Growing the Game: 6-Man's success story in Kansas

Ashland's Landen McPhail runs in game last fall. (Everett Royer,
By: Conor Nicholl for
Oct 30, 2021

Share This Story:

Kpreps has covered the growth of Six-Man Football in Kansas since then-Weskan coach Marc Cowles brought the Coyotes to six-man football in 2014. That marked the first six-man team in Kansas since ’03. While multiple players like Pawnee Heights’ Kade Scott, Cheylin’s Colton McCarty, Weskan’s Jace and Dalton Mackley and Natoma’s Derek George and coaches such as Cheylin’s Chris Walden and Rexford-Golden Plains’ Travis Smith have been well-known public faces of the six-man growth, multiple behind the scenes people have helped, too.

On Saturday, Six-Man plays its last non-KSHSAA games when Northern Valley faces Ashland for third, and a pair of undefeated squads, Natoma and Cunningham, play for the Wild West Bowl state championship. Games are 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. in Dodge City.

This week, Kpreps wanted to give its final Helmet Sticker of the 2021 season to everyone that help Six-Man football grow from an idea to a KSHSAA sanctioned sport in seven-plus years. In 2022, Six-Man will have 26 teams. In addition to the aforementioned players and coaches, multiple behind-the-scenes people played a role. As well, Kpreps has collected stories, timelines and anecdotes from a variety of people that helped grow six-man. Some of these have never been published before.

Key meetings took place in multiple cities, including Grainfield, Salina, Scott City, Ness City and an impromptu conversation in Topeka.

These are the main behind-the-scenes people:

Mark Pywell, Rozel-Pawnee Heights Principal

Terry Ostmeyer, Wheatland-Grinnell Athletic Director

Jay Gifford, Dodge City High School A.D.

Shawn Steiner, Dodge City High School Activities Director

Dodge City Sports Commission

Ben Fox and Jeff Chambers, Ashland football coach staff

Brett Clow, Weskan football coach


Pywell, who has spent more than 30 years in teaching and 24 at Pawnee Heights, has understood the six-man group has helped create something that’s long lasting and altered the landscape of Kansas high school sports.

Per KSHSAA, Kansas is the eighth state nationally to have sanctioned six-man football.

“It’s very interesting to be part of this,” Pywell said. “And I know it will look different in years to come, but I think it’s one of those things that will be here. …Especially out west in some rural areas, the trend is the population does go down. And if you want to keep a program, that’s kind of what you do. It’s something we can look back on, those of us that started thinking, ‘We did this, not for us, but for our kids and our community, and that’s what it’s about.’”

First Meeting:

The idea first came from Cowles, who served a long stint at Weskan and is now the Ness City coach. Weskan faced low numbers, and the Coyotes elected to move to six-man football. Cowles formulated a meeting at Salina.

“There was actually quite a few people there, but some of them weren’t interested,” Pywell said. “But it would be a few years down the road. Administrators and ADs are always looking years ahead. And so, nothing really kind of came of that. And then, he got the job at Ness City. Some of us that were still very interested kind of just got together and said ‘Hey, why don’t we do this?’

The group met at Grainfield with Wheatland-Grinnell High School. Pywell remembers the following at the first meeting: Weskan, Wheatland-Grinnell, Bird City-Cheylin, Rexford-Golden Plains, Ransom-Western Plains, non-KSHSAA Heartland Christian from Colby, Rozel-Pawnee Heights and Tribune-Greeley County.

Terry Ostmeyer, the highly respected Wheatland-Grinnell Athletic Director, served as Six-Man Commissioner for the first two years. After Ostmeyer retired, Pywell took over as commissioner. The group shared rosters back and forth on Google Drive. Several teams, including Pawnee Heights, were able to finally have a program again when it played six-man. Pawnee Heights had co-oped with Larned.

“He was a big proponent of six-man, and he knew that it helped our kids,” Pywell said. “And not only that, but it helped our communities. It kept a program in your school.”

However, Western Plains and Heartland Christian couldn’t produce a team, especially the first two years. The other squads played a round robin.

The first Wild West Bowl came in 2016 when Weskan finished 8-0. In ’17, Pawnee Heights won the crown, followed by Weskan, Moscow, and Bird City-Cheylin.

“We were not even going to have a championship game,” Pywell said. “We just wanted our kids to play, and Jay Gifford from Dodge High said, ‘No, you will have a championship game, and you will play it here at Dodge City.’ And they even went so far to say you will even have a third place game also. We said, ‘OK.’ We wanted as much of an experience for our kids as possible, as like the KSHSAA playoff kids got.”

Multiple six-man coaches thanked Gifford, the veteran DC Athletics Director, and the Dodge City Sports Commission.

“Having a third-place game and a championship was key to allowing teams to get more experience as we learned this game,” Golden Plains coach Travis Smith said this week.

Pywell said Dodge City handles “everything” for the championship Saturday. All final four schools have drawn good crowds to Dodge City.

“If you are on a team that is pretty good, and the first day of practice there is a chance that, hey at the end of this, we get to go somewhere, there is a big difference on how that season plays out, too,” Pywell said.

Six-Man has published all-state teams and have an all-star game each summer at Bethel College.

Schools have continued to join, especially in southwest Kansas.

Wheatland-Grinnell eventually spent a brief stint in six-man before it moved back to Eight-Man, Division II. This year, 15 teams, including Western Plains, which had a partial schedule, played six-man football. No team was east of Wichita, though.

Six-Man has split into the North and South Divisions. Six-Man met as a group to form scheduling. The group figured out where the North and South line would be.

