan, we still ran the same defense,” Hennick said. “We just told our kids, ‘You can’t make any mistakes against them, because they are so consistent in what they do.’”
Inman won at Oakley, 39-13, in Week 4. This week, the coaching staff honed on Inman’s finer points. They noticed where the tight end was at all times, saw the Teutons loved running to the strong side and watched that Inman motioned a back anytime they were in an empty set.
“The Inman game, Homecoming, we had the worst game we’ve ever played of this year,” senior 231-pound left guard Jensen Schoenfeld said. “We just had to put our helmets down and get to work in practice. We made a promise to coach that we’d make it, we’d get better and here we are now.”
This time, Abell, just shy of 2,000 rushing yards, tallied 24 carries for 111 yards in the Plainsmen’s heavy ball-control offense.
Oakley senior quarterback Eric Cain often stood at the line of scrimmage and milked the play clock to the final few seconds. The Plainsmen ran 16 more plays than Inman. Senior fullback Hunter Scheck tallied 20 carries for 84 yards, 75 in the second half. Scheck carried twice for 16 yards in the first Inman game.
“He has talked about the narrow road ever since he’s been here,” Abell said. “There are two roads. The wide road, the wide, easy path that lots of people travel, and the narrow hard path that it’s really hard, it’s difficult, but it’s the right path. And that’s the path that we need to go on, and that’s the path that will get you where you want to go.”
Sophomore Will Schmidt kicked a 23-yard field goal, his second of the season, in the first quarter. Defensively, Oakley played a three-man front in the Inman loss and switched to a four-man Friday.
“Their defense shot hard,” Inman coach Lance Sawyer said. “Their linebackers played physical. We weren’t able to get our line to the second level. I thought their d-line played pretty well. So it was pretty cool to play in a game like this. I think we might have came out a little tight.”
Junior Christian Koch switched from linebacker to line, and Scheck moved from line to linebacker. Oakley picked off three passes, one from Schmidt and two by senior Eric Cain. Inman senior Jace Doerksen, Inman’s record holder for single season passing yards, finished 4 of 11 for 32 yards.
“Us seniors and our team leaders, we decided, ‘Hey, you know what, we are going to come in here and we are going to shock the world,’” Scheck said. “And that’s what we have done this season – and we are going to continue.”
Early in the second half, Inman senior Derick Johnson was behind the defense for a touchdown catch, but the ball tipped off his fingers. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Inman missed wide on a 33-yard field goal.
“That’s how close we are,” Sawyer said.
Then, Oakley went on a 16-play drive that yielded a two-yard scoring run from Scheck with 2:13 left. The 215-pound Scheck continually ran dive play straight up the middle behind senior center John Stoecker. The offensive line kept telling Oakley assistant Drew Siruta “run it again, run it again, run it again” on the sideline. Scheck wanted the ball for the score.
“We told the front line, ‘you get this, it’s game over,’” Hennick said.
In the last 16 months, Scheck has added around 45 pounds. The line also featured Schoenfeld, junior left tackle Jonathan Temaat, senior right tackle Eric Annis and Koch at right guard. Scheck credited all five players; Hennick coaches the offensive line. Inman kept switching fronts.
“Just run downhill,” Scheck said. “Get as many yards as I can, run over anybody. That’s the goal. All power, it’s all power. I eat a lot of food. I lift a lot of weights.”
Inman’s final possession ended when Cain picked off Doerksen at the Oakley 4-yard line inside the final minute. Abell was part of the on-field celebration. He hugged Cain and laid on the ground for five seconds.
“We are going to state, and we made history again,” Abell said. “And I just couldn’t be more proud of this team and my coaches and all the community that’s been behind us since freshman year.”
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