Archive for Wednesday, November 10, 2004

THS football made strides in ‘04

November 10, 2004

Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2003.

On that day, Atchison easily handled Tonganoxie, 39-0, in the first round of the Class 4A football playoffs. This was the same Tonganoxie team that was four points away from an undefeated regular season, a squad that many were touting as the best THS squad in years.

With 13 seniors, a few of whom are playing college football now, that seemed like a logical assessment.

Since that frigid night in Atchison, people asked me from time to time how I thought this year's edition of Tonganoxie football would fare.

I didn't want to look into my crystal ball and produce a prediction.

Instead, I would say, "Well, I don't think they'll have as good of a record, but I think they'll go farther in the playoffs."

Huh, I guess I was half-right.

This was a team that some thought might be hurting because it lost such a huge senior class.

I thought it would be tough to equal last year's 8-2 mark because the offense had to replace so many players.

I was wrong.

Tonganoxie didn't miss a beat. Ross Starcher, a backup last year, stepped in as a senior quarterback and wooed plenty of people -- especially opponents.

Zach Ditty and Sam Mitchell replaced Billy Baska and Tim Hopkins in the backfield, while Kaleb Lawrence, the team's most visible linebacker, stepped in at fullback late in the season for BT Fleming and Brandon Willis, fullbacks who were out during various portions of the season because of injury.

This year's 9-2 Chieftains finished a half-game better than the 2003 version. Although they have no Kaw Valley League title, they have a district title, a playoff win, and a thrilling victory against Piper in their portfolios. And don't forget that Bishop Ward game in which Tonganoxie trailed, 6-0, with about two minutes left and won, 13-6.

This was a team that, most games, was the smaller squad.

Kent Fleming and Jeff Frank provided some bulk on the Chieftain line, but smaller lineman such as Daniel Workman and Andy Eisman and Phil George helped give some running room to Starcher and the backfield.

Coach Mark Elston was known to term his team "a bunch of Chihuahuas" earlier in the season.

They were small in some cases, but feisty nonetheless.

That's probably what made the season so gratifying.

On paper, they looked to be in for a tougher road because they lost so many seniors.

But that just wasn't the case.

In some ways, that game Saturday might have typified the season. Tonganoxie was visibly smaller than its opponent (OK, so most any team is visibly smaller than Hayden), but they weren't pushed around.

Sure, Hayden had a sizable advantage in the statistics in most categories, but Tonganoxie seemed to hold its own on that line of scrimmage.

Yes, Hayden did have to punt. No, Tonganoxie didn't have as much offensive success as it would have liked, but again, playing Hayden is a little different than facing some of Tonganoxie's regular-season opponents.

Elston's Chihuahuas were best represented on that goal-line stand in the second quarter.

We're talking third-and-one from the one.

The Wildcats don't get in.

OK, so that was a cute little stop, Chieftains, but surely you won't stop Hayden for a second time.

Oh, yes, and then to have Garrett Palmer scamper 99 yards for a touchdown and the lead on a fumble on that fourth down, no one could ask for much more. Palmer isn't as noticeable on the football field as he is on the wrestling mat.

That's why it was so inspiring to see the soft-spoken senior become the man of the hour in Topeka.

Unfortunately that was the only stone David had in his bag.

The Goliath Wildcats soon would respond, but one has to feel good about a team that didn't roll over against the state runner-up a year ago.

This is a team that saw Brandon Willis fight and claw for a big gain on a kickoff return. Willis missed most of the season because of a knee injury, but he did his part Saturday -- knee brace and all.

This also was a team that saw its coach go through a wonderful season on the sideline, but not a pleasant time off the field.

His rental house burned earlier this fall. And just a few weeks ago, his mother passed away.

Mark's father, Don, who was on Mark's original coaching staff at THS, was roaming the sidelines Saturday -- not with Mark, but just far enough away as a nonchalant observer.

After the game, as Mark spoke, his team kneeling around him for the last time, his eyes filled with tears. Plenty of emotions probably caused those eyes to well, but Mark stood there, as proud as he's ever been of a team.

Moments later, Mark and Don met on the sideline, now both with tears in their eyes.

I'm confident that Sue Elston, Mark's mother, got to see every down of that game on an unseasonably warm Kansas fall afternoon.

If future Chieftain teams play like this year's squad, I'm sure she'll see plenty more.

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