Andover Central football prepares for their third stated championship game in school history
When Andover Central practiced on Thanksgiving two years ago, it was a fun and they enjoyed that as it was a reward of all their hard work.
Fast forward two years later and they know the job isn't done by just practicing on Thanksgiving.
"To still be practicing, it's an honor with these guys," senior quarterback Kai Kunz said. "We've really come together since Week 1. We keep just getting closer and closer and you can see that in our play."
Andover Central (11-1) will take on defending Class 4A state champion, St. James Academy (8-4), for a right to win their first ever state title.
For Andover Central, this will be their third appearance. They were here in 2015 and 2019. Both times they were handed loss by Bishop Miege.
The two schools have never met and with St. James being a private school and all of the bad thoughts that come with it hasn't fazed this team. They're ready for the challenge.
"They're human just like are," Peak said. "We just need to go out and listen to our coaches and execute our game plan."
Things are different than two years ago, too. While the explosive offense of Shomari Parnell and Xavier Bell gave defenses a freight, this is a defensive dominated team. They've shown that in the playoffs, only surrendering 31 total points in four weeks. The 21 points Buhler scored last week was the most they've give up all season.
"I think the team is different in how it's built," Central head coach Derek Tuttle said. "We had Trey DeGarmo stopping everything with his play in 2019. Then, on offense, you had these skill players like X [Xavier Bell] and Matt Macy. This team is balance in their approach."
This defense prides itself on being able to stop the run. They were the No. 2 rushing defense and if you skew it for strength of schedule, they were the No. 1 team by a bunch of yards per game.
Their biggest flaw has been able to stop the passing game. They allowed 158 yards per game in the regular season. It's been a bend, but dont' break defense in the secondary. Jack Bell has moved on and isn't roaming around at safety. Jackson Rees, Cooper Tabor and Co. are just as capable. Even though they gave up 283 yards last week against Buhler, many of the yards the Jaguars have allowed have been in garbage time, when the game is more than already decided.
"Our chemistry is just so good this year," senior linemen Nate Peak said. "Not to say we didn't have it last year or the previous year but it's just different this year."
It's paid off as the Jaguars have continuously improved each week and the reward is another chance at the state title.
For coach Tuttle, he's aware that St. James throws the ball with the best of them in the state. The Thunder played a brutal schedule full of 6A & 5A teams, giving up an 0-4 record to start the season. Since then, they've rolled off eight consecutive wins, including wins over Basehor-Linwood and Bishop Miege twice.
Junior Jackson House is a dynamic dual threat quarterback who leads the Thunder offense with 217.3 yards passing and 61.4 yards rushing per game.
"We haven't played one [dual threat QB] to this caliber yet," Tuttle said. "They can run well. They're going to be a very formidable team on Saturday."
His main target is senior wide receiver Tyler Claiborne. He's had at least four catches in every game this season and has four multi-touchdown games. Last week against Bishop Miege, Claiborne set the field on fire with 12 receptions for 259 yards and three touchdowns.
Then, there is John Neisen, another 1,000-yard receiver on the other side. He's had five 120-yard receiving games or more this season.
"They have those tall receivers that will get a lot of attention," Tuttle said. "They also have the running back [Tiave Watts] who can run and make you pay."
Watts has almost 1,000 yards rushing after replacing Class 4A player of the year, La'James White.
Andover Central can score in bunches and senior quarterback Kai Kunz has been spectacular in the playoffs. He does what the Jaguars need and keeps it simple. When his number is called, he's been like lightning in a bottle. He has almost 220 yards rushing over the last two games.
"He's just so coachable," Tuttle said. "Our QB coach Aaron Coppoc had done a good job getting him into our offense and he's bought in."
"These coaches have done a great job of getting our team and me into the right positions and ready on Friday nights," Kunz said. "They're why we are where we are."
The last time the Jags played in a state title game, Bishop Miege ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and that was how the rest of the game went. Two years later, with a much more experienced team in these moments and in the 20th year of Jaguar football, could this be the elusive year?
"With our aurora and vibes we have right now I think it's going to lead us to a ring on Saturday," Kunz said. "We're worried about how we compete and if we play our best game, we'll win that game."