It’s the last Sunflower dance for Pioneers

There were numerous realities to discuss when talking about the Leavenworth High 2016 football season.

- They were really young.

- They were really small.

- They played in one of the best football conferences in Kansas.

- They needed to figure out how to win.

Fast forward a year later and some of those realities have been addressed and the others may be on the verge of seeing some questions answered.

- They have 21 seniors on a roster and a ton of underclassmen who got a lot of playing time last season.

- They hit the weight room and added some needed muscle and size. It may not be a bunch, but they are clearly a more physically mature roster.

- They still play in one of the best conferences in Kansas, but for only one more year as Leavenworth will leave the Sunflower League intent on making a final statement.

- That last point is what they still need work on.

It all adds up to a season that could and should be better than a 1-8 mark they finished with last season, one that could have been better than it ended up being.

“We’ll be definitely improved from last year,” Leavenworth head coach Mark Littrell said about his fifth edition of the Pioneers. “We played a lot of young kids and we have a great group of seniors that got a lot of good experience last year. I am looking forward to this year.

“Last year was about the inexperience that we had and that speaks volumes about that. The big game I look back on was the North Kansas City game. We had that one. We had three games (adversely effected by special teams) where we take the lead, kick off and they bring back a kickoff against us – Olathe East. Shawnee Mission North was another one we let slip away. What we talk about now is that we have to finish. We have to compete, give effort and we got to finish. We have to make sure we have that mentality for 48 minutes.”

The seniors are feeling pretty good about moving forward in 2017 behind the older, bigger defensive side of the ball.

“A lot of the boys are actually here to win it versus being here just for themselves,” senior Cody Herrell said. “We are going to do a lot better attitude-wise. We did a lot more cardio and are in much better condition. When we do weights, we do tougher and longer workouts.

“If we can go out with a bang and win more than one game, we’re going to be improved. Last year, we only won our homecoming game.”

The offensive side of the ball lost former sophomore starters – quarterback Dylan McLain (for other endeavors) and running back Anthony Gould (moved to Oregon) – but should still do well with new signal caller, junior Robert McKinley. 

“Robert has really developed over the year,” senior receiver Andrew Ativie said. “Over the summer he got more confidence as a quarterback and is making good decisions in scrimmages. Robert has a stronger arm, he’s not more like running quarterback. If he has to run the ball, he can do it pretty well.”

Ativie, who plays in the secondary, has liked how the defense has looked.

“We have switched over to more of a speed defense and we have beefed up some,” Ativie said. “We are leaning more to getting them in the backfield rather than have them run into us. During the summer we were really pushing hard in the weight room. We may have leaned up, but we are stronger and quicker.”

Herrell has been impressed with McKinley and Hayes Edwards’ running ability, coming from a defensive stand point. Edwards will also play some at quarterback.

“Our middle is weak stopping the run,” Herrell said of his team’s defense. “As long as our linemen pick up their gap, it will be a lot easier for the linebackers to pick our spot and fill the gap like we need to.”

It wasn’t that Leavenworth’s schedule was that daunting – only two regular season opponents had winning records – and that ability to finish might have helped against teams that had their own struggles.

“The North Kansas City game we were clearly the better team,” Littrell said. “We didn’t convert and we had to control the ball to keep it out of their hands because they did have a good running back. Shawnee North had a great quarterback, but those are things we are hoping to see this year.”

Attitude has been the biggest bright spot this preseason for the Pioneers.

“Their attitude and effort has been phenomenal,” Littrell said. “We still need to execute on offense and defense (better). We are good at a few things on each side of the ball, but we got to get better at everything and mesh everything together. If we do that, we should be a pretty good team.”

The Pioneers open up on Sept. 1 against rivals Lansing and then shortly after will dive into the Sunflower League schedule for one last dance.

“I am always excited for the first game of the year and see where we are,” Littrell said of the Lansing game. “It’s tough playing a rival like Lansing in week one, because everyone is juiced up and excited and everything. That’s what it’s all about.

“I believe (they can go .500) but we can’t let games slip away, but we have to stay focused for 48 minutes at a time. I am not worried about sending a message (to the Sunflower), I just want our kids to play well and I want it for the seniors. Their attitude, effort and work ethic has been phenomenal.”

That attitude has indeed flipped since last fall.

“We come into this year ready to win, last year was a terrible season,” Ativie said. “We are ready to come back and enter the league, leave the league, whatever we do, and be ready to compete, win and make a statement wherever we go.”

Schedule breakdown

The reality is that Leavenworth struggled against teams that combined to go a combined 22-44 in 2016 and may have been why coaches could be a bit disappointed in a 1-8 finish, even with a young team.

This year a more experienced and bulkier group will see what can happen in the program’s swan song in the Sunflower League.

Sept. 1, at Lansing, 7 p.m.

Last year a veteran Lions’ squad held on for a dramatic 30-28 win over a young Pioneer bunch. This season the experience level evens out and both teams will have to overcome losses – some expected, others not. Promises to be another barn burner.

Sept. 8, at Shawnee Mission West, 7 p.m.

The Pioneers begin their last year of Sunflower League games against a West squad that may have disappointed some going only 6-4 in 2016. Running back Kirby Grigsby is one to watch.

Sept. 15, HOST North Kansas City, 7 p.m.

This was one of the games that Leavenworth let get away a year ago, but now NKC comes to the First City. There is talent here, but a team that finishes 2-7 could have enough flaws to allow for the Pioneers to grab an expected victory.

Sept. 22, at Shawnee Mission South, 7 p.m.

South had more drama than a morning soap opera and finished 0-10 including a loss to Leavenworth for the Pioneers’ only win last fall. South had to plug in a lot of newbies and that experience leads to 20 returning starters that will be itching for payback against LVHS.

Sept. 29, at Olathe Northwest, 7 p.m.

Northwest loses two dozen key players from a team that finished 3-6 overall in 2016. The Pioneers could have hit its stride by now and could be seeing a payback win in their final trip down the Sunflower’s Yellow Brick Road.

Oct. 6, HOST Shawnee Mission North, 7 p.m.

North loses the state’s all-time career passer Will Schneider (31 TD passes in 2016), but they return 12 starters from a team that made a surprising run to the Class 6A quarterfinals.

Oct. 13, HOST Olathe South, 7 p.m.

The historically strong program went 4-6 in 2016, but returns quarterback Nick Jouret and RB/LB Adrian Garcia so a bounce back is likely. The Pioneers hope it goes nowhere in the Leavenworth home finale.

Oct. 20, at Olathe East, 7 p.m.

Top running back Jack Mason spearheads 15 returning starters for East that struggled to 3-6 in 2016. A good performance and potential winner would only help LVHS’ playoff seeding as the curtain comes down on the Pioneer era in the Sunflower League.