Senior Luke McGinnis leads Thunderbirds to first playoff win since 1980

Lionel Tipton
Special to Butler County Times-Gazette
Senior Luke McGinnis lead the T-Birds to their first playoff win in 41 years.

TOWANDA, Kansas – Circle’s season of superlatives increased by one category Friday night.

The sixth-seeded Thunderbirds, playing host to their first Class 4A playoff game since 2003, added a first-round playoff victory to their 2021 achievements with a 28-14 triumph over No. 11 Rose Hill. As fate would have it, the last time the Thunderbirds won a playoff game was over Rose Hill in 1980, a 15-12 decision.

But, like a scene out of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” the Thunderbirds (6-3) advanced a level but also find a tougher foe, third-seeded Andover Central (8-1), waiting there. That regional game will be next Friday at Andover Central.

“We’re just excited for our kids,” Circle head coach Logan Clothier said. “We get to coach them another week, get it rolling, and try to win another game next week.”

All that has come from a variety of effort, many of which goes unseen, Clothier said. 

“We talk about those unseen hours where people in our stands don’t see the time the kids are spending in the weight room, or if we’re out here playing seven-on-seven and are working on individual drills to get better to play on Friday night,” he said.

“Last year, we had little bits and pieces and glimpses that we’re going to turn the corner, but this year our kids have done a great job of never quitting.” 

Senior quarterback Luke McGinnis passed for 201 yards, but 31 of those were as sparkling as any Circle has produced this season. On a second-and-3 play from the Rockets 31, McGinnis lofted the ball toward the end zone. Speedy junior Ty Smith used his 6-foot-1 frame to leap and reach over the Rose Hill defender and pluck the ball out of the air for the T-Birds’ second score.

“That’s just trust,” McGinnis said. “I’ve seen him do that I don’t know how many times, and I just have all the faith in the world with him against anybody one-on-one, so I’ll throw that up any day.”

Smith said it’s confidence.

“Every time I go up against somebody, I have the confidence that I’m going to beat them,” he said. “I’ve been there a thousand times, why couldn’t I do it again? A lot of confidence in myself, (and) a lot of confidence in this team.”

Clothier voted for trust as well.

“That was just an unbelievable throw by Luke to trust Ty,” Clothier said. “Ty and Luke made our coaches look good, our kids did a good job of blocking it out up front, and Ty just made a great play.”  

Rose Hill (3-6) would not go quietly and responded with a score in the final minutes of the first half to cut the Circle lead to 14-7 at the break and was to receive the second-half kickoff.

But Circle forced a punt and drove to the Rose Hill 27, where the drive stalled. The Rockets couldn’t move the ball, and the T-Birds started the next drive at their 46. They went 54 yards in eight plays, with McGinnis scoring what would prove to be the winning points on a 16-yard keeper with 2:34 left in the third quarter.

For McGinnis, the senior season just keeps chalking up more and more memories. It almost makes up for three seasons that ended in frustrating fashion. 

Almost.

“We all knew this was coming,” he said. “We’ve been dreaming about it as we were kids growing up. We wanted to change the culture, and coach Clothier has been a big help to us, and we’re just doing it right now.

“(The successful season) means a lot to us, but honestly I don’t think it’s a big surprise to a lot of us, because we’ve been doing this our whole lives, and we’re finally ready to showcase it.”

Coming into this season, McGinnis said, Circle’s seniors realized that this had to be the time to step up.

“We’ve been performing,” he said. “I think one of our best qualities is fighting through adversity and not giving up when we get down. I think this was the first game all year that we haven’t been losing at any point in the game. We’re starting to figure it out and putting little pieces together.”

The running attack and the offensive line deserve a lot of credit, McGinnis said.

“People don’t give them enough credit,” he said. “We have the best running back duo in the state.”

Having a receiver like Smith also helps, he said.

“It makes me look a lot better than I am,” McGinnis said. “A lot of those throws this year, to any normal kid, not completed. But to Ty, he makes them look good.”

The Rockets responded with a 60-yard drive aided by Circle penalties and a 17-yard run on a fake punt for their second touchdown with 8:12 to play.

But the Thunderbirds again displayed their resiliency as sophomore Cannon McCormack returned the kickoff about 40 yards to the Rockets’ 49. Nine plays later, McGinnis tossed a screen pass to senior Dylan Bougher, who took it the final 7 yards with 5:26 left and gave Circle some much-needed breathing room.

Rose Hill tried to strike again but on fourth down, the Rockets fumbled the ball, and Circle took over at its 43. From there, the T-Birds were able to run out the clock.

Circle showed a balanced offense, gaining 154 rushing yards to go with McGinnis’ passing yardage. Bougher and McCormack combined for 97 rushing yards, and McGinnis contributed 47 of his own on eight carries.

Clothier chalks that up to the players being diligent about lifting weights in the off-season.

“The weight room has honestly been the biggest factor for us in the last five years,” he said. “Lifting weights and getting stronger, and getting our kids confidence – and also on the field, that’s a testament to our hard work in the weight room.” 

Although Smith had the most exciting catch of the night, Circle spread the wealth. Seniors Bonner Jeffries and Jacob Brown also made receptions at crucial times. Jeffries had five catches for 64 yards, and Brown had three for 31. 

Brown said he’s thrilled to see this season play out the way it has.

“Honestly, I’ve been waiting for this a long, long time,” he said. “We’ve been looking forward to the playoffs since our freshman year.”

For Jeffries, what was years in the making is coming to fruition.

“We all knew this season was going to happen,” he said. “We’re not ready to be done playing yet; we want to keep on playing. We can do it if we want to.”

Circle 28, Rose Hill 14

Rose Hill 0;7;0;7—14 

Circle 7;7;7;7—28

C – Bougher 2 run (Trier kick)

C – Smith 31 pass from McGinnis (Trier kick)

RH – Green 12 run (Cobb kick)

C – McGinnis 16 run (Trier kick)

RH – Beavers 2 run (Cobb kick)

C – Bougher 7 pass from McGinnis (Trier kick)

RUSHING – Rose Hill: Whitted 13-86, Beavers 11-60, Green 6-27, Gardner 15-6, Wallis 1-(-3). Circle: Bougher 15-60, McGinnis 8-47, McCormack 6-37.

PASSING – Rose Hill: Gardner 4-10-0-37; Wallis 0-2-0-0. Circle: McGinnis 15-25-1-201.

RECEIVING – Rose Hill: Kochick 3-28, Peck 1-9. Circle: Jeffries 5-64, Bougher 4-49, Smith 3-57, Brown 3-31.