Little River outlasts Wichita County in record-breaking offensive game

Published: Nov. 28, 2020 at 10:17 PM CST
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NEWTON, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Last March, Little River’s Jayden Garrison led the Redskins to the boys’ basketball state tournament for the first time in 20 seasons. Garrison earned Class 1A Player of the Year. LR advanced to the state final four and was set to play St. John in the likely de facto championship game.

However, the night before the contest, the state tournament was cancelled because of the growing coronavirus concern. Garrison, like so many other top basketball players, never had a chance to complete a season.

This fall, Garrison and senior Graham Stephens led Little River to its first football state championship in 19 years. On Saturday, the duo delivered superlative efforts and paced LR to a long-awaited crown. In the highest scoring eight-man state game in Kansas history, Little River beat Leoti-Wichita County, 70-58, at Newton’s Fischer Field.

“We were definitely hungry,” Garrison said. “We definitely wanted one. Felt like we got one taken away from us, but great team effort tonight and came out on top.”

Little River finished 11-2 and defeated three higher-ranked teams in the playoffs. LR had won five previous titles, the last coming in ’99. Wichita County, in the finals for the first time, completed a 12-1 season. WC had won 11 straight by the 45-point margin.

Little River Coach Kevin Ayers moved to 178-43 in his career and 4-1 in state championship games. He won a pair of titles with Jetmore and one at Wallace County. Ayers and Tom Young are the only coaches in state annals to win championships at three separate schools. Ayers showed emotions when he talked to his team postgame. Ayers said his ’20 title was unique because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We as humans now don’t take anything for granted,” Ayers said. “There has been so many things that has happened that you thought would never happen. ‘They will never stop state basketball,’ and it happened, and so our kids realized that. It’s made us so much more thankful just for the process and getting to play another game.”

In Little River’s read option offense, Garrison finished with 31 carries for 236 yards and four rushing touchdowns. He completed 4 of 4 passes for 70 yards and a TD. He also hauled in three catches for 53 yards and a score. Another grab was a crucial 29-yard reception on 4th-and-22 late in the first half to set up a touchdown.

“They just stuck to their game plan,” third-year Leoti coach Brant Douglas said. “They were running the ball, and then they hit us deep. We started to stuff the run a little bit, but not enough.”

Stephens delivered 258 yards of total offense and five touchdowns accounted for. He had just one kickoff returned and delivered a huge successful onside kick late in the first half.  Last fall, Stephens, suffered injury in the postseason and couldn’t play in a 74-38 quarterfinal loss to Wichita County.

“Felt good to get back out here in the state championship game and play them,” Stephens said. “And get some revenge on them for last year.”

Garrison credited LR’s improved offensive line, along with the “mini Hogs,” the group of receivers and ends blocking on the outside. Junior center Kaden Schafer has especially improved.

“Great team effort,” Garrison said. “Not just two guys, this is a whole team effort and winning a state championship takes everybody.”

Leoti, known for its senior-laden depth, had huge performances from its top-two players: quarterback Kayde Rietzke and end Manny Chavez. Rietzke accounted for 217 passing, 189 rushing and six TDs. Chavez finished with four tackles for loss, along with four catches for 64 yards and a score.

Garrison and Stephens have both played quarterback the last two falls for Ayers, in his second season at his wife’s alma mater. Ayers had never ran dual signal callers before last fall. Ayers asked Garrison, formerly a cross country runner, to come play football in ’19. Garrison earned first team all-state honors in ’19 as LR finished 9-2.

“Coach Ayers kind of came into the program,” Garrison said. “And knew we had had something special, and figured I can help out a little bit on the team, so I decided to come out. I decided to have fun with these boys and…sure glad I did.”

Entering Saturday, Garrison had recorded 2,194 all-purpose yards, along with 657 passing. Stephens had delivered 903 total yards and 398 passing. He also paced in tackles, tackles for loss and had 53 touchbacks as the kicker.

“Graham Stephens is a great player,” Garrison said. “Does a lot of things well for us. Obviously missed him last year when he went out with an injury, and we kind of felt like we had an edge in this game, even though people were doubting us – which people were doubting us all season.”

On the game’s first play, Chavez delivered a tackle for loss on Stephens. Then, Garrison raced for a 43-yard score, which set off a flurry of big plays and touchdowns. LR never trailed and led 28-22 after the first quarter and 54-30 at halftime.

“They just played an almost perfect game offensively,” Douglas said.

Leoti closed to 34-30 with 8:12 left in the first half. However, Stephens then scored on a 17-yard run. Little River elected to try the onside kick for the first time under Ayers. LR recovered, and quickly faced a 4th-and-22 at the WC 35-yard line. However, Garrison had 1-on-1 coverage on standout Leoti senior Sheldon Whalen and hauled in the pass.

Stephens tacked on a six-yard run on the next play for a 46-30 advantage. After a punt, LR scored with one second left in the first half on an eight-yard TD to sophomore Braden Young. He entered the contest with three catches this season. WC closed to within 54-44 in the third quarter, but Garrison caught a scoring pass and rushed for a TD.

“Emotional highs and lows,” Ayers said. “I mean, just so much scoring. And I kind of thought it might be that way. Their offense is so talented, and I thought that we maybe have a shot at scoring some points, too. And then when it got going, your neck got tired of watching people score. But our kids did just enough, and it took some breaks. You have got to have some luck to win games like these, and we did.”

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