Winners at no cost


Spires spend on the field through hard work, grit, to finish with record season

Some would wonder why a college team would be included in a set of awards that have been dominated by prep squads and athletes.

Simple: With a smaller sample size of teams to deal with compared to hundreds of prep athletes to pick from, to give a better quality of selections it is vital to deepen that pool (of course some may argue that could apply to Coach of the Year, but baby steps for now.)

With this in mind, we took a close look at what it is like to turn a program around when essentially, the chips are in some ways stacked exponentially against you.

So who else but the University of Saint Mary football team should be the 2016-17 Leavenworth Times’ Team of the Year?

With head coach Jay Osborne pushing the right buttons, defensive coordinator Tim Brooks storming the sidelines charging up his men and the players finding the right play in the better way, the Spires revolutionized football at the school with the greatest year in program history.

They finished 8-3 overall, 7-2 in Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) play and just missed out on a national ranking and a first-ever NAIA playoff spot. The 8-3 record was an all-time high for the program.

This all happened 12 months removed from a 3-8 campaign and having to fight uphill against economic disadvantages that no one else in the KCAC comes close to overall.

According to the United States Department of Education and Equality in Athletics Data Analysis from 2015, the Spires did more with much, much less compared to the other nine football programs.

The athletic program offers the least amount of total student aid for men’s teams ($451,980) and the athletic program combined ($691K), with the next closest numbers being $537,975 and $913K.

As far as a recruiting budget, men’s teams combined were allotted a minuscule, $8,762, second lowest ($6,689) and second smallest overall, $16,216 combined.

The football program’s operating expenses – $50,702 – are the second lowest in the league ($42,749) and at least half that of four programs and more than $25K less than seven.

To do what USM did last fall was not just about being good with football, but it was an overall statement at the program’s ability to win by exhausting every resource and using them all to their advantage. 

Every cent was clearly well spent and because of being able to do more with less, resource-wise, how can this team not be named Team of the Year?

Osborne is proud to call his program one that develops players. It does bring in junior college transfers, but few and far between in comparison to other schools. The USM staff recruits and brings in mainly, prep players and turns them into Spires.

“The 3-8 team in 2015 started three freshmen and two sophomores on the offensive line, so that’s where we talk about that developmental process,” Osborne said. “With this 2017 team we are in our third year together and they have gotten stronger. With our front seven on our D-line and O-line, we had holes where we couldn’t stop the bleeding. That’s where we had the mindset that we can’t do anything and they are just going to grind us out. To stand on the sideline and watch people run the ball on you eight, nine, 10 snaps and score a touchdown, you become that team (that can’t bounce back).”

The weightlifting program accelerated over the past four years and that’s helped the team win most battles in the trenches.

This wouldn’t have been the case recently.

“I could probably out-lift most of our D-line (a few years ago) which is not good,” Brooks said. “We didn’t switch positions on the D-line. They just played their side. Back then, everybody weighed 220 … they played hard, but you can only do so much.”

The coaches are now in the weight room with the players and everyone is lifting according to Osborne.

“If you don’t get stronger, it’s going to cost you,” Osborne said. 

In the preseason of 2016, Osborne spoke of his team with a knowing wink in his eye. The league’s coaches tabbed them as the KCAC’s seventh-best program.

No, but still it took some time for the Spires to turn the corner and hit the gas.

“There is still a point where it is surreal, but not the whole thing,” Osborne said. “You have to beat the team you have to beat and that finally happened and this 2016 team realized we are winning those, but we can’t beat a Top 25 team. They didn’t realize what they needed to do to beat those teams, and thought they had to do something totally different. That lightbulb came on and it became this is what we have to do.

“We went to Bethany and were down going into the fourth quarter and decided ‘It’s on us.’ We were going to play hard and not do anything not asked of us. We started to do our job and that led to a string of beating teams we’re supposed to beat or where you are equal. As the season went along, we got more confidence.”

That 31-30 win over Bethany was just the start of a four-game winning streak that was then bookended by a big 38-24 season clinching victory over Kansas Wesleyan in Leavenworth to push the Spires into a tie for second place in the final KCAC standings.

It all came after the Spires lost a lead in the fourth quarter and then history would not overcome them as the bright future took control.

