Traditional powers meet new contenders in Class 3A & 1A

Left to Right: by Brian Holderman, by Chet Kuplen, by Brent Maycock, by Scott Paske
By: Matt Gilmore, Kpreps Editor
Nov 24, 2023

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Photo artwork from L-R: Jefferson Co. North's Calvin Manville (by Brian Holderman), Conway Springs' Brayden Kunz (by Chet Kuplen, Sports in Kansas), Topeka Hayden's Finn Dunshee (by Brent Maycock, KSHSAA Covered), Cheney's Jackson Voth (by Scott Paske, KSHSAA Covered).

Each season as State Championship Saturday approaches, we often expect the same tradition-rich programs to don the sidelines for another shot at adding to their trophy case. But in a handful of instances this season, a school will make its first-ever state football title game appearance.

That will be the case in the Class 3A and the Class 1A state title games on Saturday.

In Class 3A, the Cheney Cardinals have advanced to the schools’ first title game in history, and in Class 1A, the Jefferson County North Chargers have advanced to the final weekend for the first time.

Both teams will take on tradition-rich programs in opponents Topeka Hayden (3A) and Conway Springs (1A).

  • Class 3A: Cheney (12-0) vs. Topeka Hayden (12-0) – at Gowans Stadium in Hutchinson
  • Class 1A: Jefferson Co. North (11-1) vs. Conway Springs (10-2) – at Lewis Field on the campus of Fort Hays State University

The kickoff of both games has been moved up to 12:00 P.M. due to the threat of impending winter weather.

Class 3A: Cheney vs. Topeka Hayden

Cheney has high expectations for this season after reaching the Class 3A state quarterfinals a season ago. Coach Shelby Wehrman has an experienced group, loaded with talent including several collegiate-level prospects.

But the Cardinals have certainly overcome some significant hurdles to reach their first title game.

For starters, Cheney is in 3A-District 7 with four-time defending champion Andale. The Indians entered the Week 7 district showdown at Cheney having won 57 consecutive games and jumped out to a 22-0 lead on the Cardinals.

Cheney came storming back in the second half and tied the game at 30 and went into overtime. In overtime, Cheney’s Jackson Voth batted down an Andale pass on fourth down. The next play, he avoided a defender and spun across the goal line for the game-winning 10-yard touchdown run.  

Then came a quarterfinal showdown against Clay Center – the team that knocked Cheney out of the playoffs last season. This season, Clay Center scored with less than a minute to play to take a 21-20 lead. But Cheney’s Grady Kuehn connected on a 32-yard field goal on the game’s final play to lift the Cardinals to a 23-21 win.

That set up a rematch with Andale and again the Indians jumped out to a commanding lead. This time, Andale led 24-0 before Cheney got a late first-half touchdown to pull within 24-7. The Cardinals pulled to within 24-21 after a touchdown run by quarterback Josh Burdick and a Burdick to Voth touchdown pass.

Then Burdick hit Gavin Maas on a 15-yard touchdown right over the pylon with 2:18 remaining to give the Cardinals the 28-24 lead. The Cardinal defense then batted down Andale’s fourth-down pass attempt and Cheney could celebrate its first-ever state title game appearance.

Burdick and Voth have been difference makers for the Cheney offense all season. Burdick, a junior, has passed for 2,398 yards and 33 touchdowns this season with only two interceptions. Voth has done a little bit of everything. The New Mexico State commit has 68 receptions for 954 yards and 11 touchdowns. He has also rushed for more than 350 yards and 11 scores and is among the team’s leading tacklers with 44 stops. 

Seniors Colter McDaniel and Maas are also explosive in the passing game. McDaniel has 565 receiving yards and nine touchdowns, while Maas has 376 yards and six scores.

The Cardinal defense allows only 9.6 points per game and is led by leading tackler Drew Tolar. Kason Messenger is a force on the defensive side and is receiving collegiate interest.

On the other sideline, Topeka Hayden is back in the state championship game for the eighth time in school history and the first since 2016. The Wildcats have three state championships coming in 1998, 2004, and 2008.

This year’s Hayden squad has rolled through an unbeaten season with its closest margin of victory coming by 17 points.

But Hayden’s season has had its share of adversity. Standout running back Finn Dunshee suffered a knee injury in the Week 5 contest against Perry-Lecompton and missed several weeks. Starting quarterback Jett Wahlmeier was injured in the early rounds of the playoffs and has given way to sophomore Connor Hanika.

What has been constant has been the Wildcat defense. Hayden has allowed only nine points per game this season and has pitched four shutouts and held opponents to a single score in four other games. Carter Charvat and Jude Konrade make up on of the top linebacker duos in the state.

Offensively, Hayden will rely on its deep group of athletes that features leading rusher Kade Mitchell, Dom Ridley, and playmaker Jensen Schrickel. The Wildcats got a huge boost with the return of Dunshee a couple of weeks ago against Parsons. Last week, Dunshee rushed for 129 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Hayden.

Class 1A: Jefferson Co. North vs. Conway Springs

Like Cheney, Jefferson County North has reached the state championship game for the first time in school history. In fact, the Chargers had never reached a state semifinal contest until a 52-0 win over Olpe in the quarterfinals.

Jefferson Co. North then followed that effort up with a gritty, 20-13 road-win over top-ranked St. Mary’s Colgan. The Chargers rallied from down 13-0 in the first half and shut down Colgan’s high-scoring offense for most of the game.

The Chargers have now won six consecutive games since their lone loss of the season – a 34-18 decision in district play to defending-champion Saint Marys.

On the season, Jefferson County North averages 45.5 points per contest behind an experienced group up front as well as a good group of skill athletes.

Quarterback Grady Noll, a converted running back, leads the Charger offense. Grady Noll has passed for 1,072 yards and 11 touchdowns, and has added 1,165 yards rushing with 15 scores. Ethan Noll has added 867 yards on the ground with 17 touchdowns, while Connor Kierns has added 830 yards and 14 scores.

Ethan Noll leads the Chargers with 15 receptions for 354 yards and three scores. Cameron Seever has 264 receiving yards and four touchdowns, while Kierns has added 221 yards receiving with a pair of touchdowns.

Defensively, the Chargers allow around 10 points per game and are led by Ethan Noll with 80 stops. Their challenge is to stop one of the state’s best small-school players in Brayden Kunz of Conway Springs.

Kunz (6-2, 205) has put up back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons out of the Cardinals’ single-win attack. This fall, Kunz has rushed for 2,506 yards and 21 touchdowns. For his career, Kunz has rushed for more than 6,000 yards and scored 67 touchdowns.

But to stop Conway Springs, opponents cannot just key in on Kunz. Junior Isaac Winter has had a good year in rushing for 789 yards and nine scores, while senior Nathan Berntsen has added 641 yards and seven touchdowns.

The Cardinals average 363 yards per game on the ground and did not attempt a pass in their 34-19 semifinal win over Medicine Lodge. That marked the third game this season that Conway Springs did not register a pass completion. For the season, Conway Springs has completed 22 passes for 417 yards. Those 22 completions have come by a combined five different players.

The single-wing, run-dominant attack is no secret and it has certainly been a recipe for success for the Cardinal football program. Saturday will mark Conway Springs’ tenth state title game appearance. The Cardinals have seven state championships (’98, ’01, ’02, ’03, ’04, ’08, ’11) with the last coming in 2011.


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