Derby finishes 2018 season undefeated with highlight win over Blue Valley North
He walked off empty.
In 2013, Brandon Clark won his first state championship as a high school football coach. His Derby Panthers beat Shawnee Mission East 28-21. With 1:21 to go, Derby quarterback Jeremy Dunham hit Caleb Arnold for a 24-yard touchdown, and the Panthers’ defense finished the game with two turnovers.
Clark said he was thrilled for his players, but not himself. He wasn’t fulfilled.
Clark said he “wasted” the first five years of his coaching career with the sole intention of winning state championships. He came close each of the previous two years, finishing second best in a state semifinal on his own field. Everything just came together in 2013, and Derby won its first title since 1994.
After that first title, Clark changed his approach and his aim.
“Our goal is we want to put the most mature team on the field Friday night,” Clark said. “We want to be emotionally mature, mentally mature, physically mature, spiritually mature. If we can land on all four of those categories, everything is going to take care of itself.
“Our coaches are in it to touch lives, not win trophies.”
Six years later, Clark is entering his 14th season at Derby. The Panthers have won four titles in those six years and been runners-up once. If not for a late touchdown against Blue Valley North in 2017, last year’s seniors would have been one of the few four-time Class 6A champions to ever come through Kansas.
Last year, Derby completed its second undefeated state championship season in school history. The Panthers went 13-0 and beat Blue Valley North and All-American quarterback Graham Mertz 24-16 in Emporia. The Derby defense was regarded as perhaps the best the city had ever seen.
Clark has the resume to move on from Derby. He could coach at a high school in Texas or even as an assistant at the college level. He said he’s not interested.
“I’m going to retire here, start and finish,” Clark said.
The gray hairs have started to come in. His children are growing up in the Derby school system; they’ve attended Derby Night Lights and are watching Clark’s program unite a community around football.
Clark said he has designed his program like Southlake Carroll, one of the premier programs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and all of Texas. When he took over at Derby, he read an article from D Magazine titled, “Southlake: Welcome to Perfect City, U.S.A.”
Carroll doesn’t win a state championship every year, but it has instilled a sense of togetherness and culture that makes even athletes at surrounding high schools wish they were Dragons.
“At the same time, we’ve tried to create some harmony where our guys don’t walk the halls like they’re gods,” Clark said.
Carroll has produced some Division I talent, but most of its players don’t look like high-caliber college athletes. The same could be said about Derby, a group of boys raised in a system and taught to win every day.
Jacob Karsak, a Derby senior tight end, grew up going to Derby Night Lights and watching the high school team become champions. He said it is a special program to be a part of; there is pressure, especially after an undefeated season, but it’s nothing new.
“I grew up playing Derby Junior Football,” Karsak said. “Me, Grant (Adler), Aaron (Larson) and Cavion (Walker) have been on the same team for years. Everything we do, we’ve been doing the whole time. It’s just the system now. There will be tweaks here and there depending on personnel, but it’s basically a well-oiled machine.”
Clark said winning a state championship again in 2019 wouldn’t move the meter for him, not anymore. His chase is in relationship, watching them become something they weren’t at the start of the season. And with a new class of players coming in every year, it’s easy to keep going in one place, he said.
“In the past 10 years, I have not dreaded going out onto that practice field, and that’s the goal for everybody,” Clark said. “It’s gotten better every year. I look at what’s coming in our youth program, all the way down to our second grade class and it’s pretty exciting.”
That said, the focus for everyone else in Class 6A Kansas is on the 2019 Panthers. Derby brings back one of the top offenses in the state with seniors at quarterback (Adler); running back (Tre Washington); receiver (Cavion Walker); tight end (Karsak); and all across the offensive line, headlined by Alex Conn, who is verbally committed to Nebraska.
On paper, the Derby offense should out-perform the defense, but Adler said not so fast. With a developing defense and a stacked offense, the Panthers are feeling good about their odds again in 2019.
“The only way we’re going to lose is if we beat ourselves,” Adler said. “I think we’ve got enough talent on this team to win another title, but we’ve got to stay focused. We’ve won four of the last six. We’ve already got a target on our back, and when we win another one, the target just gets bigger.”
Since 2006, there have been 34 undefeated state championship seasons across all classifications in Kansas. There have been four back-to-back unbeaten seasons but only Hutchinson has done it in Class 6A since 2006.
In that span, 56 percent of teams that have gone undefeated during the regular season didn’t reach the state championship game. Only nine won a title the following year.
Derby’s 2019 group has potential to be the 10th. The Panthers’ biggest competition in Class 6A comes from Mill Valley, Manhattan and Topeka. Last year, Derby beat Manhattan 24-6 in the state semifinals.
Outside of the state playoffs, Derby faces AVCTL I rival Maize, which is coming off its best season in school history after reaching the Class 5A semifinals and going 10-2. And in Week 4, Derby welcomes Bishop Carroll, a City League power the Panthers haven’t lost to in three years.
Clark said he wants his program to be the best in Kansas this year, as any coach would. He knows it has the potential to but won’t be shattered if it’s not. There is more to football than a trophy, he said.
He should know.
He has four of them.
“We want to make this the best place in Kansas to live,” Clark said. “We’re just a small part of it, but we’re going to play our role. Derby is a unique community. People ask, ‘What is ‘Green is magic?’ Well that’s the part that’s hard to explain, and we get to live it every day.”