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Roll on: Nemaha Central muscles past Kingman for undefeated 2A championship

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By Brent Maycock – KSHSAA Covered

SALINA – With a slight sprinkle of rain falling on an artificial surface for much of Saturday’s Class 2A state championship football game, there was no hint of dust wisping from the turf of Salina’s District Stadium.

So a slight nomenclature tweaking was necessary for the “Three yards and a could of dust” approach undefeated and No. 1 Nemaha Central took offensively against fellow unbeaten and No. 3 Kingman.

But the execution of that philosophy was still in full effect for the Thunder, who simply lined up in their power game and dared Kingman to stop them.

“Looking at film on them all week, we just felt we could run the ball on them,” senior lineman Connor Deters said. “We just knew we could. And part of that is having confidence in what we’re doing. We pride ourselves on being the most physical team.”

Running behind Nemaha Central’s sizable front line, Thunder senior back Cooper Hajek punished Kingman’s stout defense to the tune of 208 yards and four touchdowns, leading Nemaha Central to a 33-17 victory. The state title was the second for the Thunder in four years with the program winning its first in 2019.

This year’s Thunder edition capped their championship season with a perfect 13-0 mark, while Kingman suffered its first loss of the season, finishing 12-1 after reaching the title game for the first time in 50 years.

Kingman entered the game with the stingiest defense in Class 2A, its 3-3 Havoc defense swarming opposing offenses with speed and quickness at almost every position. Nemaha Central, meanwhile, has leaned all season on Hajek and its hulking offensive line.

So Saturday’s game boiled down to which team could enforce its style.

And it didn’t take long for Nemaha Central to swing that pendulum its way.

After stopping Kingman on its opening possession, the Thunder methodically, yet quickly, marched down the field with little more than runs straight up the gut. Hajek capped the drive with a 3-yard TD.

The Thunder defense got another quick stop and this time a bad snap sailed over the head of Eagle punter Nolan Freund, who inadvertently kicked the ball while trying to retrieve it. The Thunder took over at the Kingman 1 and two plays later, Hajek bulled in for his second TD and Nemaha Central led 14-0.

“Kingman kind of hurt themselves in the first half and gave us some opportunities,” Nemaha Central coach Michael Glatczak said. “And we capitalized on them, which is what you have to do to win these kind of games.”

The early miscues – which included a mishandling of the opening kickoff that pinned Kingman deep on its first possession – seemed to knock the Eagles out of sync offensively. The Eagles never really got into a groove in the opening half.

Kingman did drive to field goal range late in the first quarter, only to have Nemaha Central block the kick. The Thunder turned it into points as Gavin Cain capped the Thunder’s opening possession of the second quarter with an 18-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep that pushed Nemaha’s lead to 20-0.

“Jitters I think got to us a little bit,” Kingman coach Tanner Hageman said. “They’d run like six offensive plays and already had scored twice. … It was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do we come back from this?’ I thought our defense played pretty well for the most part, but it was just really tough to get anything going offensively. But credit to them, they had a good defensive game plan against us.”

The Thunder were particulary effective in keeping Freund on the run, flushed from the pocket by the pressure up front. That led to three interceptions by the Thunder secondary – two from Aidan Broxterman and another from Cain.

“We knew all their receivers were talented and quick, so we had to be disciplined in the secondary,” Cain said. “We just made sure we talked and communicated well and it paid off. The turnovers were huge and that’s a big reason we came out on top.”

Kingman did get on the board on the final play of the half with Freund booting a 36-yard field goal.

But in the second half, Nemaha leaned even harder on Hajek and the ground game. And while Kingman made more than its share of stops for little or no gains, the constant pounding Nemaha administered took its toll.

“We didn’t throw it as much as we do in other games because of the rain, but our offensive line wanted to run it and they’ve built plenty of trust with Cooper and Brayden (Uphaus) back there,” Glatczak said. “Hats off to our offensive line. They’ve been awesome all year and they proved it again today. And then with a workhorse in Cooper back there makes it nice.”

After having two short TD runs in the first half, Hajek showed off his game-breaking ability in the second half. He broke numerous tackles on his way to a 26-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter and then powered through the middle of the Kingman defense for a 29-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that put the Thunder up 33-3.

“I feel it and it hurt a little bit tonight,” Hajek said of the constant pounding he took in logging 39 carries in the game – all done with a heavily wrapped right thumb which was broken in the second-round playoff win over Rossville. “We knew they were super-fast – a lot of wrestlers and I felt those guys when they came up and hit me. But I think it’s fun that I get to make the impact. I love it and I owe all the credit to the guys up front. Without those holes, I wouldn’t get all those yards.”

