Only 48 minutes of football stand between Derby and its fifth-straight state title game.
After cruising through sectionals, it’ll welcome Topeka (10-1) to Panther Stadium with a Class 6A championship game berth on the line.
The Trojans, who have now won eight or more games in six of the last eight seasons, are playing for their first state championship game in program history.
A win on Friday would put the Panthers in rarified air. The program would tie Olathe North (nine) for the second-most appearances in the state championship game. Lawrence is atop the state records with 13 trips.
Even with the target that has formed on its back and the records the program continues to etch in the history books, nerves and pressure are limited, according to Clark.
“The preparation is fun for this group,” the Derby coach said. “A lot of people talk about a grind during the season and there has been no grind this year. They’ve made football fun, done a great job and made every day we’re together enjoyable.”
Even now as the Panthers have won 24 games in a row, the message of peaking in the playoffs has remained consistent from Clark and his staff. After giving Manhattan one of its most lopsided losses in school history, the Derby coach said they’re seeing progress.
“I felt like our offensive line came alive last week and we had taken a step back [with them previously],” Clark said. “Our defense is playing really well and we’re starting to get a little banged up too. With our offensive line blocking better now, we just need to get our receivers blocking better and we’ll be close to where we want to be.”
Prior to the season, question marks surrounded the Panthers’ linebacker corps with zero combined varsity starts.
Despite that number, the group’s ability to mend the middle of the field with an experienced defensive line and secondary has been a significant part of its success through 11 games.
Junior Jack Hileman [71 tackles, 11 tackles for loss] is tied for the team lead in stops, while junior Luke Stewart is third with 62 tackles and second in sacks with six.
“We’ve got Coleson [Syring] and Luke who fly around and do a good job of not having many busted plays,” Clark said. “… I’m not sure there are many linebackers that can read an offense like Jack. He’s one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached here. Jarod Noel has also stepped in and done a really nice job for us.”
Arguably Derby’s biggest test to date awaits it on Friday.
Topeka is led by do-it-all quarterback Da’Vonshai Harden and running back Ky Thomas, helping it become one of Class 6A’s most prolific offenses.
Thomas, who is a Minnesota commit and also plays in the secondary, became the No. 2 all-time leading rusher (7,337 yards) in Kansas history in Topeka’s 35-14 state quarterfinal win over Junction City.
According to the Topeka Capital Journal, the senior passed former Wichita East’s Bryce Brown (7,114, 2005-2008), Garden Plain’s Logan Dold (7,144, 2004-2007) and Ulysses’ Ian Rudzik (7,164, 2012-2015) in Friday night’s win.
“He plays defense too, so we’ve got to try and contain him and limit big plays,” Clark said. “He’s touched the ball close to 50 times some games. We’ve got to know where he is at all times and not let him get too many yards after contact.”
Harden has committed to the University of Kansas and at 6-foot-4, Clark said he offers a rare combination of size and speed to go along with his passing.
“He can strike down field and has a fantastic arm,” Clark said. “… He’s a very, very physical runner and he’ll try to run people over or juke or jump over them. He’s just a very talented runner.”
2019 DERBY FOOTBALL STATISTICS (THROUGH 11 GAMES)
Lem Wash, 32-of-59 (54%), 637 yards, 11 TD, 1 INT
Grant Adler, 50-of-80 (62%), 895 yards, 10 TD, 1 INT
Tre Washington, 152 carries, 1,334 yards, 20 TD
Lem Wash, 70 carries, 818 yards, 19 TD
Grant Adler, 68 carries, 568 yards, 9 TD
Cavion Walker, 24 catches, 474 yards, 9 TD
Jacob Karsak, 16 catches, 375 yards, 3 TD
Reid Liston, 15 catches, 306 yards, 4 TD
Tanner Knox, 3 INT, 1 FR
Terry Ginyard, 3 INT, 1 FR
Brecken Kooser, 2 INT, 3 FR
Cole Minton 1 INT, 1 FR
Ladell Clemons, Coleson Syring, Corey Akins 1 INT
Jack Hileman, 3 FR
Daniel Archer, Tyler Dorsey, Reid Liston 2 FR
Jace Jenkins, Trent Voth, Cason Lindsey, 1 FR
4,899 yards of offense (445 ypg)
3,287 rushing yards (298 ypg)
1,606 passing yards (146 ypg)
3rd down conversions: 31-for-72 (43%)
4th down conversions: 19-for-36 (52%)
Opponent total yards: 1,748 (158 ypg)
Opponent rushing yards: 710 (64 ypg)
Opponent passing yards: 1,038 (94 ypg)
Opponent 3rd down: 29-for-136 (21%)
Opponent 4th down: 12-for-31 (37%)