The two newbies sought each other out.
Ryan Cornelsen, the coach, and Blaik Middleton, the running back.
The bond was almost instant.
“Just the fact that we’re both new kind of put us in the same boat,” said Cornelsen, Hutchinson High’s first-year football coach. “It’s a special situation for both of us.”
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It’s turned into a historic pairing. Middleton, who spent his first three years at Dodge City High, has rushed for 2,620 yards and 36 touchdowns this season in leading the Salthawks to the Class 6A championship game against Shawnee Mission East (12-0) on Saturday in Emporia.
Hutchinson has won seven state titles in the last 12 years — all under current St. Thomas Aquinas coach Randy Dreiling — with the last one coming in 2011 at the Class 5A level.
Middleton and his family moved to Hutchinson when his father, Todd, was hired as the defensive-line coach at national powerhouse Hutchinson Community College.
“It really turned out to be a blessing in disguise,” Blaik said. “I know it’s just been a short time, but I feel really close with (Cornelsen) and with my teammates. I love playing here and I’m really excited for Saturday. It’s a pretty exciting time for everybody.”
Cornelsen actually coached against Blaik the last few seasons. He spent five years as the coach at Hays before coming to Hutchinson, and the two teams are both part of the Western Athletic Conference.
“I met Blaik and his dad when they moved to Hutch, in the summer, and my first impression of him was that he was really humble, really shy,” Cornelsen said. “And he was injured at the time, too, so he couldn’t do anything with us, so I think that was a little frustrating for him.”
Frustrating, but another blessing in disguise. Blaik was nursing a hip flexor injury suffered during track season. He missed summer workout but was back in time for training camp.
“My body really needed time to heal, needed time to relax,” Blaik said. “I came back and I actually felt faster than before.”
The Salthawks’ transition to a new coach and a new system wasn’t quite as speedy. Hampered by injuries, Hutchinson (8-4) started the season 2-4 before a 62-14 win over Garden City in which Blaik ran for 203 yards and four touchdowns.
“I feel like everything started to click that game,” Blaik said. “It felt like we all really started to come together.”
Coach, and dad, saw it too.
“It took him several games against top-level competition to see and understand where the holes were going to be,” Cornelsen said. “Once he understood where those holes were going to pop open, where the lanes were going to be....”
“You’ve gotta hit those blocks going downhill,” Todd Middleton said. “After a little bit of time, he got the feel for it. And man, once he gets to that next level of the defense, if you haven’t stopped him, you’ve got problems.”
Problems like when Middleton torched Free State for 357 rushing yards and six touchdowns last Friday in a 42-14 semifinal win. Shawnee Mission East’s defense, which is allowing just 10 points per game, will be a different monster.
“You can’t get caught up in the hype that surrounds a state championship game,” Blaik said. “You have to try to keep things as normal as possible, relax, and play the kind of game you know you’re capable of.”