Their path to the 2018 state championship started with tears, hugs and heads hanging in a quiet locker room.
Wichita Northwest lost 53-41 at Derby in the Class 6A semifinals. The Grizzlies were a yard away from the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter but couldn’t punch it in.
Instead, Derby got the ball and drove 99 yards and went on a 21-0 run.
Senior receiver Zion Jones said postgame was the saddest, most emotional locker room anyone could have ever been in.
“It was just frustration,” senior offensive lineman Joey Duncan said. “We know we should have had that game. We had them. It’s painful because you have to look all your seniors in the eye and say, ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t us there.’ “
That loss has created a rift between Derby and Northwest. It extended through the summer, but it won’t flare up in the 2018 season. The Grizzlies are in 5A and don’t have the Panthers on the regular season schedule, but as real as the hatred is, Northwest’s story is not complete without that game.
The Grizzlies have many mottos for the 2018 season, including “State or nothing.” But one started after the Derby game: “1 yard.”
“We can’t give up one yard, one rep, one play,” senior defensive end Marcus Hicks said. “We’ve got to keep going over and over. We can’t let up a single yard.”
That loss still motivates Northwest in its journey to state. But the Grizzlies might have the most raw talent in Kansas to drive that ambition.
Hicks is a four-star prospect by most recruiting outlets and is verbally committed to Oklahoma after receiving offers from some of the nation’s most historic programs, including Ohio State, Texas and Notre Dame.
Senior running back Breece Hall is on the other side of the ball. He is a three-star recruit, verbally committed to Iowa State and holds offers from Michigan, Nebraska and Tennessee.
They steal the show, but the talent around them is outstanding, including running back Roy Johnson, linebacker Josh Carter and quarterback Reagan Jones, who transferred to Northwest from Andover Central for the 2018 season.
Their full talent was on display Thursday night. Coming off a short week that included Labor Day and a monsoon that rolled through Wichita, Northwest thumped East 56-0.
Still, the Grizzlies aren’t a finished product. In Week 1, Northwest won a last-second thriller as sophomore kicker Carson Arndt hit a 20-yard field goal as time expired. It was the first field goal of his life, and the opponent couldn’t have been sweeter. But the Grizzlies left a lot of points on the field.
Northwest is a favorite to win the 2018 City League championship. Bishop Carroll is the No. 1 contender, defending league champion and reigning Class 5A state title-winner. Arndt’s kick gave the Grizzlies a 23-22 win.
“I wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but now that I look back on it, it’s kind of overwhelming,” Hicks said.
It was Reagan Jones’ first game at Northwest. He said it was bittersweet because of how much load the defense had to carry. He said he learned to just calm down, turn around and hand it to Hall - “the best player in Kansas.”
“It got to me for sure, the whole thing,” Jones said. “I’d never been in that rivalry, in that atmosphere.”
Receiver Zion Jones is one of 16 seniors on the Northwest roster. He was there for the Derby game. He remembers those emotions. Jones said that game helps push them through in moments like the Carroll game.
“The mistakes we made in the Derby game, we can look back on them and make sure we tighten down,” Jones said.
Coach Steve Martin has tried to defuse the pressure away from Northwest’s reality. Martin has never won a state championship as a head coach. He was Heights’ defensive coordinator when the Falcons won 5A in 2010.
He knows what it takes but has long said he is just trying to enjoy the time he has with this year’s special group.
“At the end of the day, you’re teaching these guys to chase something, but they don’t even know what they’re chasing,” Martin said. “Everybody thinks they’re chasing a ring, but they’re chasing something that’s bigger than them.”
Northwest has never won a state championship. Martin and the players know that, so that is the “No. 1 goal,” Zion Jones said.
Northwest might not win the 5A state championship in 2018. History is against the Grizzlies, and there are plenty of other great teams in Kansas. But if they do, it will have started in a quiet locker room in Derby.
“When you wake up the next day, the sun comes up and life goes on,” Martin said. “You’re teaching kids to go after their dreams, but it’s OK to fail and to pick yourself up.
“For the past two, three, four years, our guys have set this big, high goal, but the next day, the sun comes up again and they keep on pursuing it. But with this group, I think it is attainable.”