Holton set to take on Holcomb with state title on the line
As the high school football season draws to a close with only the state championship game remaining, Holton’s final goal is fairly simple. The team just has to “finish.”
Following a comeback victory over Columbus in the sub-state round, HHS coach Brooks Barta is hoping his team has learned its lesson in that regard, as the team overcame its struggles earlier in the season and pulled a win out in the end.
“It was just great to see, for them to overcome the perfect storm. I think we beat Columbus’ best effort,” Barta said.
Now, the Wildcats have a chance to finish a long journey that got off to a bumpy start, finish the comeback and take the final step on a unique path that has the Wildcats one win away from a state title in 4A-Division II, which would be the fourth in program history.
The last obstacle standing in Holton’s way is a Holcomb team that, despite the 345 miles between them, seems to be cut from a very similar cloth.
On the surface, just looking at the statistics, the Longhorns and Wildcats have had similar production on both sides of the ball. Holcomb averages 10 points (36.4) and 20 offensive yards (378.9) more per game, while both defenses have been walls and not allowed more than 13 points per game.
While the Longhorns’ offensive tendencies may vary, relying more on the passing game, they also have a coach’s kid leading the way on that side of the ball. Trey Teeter, son of Holcomb head coach Kent Teeter, is the starting quarterback for the Longhorns and has amassed 2,404 passing yards (sixth most in the state) and 35 touchdowns this season.
Meanwhile, Mason Barta, son of HHS coach Brooks Barta, is just shy of 1,000 rushing yards this season and has scored 15 touchdowns, but the offensive production continues to be spread out for the Wildcats as Justin Rieschick (583), Justin Pool (617), Will Wright (647) and Spencer Baum (701) have combined for 2,500 more yards.
Just like Holton, Teeter spreads the ball around, albeit in the passing attack. Christian Merz is his top target, with 46 catches for 1,021 yards and eight touchdowns this season, but three other players (Conner Vancleave, Brandon Stegman and Braden Showalter) have at least 250 receiving yards and seven touchdowns this season as well.
Vancleave also leads Holcomb with seven sacks, while Showalter has caused 11 turnovers this season (eight interceptions), and that’s before getting to leading tackler (129) Dillon Williams, who coach Teeter noted has been a rock in the middle of the Longhorn defense.
With that many playmakers, Holton certainly has its hands full this week just in terms of preparation.
“We’ve seen similar players, I think, on the front seven on both sides, but they put 11 quality players at every position. It’s probably the biggest scouting report we’ve put together so far,” Barta said. “We did some things last week to kind of take one guy away and I don’t see how we can do that against these guys. They’re going to bring some stuff that we haven’t seen and try to create mismatches any way they can. It’ll probably be a game of adjustments.”
Holton has capable playmakers on defense, with Barta racking up a team-high 114 tackles, while Dylan Aeschliman has also topped the century mark this season. Pool has been the ballhawk for the Wildcats, forcing seven turnovers (six interceptions), while Kaden Brandt (who is expected to return to the field this weekend, along with Will Wright) leads the team with five sacks.
Again, all of this has led to nearly identical results, as the Wildcats are plus-22 in turnover margin while the Longhorns are plus-21
Before coming to Holcomb a season ago, Teeter was coaching at Goodland in western Kansas, so he is familiar with the Barta name and what Brooks’ father, Roger, did at Smith Center. So, going into Saturday’s game, he noted he is expecting to see a very familiar challenge.
“They run the ball. We know that. That’s the big thing that we have to concentrate on is stopping their running game,” Teeter said. “With Holton’s running game as good as it is, our defense can’t be on the field all game long. Their key is to maintain drives and keep the ball and not let the other team’s offense get out there on the field.”
Similarly, Barta noted he wants his team to corral the Longhorns’ running game and force them to be a purely passing offense, though the center of his strategy comes down to a simple, familiar word.
“We really have to finish drives. All year that’s kind of been our deal. We don’t feel like our point totals are matching up to our yardage totals,” Barta said. “Defensively, our front has to pressure the quarterback and we have to be aggressive on the ball in the air.”
Aside from what they do on the field, it’s amazing how similarly the teams’ paths to the championship game mirror each other as well.
Holton stumbled against playoff teams Silver Lake (3A) and Maize South (5A) early in the year, while Holcomb was tripped up by postseason qualifiers from Scott City (3A) and Ulysses (4A-DI), before both hit their strides and got some revenge against the teams that eliminated them from the playoffs a season ago (Columbus and Andale) to make it to the championship game.
“I think those losses were big,” Teeter said. “Our kids walked away from those games disappointed, so those were critical times. Were we going to get back or were we going to worry about those losses? I really feel like those two games allowed us to get better and our kids took the criticism from those games well.”
While the scales of postseason experience may tip in Holton’s favor, making its seventh appearance in the title game under Barta, Teeter noted his rookie Holcomb squad features several players from the basketball team that won state a season ago and he believes that has helped his team in getting ready for the atmosphere it will experience on Saturday.
Holton’s players, meanwhile, have grown up around state championship teams and now this group will get its shot. Barta noted he is excited for the players, given what they have overcome this season and the corner they turned in district play, and if they continue to push forward then Saturday’s championship contest will culminate in a familiar scenario.
The Wildcats (9-3) and Longhorns (10-2) will face off in the 4A-DII title game at 1 p.m. on Saturday in Salina at USD 305 District Stadium (650 E. Crawford).
Before the HHS football team sets out on Saturday, there will be a pep rally held for the Wildcats at 8 a.m. in the main high school gym.