Derby has a chance to win a second consecutive Class 6A football championship on Saturday when it plays Blue Valley for the second straight year in the championship game in Emporia.
A victory would unlock a handful of accomplishments.
Derby would win its third championship in the past four seasons; it would finish with an undefeated record and win back-to-back championships for the first time in program history; and it would be the first program in 6A to win back-to-back titles since Hutchinson won three straight from 2004-06.
And the Panthers haven’t just won, they have dominated.
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Derby has outscored opponents 608-145 in 12 victories this season for an average winning margin of more than 38 points. Derby has played seven games against teams that won at least one game in the playoffs, yet no one has managed to stay within 26 points. The only time Derby didn’t score at least 40 points was on Sept. 9 in a 35-6 win over Goddard, which is playing for the 5A championship, and that game was called off at halftime due to weather.
Where does this Derby team rank among the best to come from the area in recent memory? Are they on par with undefeated state championships teams like Hutchinson in 2009, Heights in 2010, and Bishop Carroll in 2012 and 2014?
“Those are some all-time great teams and it’s so hard to compare teams that were on different timelines,” said Northwest coach Steve Martin, whose team lost to Derby in the second round of the playoffs. “But I think this Derby team could definitely match up. What makes them special is they have a defense that can match the offensive firepower.”
The way Derby’s defense operates sets it apart from the typical dominant defense.
“You look at the guys on the field and there’s nobody really that stands out as far as size,” Goddard coach Scott Vang said. “It’s not like they’re a huge team. But then you look up after the first quarter and you’re down 14 or 21 points. Those guys can play.”
Derby coach Brandon Clark knew this season could be special because of that defense, which returned the majority of its starters and plays mostly seniors who have known each other since kindergarten.
Peerlus Walker, Tommy Carter, Riley Cain, Braeden Cooper, Tanner Igo, and Cooper Welch are talented players, but the defense has become so rugged because Derby is solid all the way around the field.
Derby plays with such confidence and togetherness that it elevates the play of all 11 players on the field, a phenomenon that Carroll coach Alan Schuckman says is a quality that his championship teams had.
“Every great team is going to have some great players, but the teams that become special are the ones where the average players become good players,” Schuckman said. “That’s what separate the good teams from the special teams.”
Clark said the chemistry on this team has made this season special.
“This is a really close group of kids that really, really, really love to play football and love each other,” Clark said. “And they don’t just love playing in the games, but they love to practice too. Practice doesn’t feel like something you gotta do with this group, it’s something they get to do. They’re a hungry bunch.”
But what makes Derby devastating is its offense, which is averaging more than 450 yards and 50 points. The Panthers have achieved almost perfect balance, as they have rushed for 2,841 yards (led by Brody Kooser with 1,525 yards and 30 touchdowns) and quarterback Dan Dawdy has thrown for 2,532 yards and 33 touchdowns.
While there is no good option in trying to defend Derby, the last two weeks defenses have chosen to commit to stopping Kooser in the running game. While he has a combined 78 yards rushing the last two weeks, Dawdy has flourished in the passing game, throwing for 353 yards in a 40-7 win over Hutchinson and 339 yards in a 49-21 win over Lawrence Free State.
“You used to be able to just load the box and stop the running game and then live and die with their passing game, but you can’t do that anymore,” Martin said. “So now people can only play six, sometimes seven in the box, instead of seven, sometimes eight. They do a great job of exploiting the matchups.”
Dawdy has big targets to throw to in Kenyon Tabor (6-foot-4), Michael Littleton (6-3), Lachlan Jones (6-2), Kai Lemons (6-0), and Jack Taylor (6-0). Tabor, a Kansas signee, has caught 60 passes for 1,129 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Littleton and Lemons have combined for 16 touchdowns.
Dawdy has been able to identify the mismatch at the line of scrimmage and deliver the ball without making mistakes (four interceptions on 232 attempts).
“We tried to man cover their receivers and they just picked on our corners with their size,” Vang said. “They can go up and high-point it on just about anybody. And you can’t send safety help on all five of them.”
“They look even more explosive than they did last year,” said Blue Valley coach Eric Driskell, who will try to be the first team to slow down Derby on Saturday. “They might be even more physical, too. Any time you have to defend the entire field, which you have to do against them, that makes it really, really tough. You just have to be as sound as possible against them and try to limit their big plays.”
Clark said it was difficult to compare this year’s team to last year’s team or the 2013 championship team.
It’s not a question he wants to think about until after Saturday.
“These kids work so hard year-round, but they only have so many games to show for it,” Clark said. “This is the last game, the last time they get the chance to play together, so they might as well show out.”