Spend time with the Chieftains as they prepare for some football
Editor's note:Tonganoxie football coach Mark Elston agreed to allow Shawn Linenberger of The Mirror staff to spend a week with the Chieftain football team. This is Linenberger's report.
When the alarm clock reads "8:00" on Saturday mornings, Tonganoxie football players aren't lounging in bed.
Instead, they're watching film of the previous night's game in the THS locker room.
Some players sit in folding chairs, others get comfortable on the cold concrete floor. And a few even bring blankets and their own folding lawn chairs.
"Try not to tackle with your heads, but with your eyes," coach Mark Elston tells players while watching tape of the game against Mill Valley, which the Chieftains won, 20-10.
During the film session, coaches watch each play again and again.
"Luke, that's a good job of stuffing it up there," said assistant coach Matt Bond, referring to a defensive play by Luke McCarty.
"Rosco, stay on your feet," Elston told Ross Starcher after watching another play.
And players provide their own commentary. Matt Weyer reminds Billy Baska of when Weyer made a great play. Baska returns the favor with extra emphasis when he saw one of his better plays.
On one occasion, Alan Bauerly is commended for a pancake block on offense, which means the lineman drove his defender down and pushed him on his back.
Baska, meanwhile, wants his teammates to know he also accomplished the block as a running back. "Did you see that pancake?" Baska asks his skeptical teammates.
The Saturday morning routine takes some time for players to adjust to, said senior Justin Walker, a fourth-year player. But he'd rather get it out of the way early.
"Coach asked us what time we wanted to watch film and we chose early so we have all the day to recuperate," Walker said.
On Sunday, film-watching is reserved just for coaches who review the work. Up next is Friday's opponent: Piper.
The first practice of the new week is more of a classroom on the field than a live practice.
Players wear helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. A handful of players -- who didn't wear the required black shorts or their own practice jersey -- hit the ground for pushups before practice.
After stretching, the team reviews Piper's plays. They wrap up practice with a string of 40-yard sprints.
After practice, the team gets its first look at Piper with another film session in the locker room. Then Elston and his staff discuss the upcoming Piper game, along with the rest of the season.
"What we've done so far is great, but it doesn't mean squat," Elston told his players. "It's three one-week seasons.
"Everyone in the state of Kansas is 0-0."
District play begins Friday. Lansing, Basehor-Linwood and Piper play each other in the season's final three weeks and the top two advance to the playoffs.
After practice, Adam Alexander, Billy Baska and Justin Walker discuss the Monday routine.
"It's a light practice," Baska said. "It's not nearly as intense as the rest of the week."
The shoulder pads will be cracking much more on Tuesday and Wednesday. That means the players will be sweating more. For some players, washing practice clothes regularly isn't a priority.
Alexander, Baska and Walker agree that Nick Stein washes his garb the least. "When he opens his locker, you get a headache," Baska said with a chuckle.
It's the part of football that many say wins championships. You can have all the offense in the world, but if your team has no defense, you don't have a chance. The Chieftains have excelled at both offense and defense this season.
But on Tuesdays, the Tonganoxie team primarily focuses on defense. After practice, Elston says he thinks the troops turned in a decent day.
"We've got to kind of deprogram them a little bit and get adjusted to the new offense," he said.
Against Santa Fe Trail and Mill Valley the previous two weeks, Tonganoxie defended against wing-T offenses. Piper, meanwhile, spreads its offense out with a wider passing game.
Picking up on those defenses makes that side of the ball more difficult, according to junior Kaleb Lawrence.
"You have to think a lot more on defense I think," Lawrence said. "You have to read a lot more."
Nick Stein said players on defense need to get on and off the field as quickly as possible.
"We have to keep the offense on the field as much as possible," Stein said.
Defensive players can get intense. At Tonganoxie, it helps when coaches get fired up.
"Coach Mac is crazy on defense," said senior Matt Weyer, referring to assistant coach Greg McDonald.
McDonald also prepares the team physically for the next week with dummy-bag drills. Whether they're hopping over, around or between, the players get a workout. Weyer said that was one of the toughest drills.
"I've worked the guys pretty hard, that's for sure," McDonald said. "Especially the running backs. We've been beating them pretty hard with the bags."
McDonald coached at Hickman Mills in suburban Kansas City, Mo., for about 30 years before coming to Tonganoxie this year. Mark Elston's father, Don, added McDonald to his staff when he was the head coach at Hickman Mills.
"We didn't have as much parent involvement as we do here," McDonald said of Tonganoxie.
Kent Fleming is a regular on the Tonganoxie defensive line.
The sophomore claims people call him Warren Sapp Jr. after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' lineman, but some of Fleming's teammates were skeptical.
"That's kind of what I follow," Fleming said. "I buy all of his stuff. I like the quick hand movement he uses. Of course, I've got the shaved head like him."
During the week, THS players have to defend against a quick quarterback -- coach Elston. He said it helps the team adjust to game speed rather than have a freshman quarterback take snaps that might not all be successful.
It's an efficient system, but by the end of the week he's sore.
"I'm old," Elston said. "I turn 40 Saturday."
Elston throws passes throughout the week and then jumps around on the sidelines on Fridays.
He said he usually can't sleep at night after games.
On Sundays, he watches film all day, but he's not throwing a ball around or hopping up and down on the sidelines.
"I physically take it easy," he said.
Two groups make up the offense -- players who attract attention and a group that rarely is mentioned in newspapers.
Quarterbacks, running backs and receivers always find their ways into stories and television highlights. Linemen must do something spectacular to earn recognition.
Linemen can't advance a fumbled ball from a teammate and rarely are eligible for a pass.
Senior offensive lineman Alan Bauerly said his position is the most demanding and underrated. Fellow senior Shane Howard, a wide receiver, agreed the position was underrated.
On defense, players are in hot pursuit of the ball carrier. On offense, players usually are more reserved, especially on the line.
"On offense, you're more relaxed and have to be more patient," Bauerly said. "We're just supposed to grab the guy and drive him back."
Dustan Sprowls said that was his objective most of the time as well. "We block mainly the entire game," he said. "We go on a few pass patterns. Coach depends on us to block for the backs."
But no matter the position, Bauerly said Wednesday practices were the most physical.
"This is the try-to-kill-each-other practice," Bauerly said.
After all, Wednesday is the last day of full pads before game day.
Votes are in for Tonganoxie football's odd couple.
Nick Stein was nominated as the player with the messiest locker, while Shane Howard was named most organized by a few peers.
Stein has refused to wash his game day undershirt, while his game jersey stays in his locker from Friday night after the game until the next Thursday after practice.
Howard, meanwhile, washes all of his clothes weekly and has everything hanging in an orderly fashion.
For Stein, the laundry system has become a tradition, although he has lost two game undershirts that he suspects someone stole.
"Either that or the rats took it," he said.
Stein doesn't wash his clothes often because he thinks its good luck. Same goes for Howard in the organizational department.
"I have my routine and I have to hang everything up the same all week," he said.
The lineman chute also receives votes as a demanding drill. Linemen must go from a down football stance through the chute and avoid a horizontal bar that's positioned a few feet above the ground.
"He makes us run for five miles," Stein said. "It helps us but I hate it. That's one thing I won't miss."
But drills during the season don't compare to preseason two-a-days when, on one occasion each, players leap-frogged around the field and did the bear crawl the length of the field.
"The worse thing of our whole lives is the 100-yard bear crawls," Stein said.
Players wear helmets and shoulder pads, along with shorts, as they do on Mondays. But this practice is different -- temperatures drop and occasional cold rain falls.
After a final run-through of special teams and defense, the offense runs its usual plays up the field and back.
The practice hits occasional rough spots -- linemen move early at the line of scrimmage and backs fumble on successive plays -- but the team regroups.
Practices from Monday through Wednesdays usually run past 6 p.m., while Thursday practices finish earlier -- on the field. Players take a knee on the practice field as Elston gives instructions about Friday's game against Piper. When he finishes, players jog into the locker room where they watch Piper game film a final time. Then it's off to the high school cafeteria for their weekly meal. From sloppy Joes and pasta to hamburgers and hot dogs, parents have food ready to go when the players arrive. It doesn't last long.
It's showtime. The local Boy Scout troop is preparing burgers on its enormous grill. The Marching Chieftains soon will head toward Beatty Field for the pregame musical show. All the yard lines and 10-yard markers have been placed, along with pylons in the end zones.
Tonganoxie players arrive at 5 p.m.
With two hours still remaining before kick-off, players start to get dressed. Some players head to the field wearing an undershirt, football pants and cleats, while others hang out in the locker room.
As game time approaches, players listen to a CD that Baska, Howard and Walker compiled just for games.
The music includes rock songs, along with the "NFL on FOX" theme music and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" from the Supremes. Other music from the "Remember the Titans" soundtrack also is on the CD, along with Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger."
"It's a classic," said Howard. "You can't forget about that one."
As the team takes the field for its pregame routine, songs from the CD blare through the Beatty Field sound system.
Many players follow the same routine each game. No exceptions.