Kingman’s offense finally found some footing late in the game with Freund connecting with Carter Helm on a 17-yard touchdown pass with 7:28 left in the game and with Tristen Davidson on a 21-yard score with 1:36 to go.

But the scores merely made the final deficit look better.

“It just felt like an uphill battle,” Hageman said. “The whole time it was like climbing a hill when it’s raining. You take a step and then start sliding down a couple steps. That was us the whole time offensively. … We just struggled to get things going.”

Freund did finish with 174 yards passing, capping a stellar senior season with more than 2,000 yards through the air. But he was picked off three times and lost a fumble as Nemaha Central’s defense came up big time and time again when it counted the most.

“Coach (Terry) Stueve does a great job with our defense and they haven’t gotten as much credit this year with how good we’ve been offensively,” Glatczak said. “We knew Kingman was good and our defense did a terrific job.”

Most of Nemaha’s 10 seniors were freshmen on the 2019 title team, playing only sparingly that season. And while they enjoyed that breakthrough title season, Saturday’s crown meant much more to them.

“It’s just amazing,” Hajek said. “As a kid, this is the moment you look up to wanting to be in. I was just on the opening kickoff return (in 2019) and just really remember celebrating afterwards. I wasn’t just a cheerleader in this one.”

“Freshman year I remember watching all the seniors do it and it’s always been a goal of mine and all my teammates since then to do it again,” Cain said. “I’m glad all that hard work paid off.”

Glatczak wasn’t the Thunder head coach in 2019, taking over last season. But he’d also experienced the feeling of winning a title before, having led Centralia to a Class 2-1A state championship as a player in 2011 and watching his father, Larry lead Centralia to four state titles overall.

But he said getting his first as a head coach was incomparable.

“I think (it’s better) as a coach,” Glatczak said. “The relationships you build with these kids – obviously winning it with dad was nice – but just seeing these kids’ faces afterwards is just priceless.”

Kingman will lose seven seniors off its runner-up roster, including the likes of Freund, leading receiver Avrey Albright and leading tackler Ty Birkenbaugh. The Eagles have seen the program rise to prominence under their direction, reaching the state semifinals last year before advancing to the title game this season.

“Where we came from four years ago being 3-6, I tell the guys wherever you go you want to leave it better than you found it,” Hageman said. “The seniors did that and they’re leaving this program in a really, really good place. Now it’s up to the young guys and returning starters to carry the torch that’s been passed down to them.”

CLASS 2A CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

NEMAHA CENTRAL 33, KINGMAN 17

Nemaha Central (13-0) … 14 … 6 … 6 … 7 … — … 33

Kingman (12-1) … 0 … 3 … 0 … 14 … — … 17

Nemaha Central – Cooper Hajek 3-yard run (run failed)

Nemaha Central – Hajek 1-yard run (Hajek pass from Brayden Uphaus)

Nemaha Central – Gavin Cain 18-yard run (pass failed)

Kingman – Nolan Freund 36-yard field goal

Nemaha Central – Hajek 26-yard run (run failed)

Nemaha Central – Hajek 29-yard run (Jaden Thomas kick)

Kingman – Carter Helm 17-yard pass from Freund (Bo Watkins pass from Freund)

Kingman – Tristan Davidson 21-yard pass from Nolan Freund (run failed)

TEAM STATISTICS
… NC … KING
First downs … 13 … 12
Rushes-yards … 54-236 … 25-66
Passing yards … 35 … 174
Passing (Comp-Att-INT) … 2-6-0 … 15-30-3
Total plays-yards … 60-271 … 55-240
Fumbles-lost … 3-2 … 4-2
Penalties-yards … 4-45 … 3-15
Punts-Avg … 4-37.0 … 3-40.3

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

RUSHING – Nemaha Central: Hajek 39-208, Uphaus 9-9, Leonard 2-12, Cain 1-18, Team 3-minus 11. Kingman: Freund 16-91, Albright 3-15, Fischer 3-6, Helm 2-minus 5, Team 1-minus 41.

PASSING – Nemaha Central: Uphaus 2-6-0, 35 yards. Kingman: Freund 15-30-3, 174 yards.

RECEIVING – Nemaha Central: Leonard 1-27, Hajek 1-8. Kingman: Davidson 5-73, Helm 4-28, Watkins 3-41, Albright 2-16, Webster 1-5.

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttps://sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2020 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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