Two football coaches, different as could be, but with one important thing in common.
Highland Community College’s Ryan Held and Dodge City’s Gary Thomas have flipped the final go-round for the Region VI playoffs on its head.
“I spent a lot of time listening to people tell me what we couldn’t do,” Thomas said. “You just have to listen. You can’t say anything back. You just have to tell yourself, eventually, we’ll show them.”
Highland (6-3) travels to No. 8 Butler (7-1) on Sunday in one Region VI semifinal. No. 19 Hutchinson (6-3) travels to No. 18 Dodge City (6-2) in the other. It’s the last year for this playoff format, as the Jayhawk Conference goes to 11-game schedules next season.
It’s Highland’s first appearance in the postseason since the league went from an eight- to four-team format in 2005. The Conquistadors’ only appearance in the four-team format came in 2011, when they finished fifth but were put in by default because Fort Scott was on probation.
“Heck, I picked Highland to be in the playoffs last season,” Butler coach Troy Morrell said. “I’ve known how good of a coach (Held) is for awhile now.”
Held played at Nebraska, winning two national titles in the mid-1990s — then two more national titles as an assistant at Nebraska and at Tennessee. After getting out of coaching for several years to run an online recruiting service, he needed only to call on Morrell, an old friend, to get back in the game in 2011 when he was hired as Butler’s offensive coordinator.
After leaving to become Highland’s coach in 2012, Held repaid the favor by beating Morrell and the Grizzlies 23-21 on Sept. 21 in El Dorado — Butler’s first regular-season home loss since 1999.
“Troy is a classy guy … one of the best you will ever meet,” Held said. “We just made one more play than they did. I have nothing but respect for him and what his program is all about. I’ve seen it up close. When I wanted to get back into coaching, I told him I’d be the waterboy and he got me back into it.”
Thomas is a self-proclaimed outsider. The Torrance, Calif., native scrapped his way to four years as the starting quarterback at Cerritos (Calif.) Community College and NCAA Division II West Texas A&M, then worked his way up through the ranks as an assistant at West Texas A&M, Adams State, College of the Desert and Western State College before becoming head coach at College of DuPage three years ago. It was there that he took a team of non-scholarship athletes and guided them to a No. 8 ranking in last season’s final NJCAA poll.
His departure from DuPage came out of necessity more than anything — the program has been dogged by rumors the school would drop the program and university officials only committed to two more years of football after the 2012 season.
“We want to try and sustain this success, and that means being able to build with high school recruiting,” Thomas said of Highland. “Right now we’re winning with a lot of transfers, which is great this year, but it can be akin to putting Band-Aids on a gunshot wound.”
Transfers or not, what both Highland and Dodge City have are big-time athletes being recruited to the highest levels of Division I.
Highland quarterback Brandon Bergeron (6-2, 200 pounds), a freshman from Lafayette, La., leads the Jayhawk with 2,748 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Highland defensive end Joe Keels (6-4, 275) is the No. 12 junior-college recruit in the country and has committed to Wisconsin.
“Brandon is already qualified to play Division I, he came here to increase his stock,” Held said. “He’s most likely going to a four-year school after this season.”
Dodge City defensive tackle Terrell Clinkscales (6-4, 315) is the top-rated player at his position and has offers from Alabama, Auburn, Arizona State, Texas Tech and Iowa State, among others. Running back Tyreis Thomas (6-0, 200) transferred from DuPage and is second in the Jayhawk with 1,289 rushing yards and leads the league with 16 touchdowns.
“Tyreis has carried us at times,” Thomas said. “But a lot of his touches wouldn’t come without a defense making turnovers and doing what they’ve done all year.”
Waiting for them all, however, is Butler. The Grizzlies have won six of the seven Region VI titles in the four-team format.
“We understand it’s a do-or-die situation and everybody’s record is 0-0,” Morrell said. “But definitely, anytime that you lose to someone and have the chance to compete against that team or individual again, you look forward to that opportunity … to fight for the chance to make your goals happen.
“After the Highland loss, I told our team our season wasn’t over, that one night didn’t have to define us or our season for that matter. Now we control our own destiny and I’m proud of our kids for believing in themselves and trusting each other after what was a really tough loss.”