An end was nearing, and Ryan Cornelsen tried to block it out.
Not enough time remained for him to process the emotions from his first season of coaching the Hutchinson football team. It began with promise, turned into a near-disaster, became a miracle and then ended in disappointment, engulfed by Shawnee Mission East’s perfect season. SM East beat Hutchinson 33-14 in the Class 6A championship game on Saturday afternoon at Welch Stadium.
It was not until well after the game, when Cornelsen was able to collect his thoughts, that he could talk about his first year on the job.
“It was like coaching a full career in one season,” Cornelsen said. “Being 2-4 and losing, to winning six straight to make it to the state championship, to the big let-down today … it was an emotional roller coaster. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
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In their first season without Randy Dreiling, the coach who won seven state championships in the last decade, Cornelsen and the Salthawks were facing serious doubts.
“We were a pretty tight-knit group to begin with, but facing that together just made us even closer,” senior quarterback Turner Wintz said. “We always kept believing in each other and never quit. This team never quit and that’s the thing I respect the most about this team.”
Sunflower League fans believed last week’s semifinal between SM East and Olathe North would decide the state champion, dismissing Hutchinson and its four losses entirely. The Salthawks absorbed this doubt and channeled it into their play.
Responding to an opening touchdown, Hutchinson tied the score 7-7 on a 39-yard run by Blaik Middleton and then took a 14-13 lead — just the second team to do so this season on SM East — in the second quarter when Wintz completed a fourth-down pass to Ryan Stoecklein in the end zone.
“We always believed we were going to win that game,” said Middleton, who finished with 163 rushing yards. “We persevered through so much adversity, so many doubts, we were ready … we just came up a little bit short today.”
Hutchinson’s downfall came to one of its former coaches, Dustin Delaney, a former Dreiling assistant who employed Hutch’s former offense, the flexbone.
The methodical attack proved as deadly for SM East as it did for Hutchinson when it was winning state titles, as tailback Wyatt Edmisten tallied 142 rushing yards and the Lancers rolled up 19 first downs and converted all four of their fourth down attempts.
“It’s just a really tough offense to stop,” Stoecklein, a Hutchinson senior linebacker, said. “One little mistake by anyone and they can break it for 10, 20 yards. We just had too many mistakes.”
Cornelsen remained true to the style that helped resurrect Hutchinson’s season, attempting an onside kick to begin the second half and calling for a fake punt deep in its own territory, but on Saturday those gambles came up empty.
SM East was too assignment-sound, too consistent. The Lancers capitalized on the failed onside kick to extend their halftime lead to 26-14. Hutchinson had three chances to cut into the deficit, but a lost fumble ended a promising drive and two fourth-down tries failed before SM East secured victory with its final touchdown, with 5:37 left in the game, for a 33-14 lead.
“We’ve been living on the edge for the last six weeks, trying to be aggressive in our playcalling,” Cornelsen said. “It just didn’t work out for us today.”
It was a strange situation for Hutchinson, a program that prides itself on state title game victories, not appearances. But it was impossible to ignore what this team had overcome.
“I think this proves we ain’t going anywhere,” Middleton said. “We fought back and listened to no one else. We hope we answered some questions and the community and everyone believes in us again.”
In a tradition rich with great teams, this Hutchinson squad carved out its own, unique place in its own storied program.
“I think people will remember this team as something completely different than anything else,” Wintz said. “There hasn’t been any other team that’s been 2-4 and made it this far. The goal is always to win the state championship, but I’m just as proud of this team as I would be if we would have won it.”
SME — Edmisten 1 run (Tamblyn kick)
H — Middleton 39 run (Culley kick)
SME — Edmisten 2 run (Tamblyn kick failed)
H — Stoecklein 13 pass from Wintz (Culley kick)
SME — White 36 pass from Englund (Huffman run failed)
SME — Edmisten 6 run (Tamblyn kick)
SME — White 22 pass from Englund (Tamblyn kick)
Rushing — SM East, Edmisten 32-142, Huffman 7-55, Bamford 5-45, Englund 7-28; Hutchinson, Middleton 28-163, Wintz 13-161, Hardenburger 6-22.
Passing — SM East, Englund 2-7-58-0; Hutchinson, Wintz 2-5-23-0.
Receiving — SM East, White 2-58; Hutchinson, Stoecklein 2-23.