“It was tied and we proved we were the better football team because we extended the game with two more scores,” Osborne said. “At 24-24 in years past, the guys would have given the game up and thought they thought they’d lost. I was never scared or worried, but there was that surreal moment when KyRandall (Smith) picked up the fumble and you say, ‘This is happening, this is going down.’ That was the moment where we knew we should have been 10-1 and we didn’t do anything in that game out of the norm. We did it against No. 10 in the nation and just played our game.”

Brooks also knew it was going to be a better year – and partially hoped for more motivation with a 10th place, preseason pick.

“Our defense was better than it had been and we always put points up, we were going to beat some people,” Brooks said. “One game that is undervalued is the Ottawa game (14-13 win). We lost the turnover battle 3-0 and we still won. In the past they would have beaten us by 60. We did all kinds of stuff (wrong), but no one was worried, they were just like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ We didn’t play well, but we pulled it out.

“I felt in the spring that we’d be good. We had a lot of talent and experience. Our offense got older and on defense we finally had some dogs up front.”

Senior wide receiver Isai Fernandez arrived on campus just as Osborne took over the program and notes the number of changes including the new football stadium and the amenities that came with it.

“I didn’t foresee any of this, I came in with a blind eye and just having a shot at playing,” Fernandez said. “To see all the facilities getting built was really cool and then seeing new recruits coming in because It’s a cool place to go to college. We went from 3-8 to this and I knew we could do this. When I first got in here, you could see we were talented and I was playing with grown men, but I would say back then it was the mindset of ‘Oh, I am just going to play football,’ where now we think that we can actually win.

“You can see that the mentality has changed. When we were down, there was no chance we’d get back in the game. Now? We know what we need to do and can do it. We trust the process. If you don’t, you are going to be that 3-8 team.”

The “process” for USM football is just about sticking to the plan, on either side of the ball, to give the team a chance to grow into what it needed to do to win and win consistently.

The revolution has created a mindset that never existed before.

“I am actually disappointed that we didn’t win every game,” Fernandez said. “It was realistic to think that. We could have beat those guys (Tabor, Concordia, Sterling). We had never beaten Tabor and we actually saw that these guys were beatable. I’ve never been to the playoffs here or won conference. I want a ring. Our goal is to get that ring and get a playoff game.

“To come from 3-8, that wasn’t even in our vocabulary. Now, we are so close …”

Outgoing running back Easton Ridley saw this as a product of better players and coaches and a new approach. 

“We got tired of losing,” Ridley said. “So we decided we were going to work a little harder and not going to lose. That’s what it comes down to. We lost to Tabor and Concordia and it’s easy to get down, but when you have coaches that constantly push that mentality that you are better than you think you are, you work a little harder to not accept losing.”

The pride also grew with the improvement in the newer facilities such as Charles J. Berkel Memorial Stadium that illustrated a desire to see something better.

“When you are out there, getting your butt kicked in a crappy stadium and there’s no fans, it’s like what are we doing here, why do we care?” Fernandez said. “No one wants to come here if no one goes to watch you play.”

“The biggest factor no one talks about what this stadium has done for us, is that field out there,” Osborne said. “With that turf, he doesn’t have to worry about rolling his ankle playing on rock and gravel and at times it was what we called, Lake Saint Mary, or a field with crevices all through it and cracks in it because it was so dry. Our practice facility, before this was built, made it really tough to do anything. 

“So the new field probably got us a win or two.”

Coaches coach for those wins, but players still had to buy in to make the difference.

“It comes from the player-led leadership,” Brooks said. “On defense, we had KyRandall and Kenny Nez. Kids are going to take whatever I say, but if those guys told you to do it, you were going to do it. The offense had a collective core that is probably the meanest in the country and that kind of set the tone for the team. That kind of caught on. On defense, we started calling ourselves the ‘Dogfense’ telling how tough we are and the offense picked up on that and they were tough too. That mentally helped us.”

Now the focus is to take this momentum and success and build it to the point that seasons like this aren’t even good enough for a Team of the Year recognition and is more of the norm with escalating expectations.

It’s now not about having a memorable year, but more so about creating a sustainable, winning program.

“We got quite a few starters back, it’s a majority,” Osborne said. “Is it likely that we will be like the 2015 team where we played a lot of young guys or are we going to be more like the last end of the 2016 team, which we are more used to now. If we can maintain that consistency … with guys who have been there and done that … our biggest question marks are replacing some holes, but we need to maintain the mentality and consistency.

