JETMORE, Kan. - St. Francis finished 11-1 last year and suffered its only loss to Claflin-Central Plains in a 42-point shutout in the Eight-Man, Division I state semifinals. CP went 13-0, captured the state title, and allowed just 34 points all fall. The Oilers had the fewest points by an eight-man defense in at least 15 seasons.
“Those guys were just bigger, stronger than us,” SF second-year coach Nick Fawcett said.
St. Francis returned the majority of its top players for 2019, including quarterback Brady Dinkel, running back Shadyron Blanka, and linemen Jesse Baxter, Adam Krien and Tyson Poling. The Central Plains loss fueled the Indians throughout the summer. St. Francis enjoyed massive weight room gains.
The differences have yielded an 11-0 start, including a 50-0 road win versus Jetmore-Hodgeman County in the Division I quarterfinals Friday night. The game was called at the 10 minute, 33 second mark of the third quarter because of the 45-point mercy rule. SF overwhelmed Hodgeman County with its physical play.
“We have a bad taste in our mouth, and we want to get rid of that taste, so keeps us pushing forward,” Fawcett said. “We talk about the game, the score, and we talk about we are the new Central Plains, and I kind of tell them if we were to play this year, it might be a one-score game either way.”
St. Francis has allowed just 42 points this fall, the best in eight-man football. SF has posted four consecutive shutouts and eight overall this year. Just two teams have posted an offensive touchdown. In '18, the Indians beat Hodgeman County, 30-20, in the quarterfinals.
“Last year was the same players that they had this year,” Hodgeman County coach Matt Housman said. “And they were tough last year, so they grew a lot.”
HC standout junior quarterback Isaac Salmans did not complete a pass, and had nine carries for 17 yards. HC senior running back Eli Salmans capped his career with 12 carries for 60 yards. He rushed for more than 5,300 yards in his career. HC finished 9-2 and suffered its first shutout since a 46-0 loss to rival Spearville in Week 8 of the '15 season.
Neitzel estimated he has “easily” gained more than 100 pounds in each of his core lifts in the last two years. Blanka had never done hang clean before Fawcett's era. He has gained 30 to 40 pounds in the discipline, easily more than 100 pounds in squat and bench.
“They were just a lot stronger than us,” Blanka said of CP. “We've just really been pushing. They were just a lot stronger than us.. ... We were all there all summer, everyday at 6, working as hard as we could in the weight room, so we could be as strong up front and in the backs as (the Oilers) were. And then it's just coming together as a team.”
Additionally, the Indians delivered another dominant performance with its single wing rushing attack. Entering the game, Dinkel, a four-year starter on defense and three seasons at quarterback, and Blanka had combined for 2,621 rushing yards and 45 scores. The duo and 125-pound junior running back Josiah Sims continued to break tackles and gain yards after contact. SF led 16-0 after the first quarter and 44-0 at halftime.
“Our effort was flawless,” Fawcett said. “We came out, we played as hard as could be, as we ever have, and we executed, so you can't ask for much more than that.”
Dinkel finished with 12 carries for 111 yards and three scores. Blanka delivered 18 carries for 173 yards and four touchdowns. He also forced a key fumble at the St. Francis 1-yard line on HC's first drive and picked off a pass. SF's line features the 230-pound Neitzel at center, along with the 205-pound Baxter and junior 180-pounder Tyson Poling at guard. Senior Jayce Nider plays end.
“When you have got guys like Neitzel and Jesse Baxter, I think they are the two-best linemen in the state,” Fawcett said. “So that's a matchup that we like to take advantage of as much as possible.”
St. Francis opened the game with a 42-yard scoring drive. The Indians had nine runs, including a nine-yard run down the right side by Dinkel on 4th-and-7. He finished with a 15-yard score, and SF converted the two-point play for an 8-0 lead with 8 minutes, 45 seconds left in the first quarter.
St. Francis often enjoyed massive holes, a credit to longtime Indian coach Scott “Hoagie” Carmichael. He has served on staff since 1982. He was head coach for 10 years and been an assistant ever since.
“I told the coaches at the start of the year, I was like, 'Man, it is just so much easier Year 2,'” Fawcett said. “We didn't have to teach anything. We hit the ground running, and now we can just work on perfecting.”
SF's linemen pushes the blocking sled everyday, work that Neitzel said “helps us.” Normally, the Indians push the sled 15 yards at a time and rotate every three or four minutes.
“It's really nice, because overall, we have a good coach in Hoagie,” Neitzel said. “And it's really fun in practice, and we overall get stuff done. We execute really well.”
Hodgeman County had its best scoring opportunity on its first possession. Isaac Salmans overthrew two open wide receivers that would have resulted in touchdowns. His rushing ability eventually gave the Longhorns third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. St. Francis called for a blitz, and HC pitched it to the right to sophomore Drew Dansel. Blanka read the play perfectly and forced the fumble, which junior Kobe Tice recovered.
“Just watching the guards really,” Blanka said. “Most teams, the guards, they are just playing. These guards you can read really well, and they were opening up the holes good, and I could see it from where I was. And just reading the backers like we worked on everyday at practice.”
SF then went 77 yards for the score, and Dinkel capped off the drive with a five-yard run where he kept churning his feet en route to the end zone. Two plays later, Blanka recovered a fumble after a big hit from Neitzel. Blanka then scored from 18 yards out for a 24-0 advantage 38 seconds into the second quarter. Blanka then tacked on a 50-yard scoring run where he stiff armed the 215-pound Isaac Salmans.
SF led 30-0 with 3:23 remaining in the first half. Blanka had a seven-yard score, and Dinkel tallied a 25-yard touchdown run. SF nearly reached the 45-point rule in the first half, but narrowly missed a two-point conversion with 22.3 seconds to go before intermission.
St. Francis has never won a state football title and was runner-up once, in '16. This marks the eighth semifinal showing in Indian annals.
“It's kind of been a process for him,” Fawcett said of Blanka. “When he was in middle school, he was a quarterback, and they would get the ball to him, and he would run left, right, left, right until he found an opening. So we have been preaching to him all season, one cut and head north and south. He started off the year a little bit slow, but last week (versus Hill City) he had a coming out party. That was just a sign of things to come.”