Varsity Kansas

Heights' Wheeler builds a contender

When Rick Wheeler asked each player from his 1999 Heights football team to write three goals, the results were simple.

Beat Southeast. Win the homecoming game. Have a winning record.

Amusing goals today, considering Heights is playing in Saturday's Class 6A championship game against Olathe North.

But in 1999, Wheeler's first season, that's what he faced as he started his quest to turn around the Falcons' football program.

"It took a while to get to this point," Wheeler said. "We had to accomplish some of those things before they could really see the big picture. Then we started having a little success and talking about those goals.

"Our goals (became) being City League champs, district champs, state champs, and anything short of that is a failure. It took a long time to get that point. We've failed on that many, many times."

But a look back reveals that there's actually been many successes in Wheeler's tenure.

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Putting Heights' trip to the 6A title game — the first for a City League team since West in 1997 — in perspective is best done with a statistic.

In the school's 49-year history, Heights does not have a winning record against any football team that it has played more than twice. Heights has a .335 winning percentage against league opponents.

Heights failed to beat Southeast in 39 meetings before winning in 2002. The Falcons have won the last eight times.

When Jeff Topping, a Heights assistant, started at quarterback for Heights from 1992-94, there were plenty of fans in the stands. But it was a social event more than anything.

Of course, there wasn't much to cheer for as Heights stumbled to yet another losing season.

"It was hard to deal with," Topping said. "You were trying to change things and you wanted to win and be like other programs in the school.... It was, 'Well, wait 'til basketball season.' "

Wheeler was a part of those struggles as a Heights assistant from 1989-94.

"I can vividly remember going into every season with that sense of, 'Things were going to get turned around this year,' " Wheeler said. "It didn't happen, but I remember that optimism going into each season."

Heights' worst stretch was a 2-34 record from 1980-83. The Falcons were 5-4 in 1969 and in 1998, the program's only winning seasons until Wheeler's first season.

When the position came open, Wheeler initially wasn't sure he wanted the job.

"People said, 'Why would you go there? It's never going to work out. It never has, it never will,' " Wheeler said.

Maize athletic director Marc Haught, then Heights' AD, told Wheeler differently.

"We always had good kids at Heights, and we had a lot of success in a lot of our programs, most of our programs, at Heights," Haught said. "We just needed to have somebody that could sell those kids on that. Rick had it and he still does."

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Heights senior offensive lineman John McClure is thrilled at the prospect of playing for a state title.

He knows some of the history of Heights football, he's seen the alums come back who were part of those tough years.

"This is one of the biggest things I've ever played for," he said. "This means so much for me and our school.... We wanted to prove that we could be really good this year."

But for McClure and Heights to reach this championship round, it took time. Time in the weight room. Time in conditioning. Time at football camps.

"He's a team-first kind of guy," Topping said of Wheeler. "We go to camps, we lift weights, everything as a team in the summer."

That team concept helped Heights as it struggled to a 2-4 record in October. Instead of turning on each other, they became closer and continued working to improve.

"Coach taught us how to work harder for what you want, and you'll succeed," McClure said.

Heights has won six straight.

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Heights has consistently turned out tough defensive teams in the past 11 seasons. Offensively, though, Wheeler has adapted to personnel and is currently relying on fullback Dreamius Smith and sophomore quarterback Matt Reed.

"We're not just a flash in the pan," Wheeler said. "This has been following a plan for a long time. We certainly wish it would have gotten to this point quicker, but it didn't. But that didn't deter the coaches and the players that have been here since 1999 to keep grinding away and to keep trying to reach the success."

Heights had winning records in Wheeler's first three seasons — he's 78-32 at Heights with 10 winning seasons — but didn't make the playoffs until 2002, when it finished 9-2.

Over the next six seasons, Heights won the City League title and went to the playoffs three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2008. Heights finished 10-1 in 2004, losing to Hutchinson in the quarterfinals. Last season the Falcons were 9-2 and lost to Junction City. Both went on to win 6A titles.

"When you look back, it shows the purpose and the meaning to me of all those times when you came up a little short," Wheeler said.

* *

Heights is no longer the laughingstock of the City League, a source of pride for Wheeler.

And not just for him personally, not just because he's 22 victories from 100 wins or he's sitting so close to winning Heights' first state football championship.

"I have a relationship with a lot of those (players) from when I was an assistant," Wheeler said. "They came to work every day, busted their butt, tried to develop as a player.

"It's not just satisfaction for me, but for those guys as well."

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