Kanak, Hays High defense lead way in season-opening win
HAYS, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Hays High senior Jaren Kanak, the state’s top recruit and a Clemson commit, had started just one game at quarterback in his career before 2021. In mid-summer, senior Dylan Dreiling, the Indians’ veteran signal caller, had tilted toward not playing football. Dreiling is a Tennessee baseball commit and possible professional draft pick.
Dreiling made his decision official Aug. 16, the season’s first day of practice. Kanak, formerly an all-purpose player in previous years, switched to quarterback and primarily a running threat. Kanak was going to play in spot situations at receiver, running back, defense and returner.
The preparation time further compressed when six offensive starters, including Kanak, were sick Monday and Tuesday. HHS missed starting running back Roy Moroni on Friday.
Still, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Kanak showcased his elite talent and character in a complete 35-6 season-opening home victory against Wichita East at Lewis Field Stadium.
“Dylan has always been a dude for us,” HHS head coach Tony Crough said. “And he has earned the right to kind of tell us what’s going on and when, and what he wants to do. And so we just told Jaren that ‘Hey, if Dylan doesn’t play, we think we are going to throw you back there.’”
HHS’ defense allowed zero points until the game was out of reach late in the third quarter. Wichita East was ranked sixth in Class 6A after the Blue Aces led its classification in scoring defense last season, though committed 21 penalties and burned through timeouts early in both halves.
Kanak, who has run 10.37 seconds in the 100 dash, is projected as a college linebacker.
“I am always going to do what is best for the team,” Kanak said. “I am still in high school, and obviously I am going to play linebacker at the next level. But I am not at the next level yet. I am right here in high school. I am going to do what’s best for the high school team, put us in the best position for success.”
He rushed for 246 yards. He scored on touchdown runs of 58, 17 and 54 yards.
“Due to some illness we had going on, so it was kind of a bit of a struggle there,” Kanak said. “Just that mental toughness and telling yourself you are not tired even when you are probably the most tired you have been all week. But you’ve just got to do what’s best for the team. I am the quarterback, so I have got to toughen it and run the plays.”
He passed for 162 and delivered 76 on punt returns. He accounted for an astronomical 484 yards for an Indian squad ranked sixth in 5A. Kanak had spot time on defense, too.
“He singlehandedly I thought offensively won the game,” East coach Ene Akpan said.
It marked the first-ever meeting between the programs. East fell to 1-8 since 2014 on road trips longer than 30 miles.
“We are a young team and that showed tonight,” Akpan said. “Lack of leadership from our seniors, that’s what I’ve seen tonight. (Kanak’s) speed, a kid that fast, you can’t make mistakes or you are going to pay for it. His speed, you are not lined up correctly, you are going to pay for it.”
Plus, Kanak showed his great character with his teammate, senior wide receiver Jordan Dale, the reigning Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, on Hays High’s last touchdown. Dale often played quarterback in 2020 and moved to receiver this fall.
“Talked to Jordan about it, too, and Jordan was cool with it,” Crough said.
Kanak scored from 58 yards out on the game’s third play. HHS led 7-0 at halftime.
“My line was doing a great job up front and getting all their blocks, and setting it up,” Kanak said. “Me and the running back both could have scored on that play, so I am going to give them the credit. They missed a couple key tackles, and I think that started off the game great.”
After sophomore running back Malik Bah scored once from 12 yards out, and Kanak tallied runs of 17 and 54 yards, HHS led 28-0 late in the third quarter when it made a goal line stand on East.
Hays High took over at its own two-yard line. When Kanak was a freshman, he caught a 97-yard touchdown pass, the longest play in Crough’s four years. Kanak remembered the play.
“That’s his character,” Crough said. “Jaren is such a high character, high class kid.”
He asked the coaches to throw deep to Dale.
“It was a cool thing to hear,” Crough said. “He is just so mature beyond his years. He is a pro. The kid handles everything like a professional, and when you get a professional linebacker and you put him at quarterback, that’s what they look like. And so that’s pretty fun to watch.”
Kanak hit Dale perfectly, and Dale raced in for 98 yards.
“I was super excited for him,” Kanak added. “And I couldn’t be more happy for Jordan. I am not exactly a quarterback, so putting that ball right there was really exciting for both me and Jordan.”
The touchdown punctuated an impressive day on both sides for HHS. Postgame, the players went to the locker room just before the coaches. Crough met briefly with the coaches outside the locker room door and held up a game ball. He wanted to give the game ball to the entire defense.
“They can share it,” Crough said.
During the week, Hays High had to piece together an offense with the starters out. Dale played a lot of quarterback, along with junior Kyreese Groen, the JV signal caller.
“We were just trying to figure out what we were going to do if Jaren couldn’t play,” Crough said.
Crough said offensive coordinator Cole Cherryholmes and the offensive staff “did a great job” with “putting the pieces together.” The Indians lacked depth, and Bah was among those who cramped on a humid night. Steady rain fell once the game ended.
“It was weird,” Crough said. “It showed a little bit tonight with cramps and different things as we wore down, but when you have (Kanak) back there, good things can happen.”
Wichita East returned sophomore quarterback Daeonte Mitchell and speedy senior receiver Caqouy Patterson. Mitchell finished 16 of 25 for 171 yards. Patterson cleared 100 receiving yards, though had a touchdown called back because of a taunting penalty.
“We get rid of the penalties, and we tighten up offensively, we will be a great team,” Akpan said.
Hays High graduated defensive end Gaven Haselhorst, a Kansas State signee, Shrine Bowler and state leader in tackles for loss.
HHS has big performances from senior linebackers Gavin Meyers and Dalton Dale, senior defensive lineman Gavin Nutting and junior defensive lineman Carson Spray, all key returners. Meyers has Power 5 offers and should become the Indians’ all-time tackler this fall. All four tallied at least one TFL. Meyers and Dale both recovered fumbles. Nutting had a big play at the Indian 4-yard line.
“That play was just one of those moments where the defense had to make a big move,” Nutting said of his red zone TFL. “We had to make a stop, so we could get our offense back out there and keep the thunder rolling with them.”
Under coordinator Layton Hickel, Hays High nearly halved its scoring defense from ‘19 to ‘20 and jumped to fourth in 5A defense last fall. The Indians believe this year’s defense could be a top-five unit again.
“Definitely our coverage, our coverage is a lot better than it was last year,” Meyers said. “This first game showed it. … The whole game we were shutting them down in the box.”
As well, junior defensive back Remy Stull, junior Grayson Walburn and senior defensive lineman Iden Baalman enjoyed breakout performances.
“Their work ethic,” Meyers said. “They love football, and when you love football, you love to play hard, and I think that’s what Remy has – and I think that’s what everyone else on our defense has.”
Stull, hurt nearly all of last year, picked off a pass, forced a fumble and recorded a TFL. Baalman, formerly a JV player, recorded 3.5 tackles for loss.
“Hays, that’s the best team that we are going to see from a physical standpoint, and I think that’s the best player we are going to see in Kanak,” Akpan said. “Size, speed. He’s a great player.”
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