“We kind of just went off models like KSHSAA,” Pywell said.

Cross-bracketing occurred when there were byes. The six-man teams normally at their scheduling meeting the same day KSHSAA held its districting meeting. KSHSAA meets in the middle in Salina. The six-man squads meet in the middle for the six-man teams.

At first the meeting was in Grainfield. Then, as the southwest Kansas came in, the equidistant point was Scott City. When Burrton and Cunningham joined, six-man switched the meeting place to Ness City. Representation, including the ADs and coaches, came to the meeting.

“Together, the teams were able to help each other out to fill their schedule,” Pywell said.

The KSHSAA Survey

Notably, Jeremy Holaday, KSHSAA Assistant Executive Director, Pywell, and Jeff Chambers believed the KSHSAA survey was a key tipping point to grow six-man to the required 24 teams. Chambers won a Wild West Bowl with Pawnee Heights and is currently an Ashland assistant.

“A survey was sent out to schools to see who would be opting into 6-player in the next cycle,” Holaday wrote in an email to Kpreps this week. “The survey indicated that we would most likely be heading towards at least 24 schools opting to play, and then after the board of directors meeting approving a six-player championship then we soon found out that we indeed would have the current 26.”

“I think the survey and board of directors voce approving a championship was the key movement,” Holaday added.


Pywell said the KSHSAA survey came out this fall.

“Very instrumental in growing this,” Pywell said.

Around the start of this season, Peabody-Burns had already announced it would go to six-man football starting in 2022.

“There were some of those outlier schools that made the jump down to six-man for next year,” Pywell said. “I think they were wanting to, but I think a couple things. Travel was a detriment, which I get it. And I think, two, (6-man) being non-KSHSAA had a little something to do with it.”

Pywell spoke with Southern Cloud’s superintendent. Pywell said Southern Cloud told them several north central Kansas teams were ready to go to six-man, though travel was an issue. Wetmore, located near Centralia, had called Pywell several years ago.

“Travel was a concern,” Pywell said.

The northern schools such as Tescott, Southern Cloud and Wetmore eventually did move to six-man. They had combined for four eight-man wins in 2021.

The other tipping point came in southeast Kansas, including several teams that trouble playing eight-man football games this fall. The group was Waverly, Altoona-Midway, Chetopa and Southern Coffey County.

“Chetopa was a surprise for us,” Pywell said. “Altoona-Midway was kind of a different one for us. We hadn’t heard of that one. But we had heard last couple years that there were some on the east side. And we knew we had to go east to grow.”

Additionally, western schools Chase, Ingalls, and Triplains-Brewster will switch to six-man. Those three teams went 2-24 this year, and Chase had to forfeit games.

“There’s a lot of schools from the east that have come in to help us,” Chambers said. “And that’s making a big difference, kind of our push. We have talked to them, had schools tell us they are interested. We have had teams call us and just ask us about what it would be like and everything. And we just tell them that you can still wear a jersey with your own community’s name on it, and the kids just still get to play for themselves and communities. And that’s worth it. That’s worth it more than anything.”

Helping Cunningham at various junctures

Three years ago, Cunningham re-started its football program at the six-man level. The Wildcats are currently one of the further east teams. Cunningham’s success helped several schools is central Kansas join six-man.

Cunningham coach Lance McGuire called Cowles “very influential.” Many years ago, McGuire heard Cowles at an eight-man clinic discuss what drills an eight-man team does when they have seven to nine boys out football. Like Weskan, Cunningham and limited numbers. Cowles brought up six-man, and said they were trying to start it in Northwest Kansas.

Chambers, then the Pawnee Heights coach, and Pywell answered questions and invited Cunningham even before the Wildcats were part of six-man. Then, Chambers and Fox went to Cunningham when the program was 90 percent tilted to six-man football. Fox and Chambers talked to the community and school board.

“Here’s the nuts and bolts,” McGuire said. “Here’s how it works. He’s what six-man is going to offer for you. So I think all of the people chipped in.”

Another time, McGuire took two senior pages to Topeka. Weskan was being recognized as the state champion that year. McGuire said six-man was “kind of on the radar.” McGuire caught Clow in the hallway, introduced himself and started asking questions.

“At the time, I was completely and totally blown away with how open he was,” McGuire said. “…Today, I wouldn’t be surprised because that’s just how he is.”

This summer, McGuire went to nearby Peabody-Burns and talked to them about the six-man move.

Old Tennis Shoes and Neutral Site Games

One of the hallmarks of the six-man teams was neutral site games and playing at different locations. Cowles let Weskan and Cunningham play at Ness City. Rolla and Northern Valley met in Grainfield this fall and played a few hours before Wheatland-Grinnell’s Homecoming contest. This year, Cheylin and Ashland were expected to play a key cross-divisional game in Deerfield on Sept. 17.

On Sept. 10, Cheylin played at Deerfield. The scoreboard malfunctioned. Deerfield said it would not have the scoreboard ready by Sept. 17. On Sept. 13, Ashland called Pywell and asked if Rozel could host. Pywell said that would be fine, but he wouldn’t be there since Pawnee Heights had a road game versus Rolla. Plus, Pawnee Heights had a volleyball tournament Sept. 18.

“All you do is show up and play,” Pywell said.

In the afternoon on Sept. 15, Pywell said he put on his “cruddy tennis shoes” and got some paint.

“We freshened up the paint, and off they played Friday,” Pywell said.




Use your Facebook account to add a comment or start a discussion. Posts are subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment.