Derby’s name is approaching elite territory in Kansas state history.
By winning sub-state against Junction City, the program became the 11th to play in six or more consecutive state championship games. It is also one win away from becoming the 12th school in state history to win seven or more state championships.
Accolades aside, coach Brandon Clark and his staff are thrilled with how the roster has handled its pair of regular-season losses and fighting through a two-week quarantine due to COVID-19 protocols.
“This year it feels really good,” Clark said on Friday night after its win at Junction City. “I’m so proud of these kids and how they handled adversity this year. Just with everything they’ve had to endure, they’ve earned it and they’ve gotten so much better.”
Derby (8-2) will now prepare to face BV North (7-2) for a third time in the last four state championship games. The two schools split the first two meetings with the Mustangs taking the first game, 49-42, and the Panthers holding them off, 24-16, in round two. Kickoff is set for Saturday, Nov. 28, at 1:00 p.m. from the College Boulevard Activity Center in Olathe, Kan.
Even with two less games on its schedule in 2020, Derby has again struck gold in the postseason. Since 2018, it has now outscored opponents 693-199, winning by an average margin of 49-14. Only two of those 14 games have been within 18 points. The Panthers are putting these numbers up against some of the state’s stiffest competition. Over that same three-year stretch, seven of their 14 opponents were held to one touchdown or less.
The comparison to its 2017 state championship run is reasonable in part to having its two youngest rosters of its state streak. That was also the last team to win one or more playoff games on the road. While this year’s defense had four returning starters, the unit three years ago had only one.
While its seven new starters have made major strides through 10 games, one of Derby’s biggest jack-of-all-trades in 2020 has been safety Tanner Knox. Now a three-year starter for coach Austin Wuthrich’s defense, the senior made his season debut in its fourth game and its return from COVID-19 quarantine against Campus.
Knox has exploded for 62 tackles in the last seven games, giving him the third-most on the team. That includes 34 solo stops (fourth on defense) and five tackles for loss.
His experience was needed in the secondary as Derby’s lone returning starter in the unit. It has also made the middle of Derby’s defense that much stronger, working in tandem with classmates and linebackers Coleson Syring, Jace Jenkins, Jack Hileman and Luke Stewart.
“It’s about how well the defense plays when he is on the field,” Clark said of Knox. “Defensively, he is our fire starter, makes some big hits and the defense follows.”
Running back Dylan Edwards is Derby’s leading rusher with 1,663 yards and 25 touchdowns through 10 games. Even with two less contests, the running back is third amongst each of its leading rushers, dating back to the 2015 season.
With a combined 358 carries between Edwards (184) and senior quarterback Lem Wash (174), it represents over 66 percent of Derby’s plays this fall. The tandem put forward their best performance to date against Junction City, scoring a combined eight touchdowns off 577 yards rushing.
The entirety of Derby’s offense, including a still young but talented offensive line, is about to face one of the state’s top defenses from BV North. Brothers Daeh (CB, 6-1, 175, SO) and Ohio State commit Dasan McCullough (S, 6-5, 220, JR) make up two of its returning starters in the secondary and arguably the state’s highest-ranked recruits over the next three years.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a defense that has so many stud athletes,” Clark added.
The transiency of BV North’s roster and having to replace larger senior classes over the last three years has led to a lot of roster turnover. However, the team is as battle-tested as any Derby will see, thanks in part to its schedule through the Eastern Kansas League (EKL).
At the same time, Clark has emphasized with his team the postseason experience it carries and the time it has spent inside the Derby system from youth programs through high school.
“We talk to our kids about the belief system we have in our program,” Clark said. “… We’ve got kids who have played together for a long time and trust and believe in our program. They’ve got some bigger, faster, stronger guys, but we’re ready for that because of the preparation and the trust they have in one another.”
While success in the postseason breeds expectations, it’s not something that Clark and his staff give to their players. The longtime coach feels its emphasis outside of football has made their day-to-day approach even stronger.
“We have a goal to
make it to state and to win state,” he said. “It’s not something we talk about, though. It’s the day-to-day process and getting better weekly. If our kids were all about football and that’s all we talked about, there would be some pressure. Our program is bigger than the game of football, though. We’re about character and finding our One Degree Compass [off the field].”