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KPreps Preview: Hanover vs. St. Francis 8-Man DII Championship

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Derek Nester
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids, and graduated from Valley Heights High School in May of 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications.After stops at KFRM and KCLY radio in Clay Center, he joined KNDY in 2002 as a board operator and play by play announcer. Derek is now responsible for the digital content of Dierking Communications, Inc. six radio stations.In 2005 Derek joined the staff of KCFX radio in Kansas City as a production coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, which airs on over 94 radio stations across 12 Midwest states and growing. In 2018 he became the Studio Coordinator at the Cumulus Kansas City broadcast center for Kansas City Chiefs Football.

BY: CONOR NICHOLL FOR KPREPS.COM

Pregame 10:30 AM, Kickoff 11:00 AM Live on Today’s Country 95.5 KNDY

Hanover coach Matt Heuer has enjoyed many superlatives in his career. Heuer led Hanover to a 43-game winning streak that ended in 2019, the longest eight-man run in the 51-year KSHSAA era. He is 5-3 all-time in state title games. Heuer has the second-most all-time titles by an eight-man coach, one behind Hanston’s Jerry Slaton. Hanover has broken several state marks, notably for passing statistics.

This season, though, has offered another milestone: the best summer weight room attendance in his tenure. Heuer, 160-27 in his career, and veteran assistants Chris Beikmann and John Bruna open the weight room twice a day, for normally around 4.5 to 5 total hours. Hanover has always enjoyed strong buy-in from the athletes and families. Some who work on farms lift at 6 a.m. and then go to work until 10 p.m.

This summer yielded 93 percent attendance. That included players who missed ample time because of family reasons. Only one player had a lower weight room attendance from ’19. That player missed zero days two summers ago, and one day this year.

Hanover has no player above 200 pounds, though its roster is known for its athleticism, quickness and experience. The summer work has yielded a 10-0 record and trip back to the Eight-Man, Division II state title game. Hanover had a rare state miss in ’19 when it fell to rival Axtell in the regular season and state finals.

“In my 16 years, we have had a tremendous showing in the weight room in the offseason, and this year by more than five percentage points blew every other year out of the water,” Heuer said. “And I think that’s a testament to the work that these kids have put in, how they’ve bought in, and how they’ve been driven since Day 1 from last year to get back to this point.”

No. 2 Hanover (10-0) faces No. 1 St. Francis (11-0) in Saturday’s contest at Newton’s Fischer Field. Start time is 11 a.m. The Wildcats and Indians have been the two favorites all year and have remained in the same ranking positions since August. Neither team has had significant injuries/COVID-19 concerns. Heuer said it marked Hanover’s first season in “quite a few” that he had not had “any kids” miss more than a week.

Hanover is the classification’s top-scoring offense at 56.2 points per game, and St. Francis scores 51.6 points a contest. The Wildcats have averaged a remarkable 11.3 yards per play, up from 8.1 last year. It is Hanover’s most yards per play of Heuer’s last seven teams to reach a final.

“Our weight room attendance and what we do in the weight room has really been beneficial with injury prevention and conditioning and everything like that,” Heuer said.

St. Francis has never won a state title and fell in championships in ’16 and ’19. Last year, St. Francis led Canton-Galva 36-0 before the Eagles ran off a historic comeback for a 66-36 win in the Division I game. St. Francis returned all but two players from ’19 and added key freshmen lineman Colton Raile (235 pounds) and Jordan Smull (190). Third-year coach Nick Fawcett’s record is 34-2.

“We felt pressure to get back to the state championship game, but now that we are here, I told the guys last year, ‘We are playing with house money,’” Fawcett said. “We don’t feel like we have to win this game. We don’t feel like it’s life or death. Our guys know that we love them regardless, and we are just going to go out, have fun and try to win.”

St. Francis’ single wing has its well-known group of seniors including running back Shadryon Blanka and Adam Krien, center Colton Neitzel and lineman/fullback Jesse Baxter. All four players are at least at 190 pounds, and Neitzel is nearly 240.

Blanka has rushed for 2,027 yards, second-most in Kansas for all classes. He had nearly 300 yards of total offense in the semifinal comeback against Victoria. The Indians trailed 14-8, the first time they had been behind all season, and came back to win 44-22. Like Hanover, Victoria was much smaller and had no player above 205.

Blanka missed a little of the game with a shoulder injury, though is expected to be 100 percent for Saturday. Sophomore Ben Busse, the team’s most improved player, has played quarterback and leads with seven interceptions at cornerback. Seniors Kobe Tice and Josiah Sims are key weapons.

“They are big, they are physical, they are fast, and they do what they do very well,” Heuer said. “They pretty much impose their will on the opposing team.”

Baxter has statistically rated as the St. Francis’ top defensive player in the Indians’ “Mean Green” attack. Defensively, Neitzel played 75 percent at linebacker and been on the line when needed. St. Francis has switched defenses, including a 4-2 and 3-3. The Indians have allowed 5.2 points a contest, Hanover 8.2. They are the top-two scoring defenses in the classification.

“We don’t just go out in a normal 3-2 like a lot of teams do every week,” Fawcett said. “So I don’t know that a lot of teams know how we are going to line up, and we are lucky that we have a kid like Neitzel who is almost 240 pounds, but he’s just as good of a linebacker as he is a lineman.”

Last season, St. Francis struggled when a starter went out. The Indians had significant issues with snapping when Neitzel was hurt and held on in a wild finish to beat rival Hoxie, 30-28, in Week 5. In the state title game, St. Francis had two players suffer injury, including Baxter. Raile showed strong talent in junior high. However, he blew out his left knee in seventh grade and right knee in eighth. He gained weight for his freshmen year and played line Friday when Baxter moved to the backfield. Smull played some at line when senior Tyson Poling, a returning starter, was out.

“Really given us the depth that we lacked last year, so if there is one huge difference from last year’s team to this year’s, it would be our depth,” Fawcett said. “Instead of being eight deep, we are 11, 12 deep if we need to be.”

Last season, Hanover had just one returning starter, 250-pound lineman Jonah Weber, and uncharacteristically struggled with turnovers. Jacob Jueneman completed 57 percent of his passes for 1,521 yards with a 22/11 TD/INT ratio. This year, Jueneman, a senior, has enjoyed a superb year with 74 percent completion for 1,111 yards with 19 scores against two interceptions. He leads Hanover with 66 carries for 665 yards and 17 scores.

“I feel like it can be difficult,” Heuer said of learning Hanover’s offense. “And a read that we might have had two weeks ago is different than the read we had this week, which is completely different than the read we might have had four weeks ago. So I feel like our quarterback and our kids in general this year have really taken a step forward and utilized some of the experience that they learned last year.”

Senior all-purpose threat Colin Jueneman, a returning first team all-state pick, has enjoyed another big fall with 1,165 all-purpose yards and 21 total scores. Heuer said the line has “made exceptional gains.” Senior Jacob Klipp is a two-year starter at left guard and leads the defense with 114 tackles.

Junior Philip Doebele is a second-year starter at center. Doebele has probably made the biggest jump of any linemen after he tore knee cartilage early in the ’19 season. He is a first-year starter at nose guard and paces with 15 TFLs. Senior Blake Hynek, the team’s biggest player, was converted to line and starts at right guard/defensive end. Junior Keagan Dimler is a first-year starter at defensive end.

“They have been pretty physical at the point of attack, but … every single one of our kids is very mobile and able to run from sideline to sideline,” Heuer said.

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