I’ve heard several people say how the overall product of high school football in the Kansas City area has improved over the last couple of years, and I completely agree with them. As far as the Kansas side goes, look no further than the results of state championship Saturday. Kansas City area teams won state titles in 4A (St. Thomas Aquinas), 5A (Mill Valley) and 6A (Gardner-Edgerton).
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to cover the 4A, 5A, or 6A state title game, as I was driving back from having Thanksgiving with my fiancée’s family in Castle Rock, Colorado. Thanksgiving was a lot of fun, but driving across Kansas in a snowstorm rather than covering a state title game was a big bummer. I still got to cover at least one game of Aquinas, Mill Valley and Gardner-Edgerton’s state championship seasons, so I’m going to share my two cents on how each team won it all.
Let’s start with Aquinas. Good defense and a good run game can take you a long way in the playoffs at any level. That recipe has worked very well for Randy Dreiling over the years, and that was definitely the case in 2023, as he won his second state title with the Saints.
Aquinas dropped its regular season finale, 42-21, against Blue Valley Southwest, but only gave up 49 points combined during its postseason run—never giving up more than 14 points in one game. And giving up 42 to Blue Valley Southwest isn’t exactly a crime. The Timberwolves were as close as can be from playing in the 5A state title game. I’ll talk more about them in a second.
The closest contest Aquinas had in the playoffs was a 14-7 win over Bishop Miege. I saw a lot of people on social media who were surprised by that, but it didn’t surprise me. I covered the Saints’ 19-7 regular season loss to the Stags.
While that outcome wasn’t what the Saints were hoping for, they showed me that their defense had the potential to power the Saints to a state title. The only offensive touchdown the Stags scored in that game came after they blocked a punt and got the ball at the STA 13-yard line. The Stags’ other touchdown came on a Jack Baird pick six. The Aquinas defense buckled down when it needed to on Miege’s best two drives and limited the Stags to field goals.
Dillon Marshall paced the Saints with 12 tackles in that game, but where the Saints really impressed me this year was up front. I also got to cover the Saints’ 28-14 win over Blue Valley Northwest, where the Saints had to go up against a very good BVNW offensive line. Kian Payne led the way in that game with a couple of sacks, as the Saints continuously got into the BVNW backfield. Payne was named the Eastern Kansas League Defensive Player of the Year. Marshall, Wyatt Potter and Joey Goodenow joined Payne on the All-EKL first team.
Going back to the STA’s loss to Miege, it’s worth noting that the Saints were without their top two running backs, Gianni Rizzi and Calin Arndt. Rizzi was back in action for the Saints in the rematch against the Stags, and rushed for 146 yards. He rushed for 199 yards and two scores in the 5A state title game against Andover Central. That was plenty, as the STA defense held Andover Central without a first down in the second half.
Let’s shift gears to Mill Valley now, who won its fifth straight 5A crown after defeating Kapaun Mt. Carmel. The only time I got to see Mill Valley this season was in the 5A semifinals against Blue Valley Southwest. It was one of the most thrilling games I’ve covered, as it ended with Daniel Blaine 7-yard touchdown run as time expired.
There are several columns I could write on that game alone. The Jaguars had to overcome a 12-point fourth quarter deficit against a high-octane BVSW offense without starting running back Tristan Baker, who left the game due to injury in the third quarter after rushing for 200-plus yards in the first half.
The sportsmanship of Mill Valley left tackle Gus Hawkins after the game captured everything that high school sports should be about. After finishing off a block on BVSW senior Luke Davis, Hawkins was about to run over and go celebrate the big win with his teammates. But after taking a couple of steps toward the end zone, Hawkins turned around, helped up a distraught Davis off the turf and congratulated him for playing a great game. That type of sportsmanship is rare to see at any level.
Blaine’s game-winning touchdown also was very close to not happening. On the previous play, Blaine was under pressure and did all he could to throw the ball away to make it fourth down and give Mill Valley one last chance. After watching replay of the third down play, it appeared that Blaine’s knee was down before he threw it away. Mill Valley had no timeouts, so the clock would have ran out. It was an extremely close call to make without looking back at a replay. And no, I’m not advocating for there to be instant replay for high school football. That’s a column I won’t be writing.
Even without Baker in the state title game against Kapaun Mt. Carmel, Mill Valley did what it always does at Pitt State’s Carnie Smith Stadium. Win. Jaden Scobee filled in quite admirably for Baker in the backfield, rushing for 300 yards and four touchdowns. Blaine ran for two scores and tossed two touchdown passes to Davion Harris to help power the Jaguars to victory.
There were some rumblings that Mill Valley’s state title streak could end after the Jaguars got blown out at home against Gardner-Edgerton and suffered a road loss against Olathe North. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from covering Kansas high school football over the past decade, it’s to never count out a Joel Applebee-coached team. The Jaguars proved that once again this year.
Speaking of Gardner-Edgerton, the Trailblazers completed their unfinished business from last year’s state title game by pushing past Derby, 22-19, in this year’s state championship game. The Trailblazers were a successful two-point conversion away last year against Manhattan from winning their first state title in school history, so there certainly wasn’t any lack of motivation this year for Gardner-Edgerton.
Much like Aquinas, Gardner-Edgerton winning recipe was built around a stellar flexbone offense and dominant defense. Quarterback Bravin Powell gave opposing defenses fits with his dual-threat ability. He led the Trailblazers with 754 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on the ground. Powell also threw for 1,297 yards and 13 touchdowns and only had three interceptions.
Even when Powell and the Gardner-Edgerton offense wasn’t rolling, the Trailblazer defense made sure they were never out of any game. I covered the Gardner-Edgerton/Olathe North game in Week 5, which the Trailblazers won, 21-14. The Gardner-Edgerton special teams and defensive units played huge roles in holding off the Eagles. Isaiah Williams recovered a mishandled Olathe North punt in the end zone for touchdown. Eli Porter and Chase Bojanski came up with interceptions, and Mark Debiak added two sacks.
The Trailblazers were firing on all cylinders in all three phases of the game against Blue Valley Northwest that I also covered. Debiak and the rest of the Gardner-Edgerton defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage, which helped Bojanski nab another interception. Randy Singleton nearly returned a punt for a touchdown, giving the Trailblazers the ball at the 5-yard line on their opening possession. That set the stage for the first of four Dylan Butash touchdown runs.
Last year, it was Dawson Kindler who powered the Gardner-Edgerton flexbone with more than 1,500 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns. This year, Kindler moved the linebacker and led a defense that allowed just under 9 points per game.
Gardner-Edgerton, Mill Valley and Aquinas will all obviously have targets on their backs going into next season, but that’s something that each program has started to become accustomed to. All three squads have a lot to celebrate and should be strong again next year. They’re continuing to do their parts in elevating the level of football in the Kansas City area.