TOPEKA — Just over eight months ago, at White Auditorium in Emporia, I remember the looks on faces of Wichita Heights' basketball players as they whooped and hollered and showed off their Class 6A state basketball championship trophy.
It was a time of jubilation as yet another Wichita high school won the state's largest classification basketball title.
Those were starkly different faces from the ones I saw Saturday at Yager Stadium after Heights was beaten 37-3 by Olathe North in the 6A football championship game.
Kudos to the Falcons for reaching the title game. But they were overmatched on both lines of scrimmage and any doubt about the game's outcome was erased after just a few minutes.
So now it's 26 years and counting since the City League produced a football champion in the state's largest class.
In that time, however, the league has produced 15 state basketball titles. Heights, South, Southeast, North, East and Northwest have all won hoops championships since East took back-to-back football titles in 1982-83.
"It's a lot different feeling today than it was when we won in basketball,'' Heights junior running back Dreamius Smith said. "We came out, we worked hard in practice all week and we gave it our best shot.''
The Falcons had no answer for how to stop Olathe North's running game, led by senior James Franklin. Nor could Heights generate much offense of its own.
"This is the complete opposite of the way we felt after basketball,'' Heights defensive back Evan Wessel said. "We just didn't execute today and it doesn't feel good.''
The City League's long football drought has been a hot topic for a while now. There are numerous theories, with the best being the lack of a system during middle-school years, an distinct advantage for a school such as Olathe North.
"It takes a true system to make winning happen on a consistent basis,'' City League athletic director Bill Faflick said. "We have a lot of kids in our schools who play football for the first time when they are entering high school. So they're in a system for four years at max.''
Class 6A football players in the City League are on par with any in the state athletically. But they often lack the kind of precision and refinement that could be taught if there were feeder systems. It's most noticeable in line play. Olathe North's defensive line, in particular, was able to push the Falcons around all day.
Veteran coaches who stay in one place long enough to implement a system down through middle schools and in some cases even into junior football programs are often the most successful.
In the 26 years since the City League produced a state large-class champion, three schools have combined to win 21 titles: Lawrence (9), Olathe North (8) and Hutchinson (4). Hutchinson dropped to 5A two years ago and has won two state champions at that level.
Junction City (2008), Garden City (1999), Derby (1994), Manhattan (1988) and Shawnee Mission West (1985) are the only other schools to win in 6A since 1984.
From 1976 through 1983, Wichita Southeast and Wichita East won six of eight state championships. Those are the only titles for Wichita public schools, however, in the 41-year history of the football playoffs.
The City League's lack of success sticks in the craw of the league's coaches. Heights' Rick Wheeler was enthusiastic about how the Falcons had overcome a 2-4 start to win six straight and knock off a previously-unbeaten Manhattan team in the semifinals.
He knew, however, Olathe North was a step above any team Heights had played and recognized how important it was not to fall behind early.
Well, Heights fell behind just three plays and 1:05 into the game and although the Falcons trailed by just 14-3 at halftime, it was over early in the third quarter when Olathe North scored two touchdowns on four plays.
"We had to create some momentum offensively to try and wear those guys down a little bit and rest our defense,'' Wheeler said.
It never happened. Nothing Heights needed to happen ever happened.
Wheeler loves Heights. He transformed the Falcons from perennial losers into one of the City League's top programs. But he, like the rest of the league's public-school coaches, understand the obstacles.
"Without question, us not having middle school football is a handicap,'' he said. "That's the biggest hurdle we have to overcome in our district. But it's the way it is, the cards we're dealt and we're going to play with them.
"We have to find ways to overcome that. The recipe for us to be successful and to win these kinds of games can't be the same recipe as it is for Hutch High or an Olathe school.''
After the disappointment of Saturday, it's now basketball season. Some of the Falcons, such as Smith and Wessel, will report to practice Monday and go about trying to repeat as state champs.
"We start fresh in football starting in early June,'' Smith said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work. Now we just have to get prepared for basketball and try to redeem ourselves.''