TOPEKA — Heights football coach Rick Wheeler positioned his players near midfield at Washburn's Yager Stadium on Saturday afternoon for a postgame picture.
It was a glum group as they posed about 10 yards away from the crowd of Olathe North fans and players celebrating the Eagles' 37-3 victory over Heights in the Class 6A title game.
Moments later, Wheeler spoke to his players, telling them to not let one day, one game, tarnish what they accomplished this season.
"We've had some pretty good teams in the past that haven't made it here," Wheeler said of Heights, which was playing in its first title game. "You don't know what they'll hear at the barber shop or school on Monday. Hopefully people will appreciate the achievements of these guys.
"It's hard not to be a little embarrassed about the score. What I want to remind them is what a great season they actually had. I'm so proud that we stuck together and got to this point."
Heights (8-5), which opened its season 2-4 before rattling off six straight wins to reach the title game, faced an Olathe North team (13-0) that was a preseason favorite to win the title after returning 18 starters.
There's no doubt the Falcons were underdogs against a much bigger and stronger team that included running back James Franklin, who had 269 rushing yards and three touchdowns.
Franklin's first carry was for one yard, then he raced up the left sideline and cut inside for what appeared to be a 71-yard touchdown run. He was called out of bounds after a 46-yard run. But on the next play, he raced 25 yards for the game's first score just 65 seconds into the game.
He added a five-yard run early in the third and then a 68-yard run with 5:26 to go for the 28-3 lead.
"He's a great running back, such balance, has power when he wants it and quickness and change of direction," Wheeler said.
Franklin finished his season with 2,801 rushing yards and 5,914 in three seasons.
Heights' defense held its own, though, stopping Olathe North three times inside its 20. Evan Wessel had an interception in the end zone to end a scoring drive shortly before the half. Dominique Henderson led Heights with eight tackles, and Zerrance Brickhouse added seven with a sack.
But the offensive struggles were an issue.
The Falcons were held to 27 rushing yards, including four sacks for minus-36 yards. Junior Dreamius Smith led Heights with 70 yards on 13 carries, including a 20-yard run on Heights' first series.
"We couldn't run the ball," Wheeler said. "It's just that plain simple. That's what we do. Hats off to (Olathe North)."
Olathe North defensive lineman Lucas Vincent, who made an oral commitment to Missouri, was a problem for Heights. Especially because the Falcons have battled injuries at center with Mateo Kambui and Cris Nelson.
"Big No. 73, he just came through the line," Heights offensive lineman Justin Fleming said of Vincent. "Our centers have been having injuries, back and forth, so we were switching them out."
"We've had injuries to center all year, and we're playing against one of the best linemen in the state of Kansas, and he made it a long day," Wheeler said. "It would have been tough if we were healthy."
Heights took its opening possession into Olathe North territory, but turned it over on downs. After starting at the Eagles' 33 following a punt into a strong wind, Heights only managed a field goal and trailed 7-3. The Falcons' fourth series ended with an eight-yard loss on a sack.
The second half was punt, punt, punt, punt, safety.
"We stayed sound, we filled alleys, our defensive linemen did a good job getting off the ball, causing problems by getting penetration," Olathe North coach Pete Flood said.
The offensive struggles put the Heights defense in tight situations — twice Olathe North started at the Heights 31 following a punt, and after a 75-yard return following the safety, the Falcons started at the Heights 3.
"We were a little shell-shocked offensively," Wheeler said. "Our offense, who creates a lot of momentum for us team-wise, they kind of had that look on their face that they couldn't understand why things weren't going our way.
"That bled to the rest of our team."
Wichita Heights (8-5) 0 3 0 0 — 3 Olathe North (13-0) 7 7 14 9 — 37
ON—Franklin 25 run (Morss kick)
WH—Farley 28 FG
ON—Simmons 15 run (Morss kick)
ON—Franklin 5 run (Morss kick)
ON—Franklin 68 run (Morss kick)
ON—Moreland sacked by Swartz in end zone for safety
ON—Blazevic 1 run (Morss kick)
Rushing—Wichita Heights, Smith 13-70, Ross 10-12, Deshazer 3-6, Jones 3-4, Reed 9-(-6), Moreland 4-(-23). Olathe North, Franklin 32-269, Simmons 11-62, Saunders 1-9, Walker 2-2, Blazevic 1-1.
Passing—Wichita Heights, Moreland 2-4-26-0, Reed 2-7-18-0. Olathe North, Blazevic 4-6-86-1, Simmons 0-1-0-0.
Receiving—Wichita Heights, Smith 2-16, Strand 1-15, Taylor 1-13. Olathe North, Peete 2-45, Swartz 2-41.