CIK Season Preview: Class 4A EKL schools look to remain dominant in 2023

McPherson Bullpup #3 Javyn Alexander tries to tackle Buhler Crusader #8 Jeffrey Neill.  The...
McPherson Bullpup #3 Javyn Alexander tries to tackle Buhler Crusader #8 Jeffrey Neill. The McPherson Bullpups defeated the Buhler Crusaders 49-6 in a Class 4A football game held at Crusader Stadium in Buhler, Kansas on October 21, 2022. (Photo: Joey Bahr, Bahr | (Photo: Joey Bahr, www.joeybahr.)
Published: Aug. 28, 2023 at 2:27 PM CDT
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Private schools have dominated the Class 4A football landscape since 2014. Adding former Class 5A powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas to the mix last year did little to help public schools. Bishop Miege downed Aquinas in the state semifinals to get back atop the classification after winning six straight titles between 2014 and 2019. Two-time defending champion St. James Academy was knocked out of the playoffs with a quarterfinal loss to Aquinas.

Miege returns 14 players from last year’s title team but graduates standout quarterback Mac Armstrong, who threw for 2,600 yards as a junior and upped that to nearly 3,900 yards with 39 touchdowns and four picks as a senior. Also gone is running back DeAndre  Beasley who doubled as an all-state defensive back.

Marco Rodriguez likely moves to quarterback with all-state seniors Jeremy Schleicher and Baker North in front of him on the line. Junior Teryn Jackson returns at wideout after pulling in 54 receptions for 874 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Senior David Garcia returns to the backfield after rushing for nearly 800 yards.

Aquinas finished at 9-3 in its first season in Class 4A. Gone is Sean Carroll, who paced the offense with more than 1,600 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns last year. Quarterback Mac Bishop also graduated. The Saints do return senior Gianni Rizzi, who rushed for more than 800 yards and four scores. The Saints defense allowed two or fewer touchdowns in seven of 12 games last year. That side will feature several returners this year, including all-state seniors Kian Payne on the line and Wyatt Potter at linebacker.

St. James opened last year at 0-3 before finishing up at 6-5. Blake Boydston graduates after throwing for more than 2,200 yards with 29 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also led the Thunder ground attack with 673 rushing yards. Senior Ben Wheeler is expected to return to quarterback after missing last year due to injury. Junior John Tujague added nearly 400 yards on the ground. Three Thunder wideouts who accounted for more than 2,200 receiving yards have all graduated.

Wamego is the other team that played in last year’s state title game. The Red Raiders dominated their way to a 12-0 record before a 35-14 loss to Miege in the championship. Wamego held 10 of its 13 opponents to one touchdown or fewer. The offense was hit particularly hard by graduation but senior Thomas McIntyre returns after piling up 850 rushing yards last fall. Senior linebacker Gannon Couture earned all-state honors last year and will lead a talented defense.

McPherson also made the state semifinals before a loss to Wamego. The Bullpups finished at 9-2 but lose a lot of offensive firepower to graduation. Hunter Alvord threw for 1,500 yards and rushed for 800 more before his graduation in May, and Dawson Gottwald and Jaytin Gumm combined for 1,400 more rushing yards. McPherson loses its top receiver in Tucker Pelnar but do return seniors Blaise Hoover and Gunner Schumacher, who combined for 500 receiving yards.

Seniors Teegan Haines and Javyn Alexander return as part of a talented linebacker duo. Haines recorded 112 tackles last fall to earn all-state honors. The Bullpups picked off 15 passes last season though most of that secondary has graduated.

After three straight two-loss seasons, Andover Central won when it mattered to reach the state quarterfinals and finish the year at 7-4. Like the other top 4A finishers, the Jaguar offense was hit hard by graduation. Braden Barscewski had nearly 2,000 yards of total offense, mostly in the air. Jace Rees accounted for more than half the team’s rushing yards. The top three Jaguar receivers all graduate after combining for 1,400 yards. Success in 2023 may well rely on a group of returning linemen.

Towanda’s Circle continued to be a good story in 2022. After years of struggle, the Thunderbirds finished at  6-4 in 2021 and climbed to 8-3 last year, including a pair of playoff wins. Quarterback Cooper Chadwell was a big part of that turnaround, throwing for 2,162 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, and rushing for 475 more yards.

Chadwell will be missed in 2023, but the T-Birds do return plenty of firepower. Senior Conner Chadwell saw limited time under center. Junior Westin Rose rushed for nearly 900 yards last fall, and senior Cannon McCormack added nearly 600 more yards on the ground. Ty Smith was a giant threat at wideout with more than 1,100 receiving yards last year. He graduates but senior Cole Glaves was another big-play threat with 450 yards and four touchdowns on 23 receptions. Smith will also be missed defensively as an all-state defensive back, but McCormack, with 126 tackles, returns as an all-state linebacker. Glaves was also an effective defensive back with five interceptions in 2022.

Abilene went winless in its first season on new turf in 2021. The Cowboys ended a 25-game skid dating back to 2018 with a 14-7 win against Marysville to open the 2022 campaign. Abilene went on to finish at 4-5 overall with some tough losses to Circle and Wamego down the stretch.

The Cowboys can keep the momentum rolling in 2023. Senior Stocton Timbrook threw for more than 1,700 yards with 14 touchdowns last year. Senior Zach Miller rushed for nearly 500 yards, and senior Westin Rock pulled in 41 receptions for 506 yards and six scores. Defensively, Abilene allowed just 35 points in its four wins. Junior linebacker Landon Taplin returns at linebacker after recording 90 tackles last season.

Rose Hill opened with a brutal schedule in 2022 with losses to Collegiate, Andale, and Clearwater. The Rockets rebounded to finish at 4-6 with a playoff win over Abilene before ending the season against Wamego. New head coach Landon Wright brings some experience from Texas. Senior Connor Wallis and junior Colton Roberts return as two offensive leaders.

Wellington finished last year at 5-4. Unlike so many teams in the classification, the Crusaders get their quarterback back. Senior Kenny Redford threw for nearly 900 yards last year, and junior Skyler Branam was one of his favorite targets with 15 receptions for 265 yards. The bad news is some other top receivers have graduated, as did Malachi Rogers after accounting for 1,300 of the team’s 1,600 rushing yards.

Buhler finished at 4-5 last year, dipping below .500 for the first time in nearly two decades. Nine players are back on the defensive side, and senior Jeffery Neill returns at quarterback after throwing for nearly 1,300 yards and nine touchdowns.

Arkansas City will also have a new coach in Chet Pobolish. Last year, the Bulldogs had to rely on a freshman at quarterback. Jordey Pierce helped the team to a 3-7 record and returns after throwing for nearly 1,200 yards.