NATOMA, Kan. - In 2018, Bird City-Cheylin finished 4-3. The Cougars averaged 60 points a game and allowed 55. Cheylin twice permitted 92 points and gave up 118 to Pawnee Heights in the six-man playoffs. The Cougars would spend one day of practice apiece on offense, defense and special teams. Thursdays served as a pregame walk through.
This year, Chris Walden was the only returning Cougar coach. He added assistants Mike McCarty and Nick Ketzner. Walden told them not to worry about the offense.
“Get a defense out on the field that can shut people out,” Walden said.
Cheylin has opened 6-0 and delivered a significant defensive improvement. Entering Friday’s road game versus Natoma, the Cougars, paced by standout junior quarterback Colton McCarty, delivered 59 points a game. Cheylin had allowed just 15.5 points a contest. All of the current Cougars on the roster are non-seniors.
Cheylin built a 33-6 lead against the Tigers with 27.1 seconds left in the first half. The contest went into a lightning delay at 7:10 p.m. The game had significant ramifications for the six-man playoff race. Natoma is 4-2 overall but both squads are 3-0 in the North.
“We feel like our defense is carrying us more than our offense is tonight,” Walden said.
Shortly after 9 p.m., the teams elected to postpone the contest to Saturday. Start time is 5 p.m. at Rexford-Golden Plains, a neutral six-man site. The teams will complete the final seconds of the first half, not have an intermission and play the second half.
Walden was in communication with Golden Plains coach Travis Smith, a good friend, during the delay. Cheylin didn’t want to drive back to Natoma, a stretch of 348 round trip miles. Natoma wanted to make sure they finished the game.
“It was just kind of a scheduling nightmare, but we wanted to just try to make it work,” Natoma coach Cody Dunlap said.
From the first day of practice, Cheylin has significantly focused on defense more than ’18. Walden said the Cougars are confident they can score a touchdown if they have “two good plays” on a drive.
The Cougars devote two practice days to defense and work on tackling, pass coverage, stripping the ball and have players in the right spots.
“We do a lot on defense everyday in practice,” junior Andrew Schields said. “We go over schemes. We go over everything coach talks about. We work hard, and we praise defense. Great defense leads to easy offense.”
Cheylin has forced 18 turnovers, already seven more than ’18. Walden gave great credit to his assistant coaches.
“We feel like the kids probably know almost what the other team is doing before they come line up to the ball,” Walden said. “Which is putting us in really, really good position to hold people to minimal points.”
In the first six games, McCarty had 1,349 rushing and 636 passing yards with 33 touchdowns accounted for. Two weeks ago against Greeley County, he hurt his AC joint in his shoulder.
McCarty is limited running, especially to the left side, and delivered eight carries for 41 yards. However, McCarty’s arm and Cheylin’s supporting cast helped the Cougars lead 19-0 after the first quarter.
On the game’s opening possession, Cheylin called a “16 sweep pass,” and McCarty converted a 4th-and-13 on a 39-yard pass to junior Tyler Sabatka. McCarty said the Cougars had practiced the play “a lot” during the week.
“Everybody keys on Colton McCarty, because he is kind of the focal point of our offense,” Walden said. “But we knew everyone would suck up on him, and we could kind of rock them to sleep with Colton, and he could throw one over the top, and it worked out kind of exactly how we wanted it to.”
Later in the drive, McCarty found Schields for a 5-yard touchdown pass on fourth down.
“They have a lot of confidence,” Dunlap said of the Cougars. “Tonight especially, their confidence was just overflowing. Good pursuit angles, they tackle well. First guy hangs on. They don’t miss a lot of tackles, and they are hard to run around.”
Natoma drove down to the Cougar 20-yard line before a turnover on downs. Five plays later, the powerful 195-pound Schields had a 26-yard touchdown run for a 13-0 advantage. Schields watches a lot of college football and enjoys watching Jacksonville Jaguars’ running back Leonard Fournette.
“I like to run hard every play,” Schields said. “Give it my all. Can never take a play off as coach says.”
Later in the quarter, Sabatka again worked behind the defense for a 35-yard touchdown pass from McCarty.
“Our motto is pretty much if we can play defense, it just scares other teams, because our offense, teams know we are going to score on offense,” McCarty said.
Natoma fumbled at the Cougar nine-yard line. Then, Cheylin then faced a 4th-and-10 from its own 15.
Again McCarty went deep to Sabatka, who hauled in a catch-and-run 65-yard touchdown pass. The conversion gave Cheylin a 26-0 advantage.
“It could be vastly different,” Dunlap said. “We just didn’t put all the pieces together.”
Sabatka has served as a big play threat throughout the fall. Before Friday, he delivered nine catches for 234 yards and three scores.
“Pretty much the same concept,” Walden said. “We wanted everybody to key up on Colton, and kind of him bring all the attention to him. He has got a good enough arm. … Tyler has got good speed.”
Natoma moved to the Cheylin 5-yard line but Schields has a key pass breakup. He also had a batted pass earlier in the contest. Schields collected a 40-yard touchdown run for a 33-0 lead.
Natoma scored just before the end of the first half on a 15-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Tracen Fryce to junior Jayce Dickerson.
Overall, Natoma had 25 plays for 142 yards, and Cheylin had 27 plays for 303 yards. McCarty had completed five of eight passes for 159 yards and three scores.
“Colton gets a lot of love from all the media outlets, and then it’s well deserved,” Walden said. “But I think what makes us dangerous is you can take him away, and we can still beat you with the other guys that we have got. Andrew, he is a big, strong, physical kid.”