Baska drinks a fierce melon-flavored Gatorade with honey roasted peanuts.
Howard takes a 20-minute nap after school, then eats at Mr. Goodcents.
McCarty eats an orange before games.
Walker won't eat before games. But ever since he was a freshman, the quarterback has worn to games boxer briefs with "Chieftain Football" written on them.
Other players' routines start earlier. Senior running back Tim Hopkins, a Denver fan, watches Super Bowls 32 and 33 Thursdays, while Sprowls says a prayer.
"I pray to my mom to help us, to guide us and make sure we don't get hurt," Sprowls said.
Sprowls' mother died after a heart attack six years ago when she was 39.
"She's always there for me," the senior said. "I know she is. I can feel her. That's why I made the catch against Bonner because she was there."
Game time closes in and stomachs tighten. Baska usually throws up before games; Hopkins comes close.
McCarty doesn't get overly nervous on game days, but he reviews articles Elston has posted on the team's bulletin board.
"I read the stuff coach puts up there that talks about the other teams and makes us look bad," McCarty said.
After pregame warm-ups, players return to the locker room, except for 13 seniors, who are introduced with their parents during Senior Night.
Elston gives final instructions.
The Chieftains are a horde of eager players. A cleat rapidly meets the concrete floor again and again for one player, while another's eyes are tightly shut as his teeth clench.
Elston's voice slowly gets louder before his team erupts into loud cheers. Players follow him through the double-doors -- each tapping the message on the wall above the exit: "Play Like A Champion Today."
Team representatives meet at midfield for the coin toss. With four seniors at midfield hand-in-hand, the remaining nine stand behind them, also hand-in-hand. Always the superstitious bunch: Everyone stands in the same position for every game.
Tonganoxie goes three and out on its first possession, then faces first and 15 from its own 10 after a false start penalty. Hopkins scrambles 20 yards to the THS 30 before Baska cuts through the secondary for a 70-yard gain. With 6:36 left in the first quarter, the Chieftains suddenly hold a 7-0 lead.
Just two series later, THS scores another touchdown on a Baska 25-yard run. The drive lasts 12 plays and 8:35 remains in the half.
Piper scores on its next possession in seven plays. Starcher blocks the extra point.
After the teams exchange turnovers, Tonganoxie faces a slim fourth and one on its own 25. THS punts, but a bad snap, the second of the night, flies over Starcher's head and into the end zone. Piper registers a safety and the Chieftains cling to a 14-8 lead at half.
With 53.7 seconds left in the game, the Pirates put together a strange drive. Starting at its own 37, Piper reaches the Tonganoxie 35 when a Piper ball carrier appears to be out of bounds. The officials, though, make no definite signal to stop the clock. Time then expires, but the referees call for a last untimed down because the player went out of bounds.
A Chieftain defender swats away a throw to the end zone from quarterback Scott Lipovac.
Fireworks erupt above Chieftain Park.
But THS is called for a roughing the passer penalty. Piper has another untimed down, but scores on this possession. The potential game-winning extra point is no good. Overtime.
Tonganoxie has the first chance in overtime, but after a penalty and an interception, Piper got a chance. On fourth and nine, the Pirates kick a 23-yard field goal.
"You can't expect to win when you fumble as much as we did," Elston said after the game.
Tonganoxie logged seven sacks against Pirate quarterback Scott Lipovac, along with three interceptions against the pass-happy Pirates. But Tonganoxie also had five turnovers. The Chieftains had more total offense than Piper (285-211), but Tonganoxie was below its average yardage and was 0-for-3 in the passing department.
"I was probably too conservative on offense," Elston said.
In the locker room after the game, somber players sit in disbelief, eyes welling with tears.
The loss comes in district play, which means THS will have to win its last two games for a second consecutive shot at playoffs.
The Chieftains' first loss of 2003 is tough to take.
"It's depressing, but it doesn't take away from anything we've done so far," Elston said. "It doesn't change what we need to do."
After flying high for six weeks, the Chieftains suddenly are in a disheartening position.
Losing is difficult, and the Chieftains' loss is substantial: Baska and Hopkins suffered knee injuries and Sprowls a spinal column injury. All three likely will miss Friday's game at Basehor-Linwood, and all three are questionable for the regular season finale Oct. 30 in Lansing.
"I'm not going to risk any permanent injury to any kid for one high school football game," Elston said. "I firmly believe all three will have potential and opportunity to play somewhere else in college, and I don't want to ruin those opportunities for them."
Beginning early Saturday, the Chieftains start their weekly ritual for another opportunity -- this Friday against Basehor-Linwood.