Heights senior Daniel Deshazer is the quiet type, and having a conversation with him usually requires one to lean a bit closer to hear what he's saying.
When he comes off the football field, though, the running back is the first one to offer words of encouragement. His calming presence was what Heights needed most during its Class 6A semifinal victory over Dodge City, when the Falcons fell behind 28-0.
"Everybody was pretty quiet, I had to get everybody hyped, get them in the mood. Some people lost their mood," Deshazer said."... I wanted to keep them on their feet, keep their head up, keep cheering them on. I was just trying to talk to them, give them a slap on their butt, say, 'pick it up.' "
Such composure was key as the Falcons remain poised en route to a 42-38 win to put them in Saturday's Class 6A title game. The Falcons (12-0) play Olathe North (11-1) at 1 p.m. at Washburn's Yager Stadium in Topeka. It's a rematch of the 2009 title game, won by Olathe North.
Heights (12-0) has weathered difficult situations this season, especially in their last two playoff games.
Heights' explosive offense was held without a first down in the second half of an 18-15 quarterfinal win at Junction City. And falling behind by four touchdowns early to Dodge City was disheartening for the Falcons, who have outscored opponents by an average of 50.8-11.7.
Heights' ability to handle those situations is a tribute to coach Rick Wheeler. He is, admittedly, an emotional guy, and he runs intense practices, during which he yells more than at game time.
"Hopefully they've dealt with the stress and the anxiety and tension in practice, so that when it happens in a game, it's not a surprise," Wheeler said."... Practices are about stress and dealing with urgency, trying to be perfect all the time."
Heights had a significant moment this season when it didn't keep its composure. At Great Bend in late September, three Heights players were ejected, including running back Dreamius Smith, who has committed to Kansas.
Video shows Smith being punched while on the ground after being tackled. He was ejected for throwing a punch, but when Wheeler looked back at game tapes from various sources, he found no evidence of that happening. The other two players ejected were reserves who hadn't even played.
Wheeler was furious, and he admits he lost it.
"I felt like we were being wrongly accused," he said. "You feel you have to defend your kids, your program, your reputation. That part needs to happen, and then you have to go on and deal with the task at hand. The quicker you can deal with your composure and move on, the better you do."
Wheeler moved on, and his team had to, as well.
"I just basically chilled and waited until it was done," Deshazer said. "I didn't want to get involved. I just wanted to play the game."
Heights handily defeated Great Bend without Smith, who also missed the next game due to a City League rule regarding ejections.
Playing without Smith could have been difficult. He's got size (6-foot, 205 pounds) and speed (he was the anchor on the Class 6A 400 relay championship team in May).
But the Falcons proved just how deep their team is. Against Great Bend, eight players rushed for a combined 461 yards, including Deshazer's 153 yards on six carries and quarterback Matt Reed's 139 rushing yards.
In the next game, a win over Northwest, Deshazer had 235 rushing yards and Marquel Moore had 124.
"Our offense isn't built around one person," Reed said. "It's built around the team."
Heights' offense has been the backbone of this team all season, putting up a City League-record 4,616 yards in the regular season that included a game that was called at the half.
Utter faith in that offense is part of the reason Heights was able to rebound from a major deficit in an important game.
"When we got that first touchdown (against Dodge City), it got everybody back into and back into the game," Reed said.
But even more important for Heights is the Falcons proved that when things get tough, they will persevere.
"Now there's proof in the pudding — we will play for 48 minutes, we will never quit, we will play to the last whistle, we will play to the last second of the game," Wheeler said.
"The past two weeks have really helped us out," he said. "Before, we didn't really have any rocky games. We've had some rough games and rocky roads now. I believe we'll come out Saturday ready and be prepared."