“Consistency is the name of the game.”

OTHER TOP CANDIDATES

Leavenworth boys’ track: A third-place finish at the Class 5A state finals and the sprint team’s ability to dominate were the icing on the cake for a team that found a way to win despite not having overwhelming numbers.

Basehor-Linwood boys’ soccer: They came an overtime goal away from the program’s first state title and were barely even touched all season.

Leavenworth girls’ basketball: With the Terrific Three of Hayward, Lister and Moore, the team was bound to battle for state honors. But it was the rise of the sophomores that stepped into the spotlight and battled – especially on defense – that made all the difference in finishing third in Class 5A.

Basehor-Linwood football: It may not have ended the way they wanted, but the season was special the minute the Bobcats’ walked onto the field against Bishop Miege on the night of the state semifinal loss. They won the Kaw Valley, a first regional title and finished 11-1.

Honorable mention:

USM women’s basketball

Lansing girls’ track

Leavenworth wrestling

Lansing volleyball

Immaculata boys’ basketball

 

Winner of the L&L Cup: It was a close race and both sides were pushed by one side of the aisle, but in the end, Lansing High School has captured the First Annual Leavenworth Times’ L&L Cup title. The Lions outscored Leavenworth, 60-54 to win the crown overall. Individually, the Lansing girls cruised to an easy, 42-7 win, to capture those bragging rights, while the Leavenworth boys edged out to a 47-18 victory and will be the top dogs for a year. We are looking at tweaking the formula next year and hope to get a trophy to actually give away. Stay tuned.

OTHER FUN HONORS

Moment of the Year: IMAC winning on a deep 3-pointer by Zach Schwinn in the first game after hearing the announcement to close the school.

Most impressive performance: Seeing Aarika Lister ably attempt to defend her titles in the 100- and 200-meter runs despite not running for nearly two months really after dealing with a hamstring injury – the worst for sprinters – was awesome. She didn’t win, but how many can finish second and third in sprints after that much time off and having incurred such a setback? 

The darkhorses for the future: Leavenworth’s Alexis Cole in girls basketball and Brianna Walker in girls’ soccer and Basehor-Linwood’s Jacob Coleman boys’ hoops.

Freshmen of the Year: Leavenworth’s Reece Williams (boys’ basketball) and Kaylee Shaw (girls’ soccer), although Immaculata’s Gina Favero (soccer and girls’ basketball) was impressive with her work ethic and toughness. Hope her future home appreciates her as much as the Raider fans did.

The revenge factor to watch: Lansing’s Syd Bolewski saw her soccer season cut short. I am betting she will come back next April and be a very tough person to deal with.

Game of the Year: LHS-LVHS football, PR-IMAC boys’ hoops, Saint Mary over Kansas Wesleyan football.

Character recognition: There are so, so, many more than I can list, but these are the athletes that have had many a testimonial said on their behalves and personally, they have shown class, integrity, intelligence and some pizzazz in conversations with the media. So we give special note to Carly Gore, Eric Scott, Quinton McQuillan, Emma Bresser, Jaci Huckabee, Regan Gatson, Tori Robinson, Maddie Walker, Tanner Williams, Josh Robinson, Derek Zule, Zach Schwinn, Evin Wheaton, Jordan Sachse, Alan Robinson, Taryn Burks, Sierra Robinson, Aarika Lister, Hayes Edwards, Devin Johnston, Daniel Butler, Griffin Hancock, Celeste Marchbanks, Anthony Gould, Dylan McLain, Collin Jones, Nick Evans, Jordan Berry, Zoie Hayward and Zach Thiel.

Hope to see more of ya, awards: Julie Miller and Dylan McLain. The Pleasant Ridge girl and Leavenworth young man, both showed big glimpses of future excellence during their sophomore years. Here’s hoping for more.

The best fans: IMAC basketball – most likely due to the emotions of the moment, but consistently? LVHS. Good crowds in multiple sports – although some not so much as in the case of many. Still think PR still has the best gym around.

Sneak peek at biggest storyline for 2017-18: How LVHS will do in its final season as a Sunflower League member?

Biggest state title threat (team): Lansing volleyball

Biggest state title threat (individual): (tie) Anthony Gould and Aarika Lister, Leavenworth and Luke Oatney, Pleasant Ridge, all in track and Trinity Hall of Lansing in swimming.