Brandon Clark likes working on Thanksgiving. He has made a habit of it over the last several years.
The Derby football coach is taking the Panthers to another Class 6A championship game after they’ve won the previous two and three of the last four. The game, always played on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, makes for a wonderfully hectic week as Clark and his players balance family with football.
Derby (11-1) plays Blue Valley North (8-4) Saturday afternoon at Emporia’s Welch Stadium. Derby has won 10 straight since a Sept. 8 loss to Goddard broke its 24-game winning streak.
“This is exactly what we wish for,” Clark said of planning around a holiday.
“Thursday, we’ll meet in the morning and practice early so everybody can get to Thanksgiving lunch or whatever they do. All the parents come out and we have a little Thanksgiving breakfast after practice. It’s a lot of fun.”
The last four years have proven that Derby can win with different personnel, strengths and styles of play. The Panthers have scored 562 points in 12 games, almost meeting their 48.1 average in 13 games last season.
The defense, however, hasn’t been as consistent. Derby, with one returning starter from a team that allowed 159 points while finishing undefeated, has surrendered more than double last year’s average.
After a 50-20 loss to Goddard in Week 2, Derby has won games in which it allowed 45, 49 and 41 points. Players such as Cade Lindsey, Hunter Igo and Josh Hoffmeier have adapted to changing roles to help Derby survive high-scoring games and thrive in games like Nov. 3 against Manhattan, which Derby won 21-14.
“Coming out of halftime the last three games, we’ve been behind,” Clark said. “Coming out of the locker room, we knew the kids still believed. That’s one thing they still do, they believe every moment. They believe in each other, not only themselves, but the guy next to them.
“Our offense leads into defense, defense leads into offense. And they believe in special teams, too.”
Clark believes in – and relies heavily upon – Derby’s most consistent elements. Igo, the quarterback who moved to defense for two-plus games to account for injuries, is a dual threat who has accounted for more than 2,000 yards.
Running back Brody Kooser is a weapon in the passing game and on special teams, where his touchdown Friday helped Derby hold off Northwest. Kooser may be heavily utilized on Saturday as Igo deals with a toe injury that was compounded last week when it was stepped on.
“His toenail was just gross and they had to drill a hole in his toe at halftime and he was in a ton of pain,” Clark said. “But he (continued to play). He wants to win for the kids and for his team. Kids like that and (wide receiver) Tyler Brown stepping up. Our tight end, Brady Walls, has stepped up. I think he’s the unsung hero off the whole offense. With him, we can do a lot of stuff in the run game.”
Derby’s defense will face another test in BV North and quarterback Graham Mertz, a 6-foot-4 Wisconsin commit who has passed for more than 3,000 yards. BV North’s four losses have come against contenders such as Blue Valley and Bishop Miege.
“When you look across the board, I think eight of their defensive starters outweigh our offensive guys,” Clark said. “They are just big and physical. Their offense and quarterback are really good, and they’ve got good receivers. We don’t look at their schedule, we don’t overlook them. On film, this is the best team we’ve seen.”
State Football finals
All games 1 p.m. Saturday unless noted
Derby (11-1) vs. Blue Valley North (8-4)
Bishop Carroll (11-1) vs. St. Thomas Aquinas (11-1)
CLASS 4A, Division I
Andale (12-0) vs. Bishop Miege (12-0)
CLASS 4A, Division II
Holcomb (11-1) vs. Frontenac (9-3)
Marysville (12-1) vs. Sabetha (12-1)
Smith Center (11-1) vs. Pittsburg Colgan (10-2), 7 p.m.
8-MAN, Division I
Hoxie (11-1) vs. St. Paul (11-1), 11 a.m.
8-MAN, Division II
Hodgeman County (10-2) vs. Hanover (12-0)