Playoff football is well under way for Kansas high schools, which has forced the cream to rise to the top.
That’s the theory anyway, but most seasons, the upper-echelon teams — the absolute, no-doubt-about-it state-championship contenders — are established well before the playoffs commence.
That hasn’t been the case this season.
There isn’t a dominant team in eastern Kansas.
There are teams with glossy records — St. Thomas Aquinas, Lawrence Free State and Shawnee Mission West are all 9-1 — while Blue Valley West and Lawrence bring 8-2 records into tonight’s quarterfinals. But, again, it’s hard to peg any team as a dominant squad.
The way SM West is playing — crushing souls with a ball-control run game powered by senior Brett Sterbach — and bottling up all-comers defensively, the Vikings just might have a claim.
Of course, SM West lost to Free State, which has a similarly strong defense but also features a more balanced offense.
Meanwhile, in the 5A ranks, Aquinas has consistently found a way to win, but five of its games so far have been decided by five points or less — hardly a hallmark of a team set to bulldoze its way to the state title.
It’s a strange dynamic for the state semifinals.
“We feel like we’re playing pretty well right now,” SM West coach Tim Callaghan said. “I’m sure everybody does. Everybody’s excited, but everybody’s scared at the same time.”
Count BV West coach Scott Wright among that crowd.
“We haven’t gone into a game yet this year where we didn’t think we could get beat,” he said. “It’s just been that kind of year in the (East Kansas League). Every team is so close and on any given night anybody can win.”
With that in mind, it might be lesser known players tonight who change the course of a game. Each team has players capable of taking over — or at least turning the tide. So let’s take a look at some of those potential headline makers tonight.
Kansas 6A playoffs
OLATHE EAST (6-4) at LAWRENCE FREE STATE (9-1)
East player to watch: Ryan Ahlgren
Ahlgren, a senior defensive lineman, has turned in a solid season with 35 tackles, including seven for a loss and a team-high three sacks, but also serves as kicker and, in what will probably be a close game, he could be a difference-maker on kickoffs, field goals and extra points.
Free State player to watch: Corbin Schmidt
Quarterback Kyle McFarland has to play well, and another big game from running back T.J. Cobbs wouldn’t hurt Free State’s cause, but this game is going to be a defensive battle. More often than not, the task of meeting Olathe East running back Hayden Frazier in the hole is likely to fall on Schmidt’s shoulders.
SM WEST (9-1) at LAWRENCE (8-2)
West player to watch: Lee Spight
Containing Lawrence quarterback Brad Strauss will be key. SM West’s defense has been dynamite this season, but Strauss is the most electrifying playmaker it will have faced (especially with no rain in the forecast). That puts pressure on Spight as well as Max Bullard to be smart getting after the quarterback.
Lawrence player to watch: Kharon Brown
It would be easy to say Strauss, but the truth of the matter is that Lawrence’s defense has to stop the run to give them any chance of advancing. That means Brown, who is by far the beefiest player on the defensive line, has to match SM West physically at the point of attack.
Kansas 5A playoffs
ST. THOMAS AQINAS (9-1) at BLUE VALLEY (6-4)
Aquinas player to watch: Hunter Swanson
Turnovers can turns games on their head and Swanson leads Aquinas with four interceptions. He’s had some timely ones, too, so it wouldn’t hurt if he found that magic again. If not Swanson, then Nick Williams, who has three picks, or the combo of Cole Pickert and Joe Maxwell, who’ve forced five combined fumbles.
Blue Valley player to watch: Logan Brettell
Early in the season, a few hiccups from Brettell were acceptable and even expected in his first season as Blue Valley’s starting quarterback. Now, of course, he’s played 10 games, and the playoffs are no time for training wheels. Brettell, who has accounted for 1,700 yards, must protect the football and makes plays.
BV WEST (8-2) at BISHOP MIEGE (5-5)
West player to watch: Cale McMakin
Defensively, all McMakin does is make plays — 73 tackles, six for a loss, five tipped passes, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries, a sack and a forced fumble. Offensively, all he does is make important plays with three touchdowns among nine receptions.
Miege player to watch: McKinley Johnson
For Miege, there’s no doubt that it’s Montell Cozart’s show on offense and Brad Ivey’s on defense, but Johnson has the potential to break the game open. He’s Cozart’s favorite target — 69 catches for 830 yards and four scores — but also averages 31.3 yards per kickoff return, including one for a touchdown.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to <a href="mailto:email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a>. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.