As grateful as every player on Eudora High’s football team is to have a chance to win a Class 4A state championship on Saturday, the opportunity might mean more to senior Garret Elston than anyone.
This is Elston’s first season with the Cardinals (12-1), who are playing in their second straight title game. He had never even played in a postseason game until a few weeks ago.
The 5-foot-5, 156-pound safety and running back is not new to football, though. Far from it. Elston grew up with a pigskin in his hands, learning the ins and outs of the game from his father, Mark, who coached at Tonganoxie High. Elston played running back, quarterback and defensive back three years for the Chieftains before transferring to Eudora.
Days before the 2011 season began, Mark, who had coached 11 seasons at Tonganoxie, resigned when he found himself mired in scrutiny for an altercation he had with a player at a THS practice.
Though Garret played out the season with the Chieftains, the whole ordeal forced him to consider starting over someplace new. A few weeks after Tonganoxie’s 1-8 season ended, he transferred to Eudora.
Initially, no one knew him at EHS, and that didn’t bother the new student one bit. Elston could exist without being looked at as the former coach’s kid.
Before long, he became used to his new high school home, which made his transition into a different football program even easier.
Thinking back on his senior year as his new team prepares to face Holton (13-0) for the 4A championship Saturday at Salina — 1 p.m. kickoff at Salina Central High — Elston had to smile.
“It’s about the complete opposite of last year,” he said. “It’s totally different ends of the spectrum, so it’s just an awesome feeling. I can’t really complain about it at all.”
Just three weeks into the season, Eudora’s three victories eclipsed the two victories Elston had been a part of in his previous two years at Tonganoxie.
“After that it was just icing on the cake,” he said.
Elston isn’t the only new member of coach Gregg Webb’s team this year. Mason Tomlinson, JT Howell, Andrew McNish and Tanner Tornedon didn’t play for the Cardinals’ 2011 state runner-up squad.
But Webb can tell Elston, whom he described as an “invested young man,” is relishing life in his new football home.
“He is truly appreciative of having a chance to play in the state championship game,” Webb said. “You can just see it in his eyes.”
His EHS teammates are glad to have him, too. Elston has rushed for 922 yards and three touchdowns this season and gave the Cardinals a real running threat when starting back Gabe Cleveland had to miss games because of a knee injury. As an every-down safety for Eudora’s defense, Elston has totaled 54 tackles and an interception. On special teams, he has averaged 24.3 yards per kickoff return.
Cleveland said Elston immediately made an impact on the EHS program: “It’s just another good threat we’ve got. It’s another guy other teams have to worry about.”
Junior quarterback and safety Andrew Ballock agreed and said Elston help offset some of the losses Eudora suffered through the graduation of its 2012 class.
“It’s great to have a new guy come in and be able to play,” Ballock said.
While Elston has thrived as a Tonganoxie export, he remains close with several of his former THS teammates. That made for some serious trash-talking when Elston’s new team faced the Chieftains in the second round of the playoffs. Elston had 53 rushing yards and six total tackles in a 31-10 Eudora victory.
“It was like I was in a dream,” Elston said. “I would have never guessed five years ago that I would be playing them here (at EHS).”
He’ll always remember the time he spent with his longtime teammates after that game, in which he contributed to ending their season.
“It was kind of a bittersweet moment,” Elston said.
Though strange, it was just another step in his journey to the state title game, which Elston enters with few regrets.
“It’s been awesome here,” Elston said of Eudora. “The atmosphere is fantastic. The program is fantastic. There’s been no worries whatsoever.”