Back-to-back trips to state title game have been years in the making for Perry-Lecompton football
Nearly a decade ago, a talented group of small-town football players from Perry-Lecompton were the underdogs in a huge game, but they found a way to win against a squad from a much bigger city.
But this wasn’t high school ball — this was a group of second and third graders in the 2011 Toy Bowl, when the Junior Kaws upset the Lawrence Hurricanes to win the Lawrence Youth Football League’s big game for the first time in program history.
Now, 13 of the players who won that game are fully grown Kaws, and they’re hoping to pull off another big underdog victory in the Class 3A state title game this weekend — this time against Andale, the Wichita-area defending champs. The Kaws faced Andale in last year’s state title game as well, and they lost by a double-digit margin. This is the first time in program history that the Kaws have been to two state title games back to back.
The coach who led those Perry-Lecompton players to the Toy Bowl title always knew they would go far in their prep careers.
“We were always the underdog because we came from a small town,” said former Junior Kaws head coach Ryan Rush. “We were underdogs and underestimated all the time. For them to come in there and just start playing fundamental football, they have just grown and grown.”
Ryan Rush is the father of Reichen Rush, who was on the winning Junior Kaws squad and is now the starting running back for PLHS as a junior. Seniors Dawson Williams, William Welch, Jaxson Folks, Bradley Robb, Thad Metcalfe, Mason Bahnmaier, Ryley Besler, Hayden Robb, Cameron Jeter and Hunter Hess were also members of the Junior Kaws in 2011, as were juniors Evan Gottstein and Jackson Payne.
Metcalfe said the seeds of their success were planted all the way back in those youth football games.
“Coach Rush was our first football coach and he really set the stage for us of how we work at practice and our motivation to come out and work hard every day,” Metcalfe said. “From then, he’s really talked about (us) winning a state title now. That’s really been our goal since third grade.”
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It’s not hard to see a lot of the same qualities in today’s grown-up Kaws (11-1) that Ryan Rush saw nine years ago in his Toy Bowl squad. And that starts with stingy defense.
In 2011, the Junior Kaws’ defense had everybody flying to the ball and constantly looking for ways to make plays. Their big game was won on a stop in the red zone in overtime — a play that finished just inches shy of reaching the end zone.
The Perry-Lecompton team is led by its defense in 2020 as well. The Kaws have given up more than two touchdowns in only one game this year. Besler leads the team in tackles with 135, and Hayden Robb (125 tackles) and Folks (102 tackles) are not far behind.
“It gave us pride because we did it back then, and nothing changes now,” Hayden Robb said. “We stuffed them at the goal line to win, and we’ve been in those scenarios this year and last year. I think that’s something we have really been able to have pride in — to be a defense that makes plays when it counts.”
It was also obvious in 2011 how much this group loved the game — and how well they understood it.
Most offenses in the Lawrence Youth Football League were run-first because of how complex the game can be at a young age. Yet this team, led by Welch at the quarterback position, had an advanced understanding of schemes and passed more than a typical youth team would.
Mike Paramore, who has been the head coach at PLHS for 20 years, was at the 2011 Toy Bowl, and he could tell that those kids would go far in the game.
“I remember going over there and watching them play in that,” Paramore said. “That was kind of fun to watch. They like all sports, but football has been really important for them.”
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The Kaws’ passion for the game has served them especially well this season in a run that’s featured one big challenge after another.
Beyond the logistics of playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Perry-Lecompton had to fill in a gap in its lineup after Welch had a season-ending injury within the first few weeks of the season. The Kaws also had to win a tough rematch in the postseason — against Hayden, which had handed them a loss in their regular-season schedule.
But Ryan Rush said the fundamentals the Kaws learned in elementary school are what allows them to stay so composed now.
“Whenever they get in trouble or get behind, I can see those kids get together and collectively go back to the fundamentals,” Rush said. “That’s just so neat to see that as a group.”
Even the way Perry-Lecompton hoisted up the sub-state championship plaque following last week’s 22-9 win over Holton was a credit to what this group learned in 2011.
As the 2011 season was coming to a close, Ryan Rush wondered whether the Junior Kaws would know how to properly celebrate if they were to win the Toy Bowl. So he had them hoist up an imaginary trophy after practice by putting their arms up in the air.
“I told them you don’t know how to hold a trophy up, and they were instantly convinced,” Ryan Rush said. “That’s what makes those kids so special, because they appreciate winning and they have put in the hard work. They don’t take much for granted.”
It remains to be seen whether the Kaws will lift up the final trophy on Saturday at Gowans Stadium at Hutchinson Community College. Andale knocked off Perry-Lecompton 35-7 in the title game last year, and the defending champs have won 24 straight games.