The 2017 high school football season starts this Friday. To get ready, we sent Ethan Koch around the city to interview coaches and catch practice. Today, we break down Steve Buhler’s Washburn Rural Junior Blues.
Washburn Rural had a special football season in 2016.
First, the Junior Blues beat Topeka High, their first win against the Trojans since 2008. Then, they achieved another milestone by beating Manhattan in the playoffs, their first win against the Indians since 1992.
Also, then sophomore quarterback Jordan White made a jaw-dropping touchdown run against Dodge City that made the SportsCenter Top 10.
— Matt Gasper (@MattGKSNT) October 29, 2016
However, for head coach Steve Buhler, he wants years like 2016 to become the norm at Washburn Rural, not the exception.
“We’re hoping to take the next step because one year, for us, isn’t enough,” Buhler said.
Buhler said when he first arrived to Washburn Rural in 2013, the players didn’t know how the playoff system worked. Now after four years, and a new playoff format for the players to learn, the team wants to make another deep playoff run.
“I think a lot of it, to be honest with you, is a difference in expectations. The kids here have been grilled in their heads the last four or five years that our goal is to be a playoff team and to get to a state championship game. They’ve been fed that over and over again. When I first got here, that wasn’t the case.”
Washburn Rural loses many impact seniors from last year’s team, but has experience at the most valuable position: quarterback.
This year, Washburn Rural returns three players with starting experience under center, senior Michael Schurig, junior Preston Williams and White. Buhler will entrust White, who led the team during the playoff run, to run his offense.
White said he continued to improve from the start of last season as the team’s signal caller.
“From the start of the year, going to Pitt State camp in the summer to the last game against [Lawrence] Free State, the pace of the defense just kind of slowed down in my eyes, just being able to read things better, having more confidence, just seeing things more clearly,” White said.
White knows that Buhler naming him the starter speaks volumes about what the coach thinks of him.
“It’s a big confidence boost,” White said. “Last year, just going back and forth between me and Preston at that spot, it was kind of tough at times. But this year, knowing that he’s [Coach Buhler’s] got his confidence in me, that’s he got my back, that I can go out there and not worry about those things, I can really just focus on the game a little bit better.”
White had 695 passing yards and 639 rushing yards last season. With the help of a special trainer and Buhler, White looks to improve his passing numbers.
“I was more of a running quarterback last year, so to really help the offense I’ve been working on my throwing, especially on quick routes, getting the ball out quick, getting all the foot work down, so I can throw more accurate,” the Junior Blues starting quarterback said.
“We just can’t let the defense stack the box so we can’t run. So, I’ve got to air it out, make defenses respect the passing attack so we can run too.”
With White starting at quarterback, Williams will move to wide receiver, and Buhler has stressed to each of his quarterbacks that he wants all three on the field.
The Junior Blues lose starting running back Hunter Browning, who was third in the city in rushing yards. Senior Tyler Cummings and sophomore Jaylen Carter will carry the rock for the team this year, according to Buhler.
Defensively, this team loses 10 players with some starting experience since their sophomore year, according to Buhler. However, they will return senior linebacker Jack Hamilton, one of the city’s best defensive players.
“He’s tough as nails,” Buhler said. “I think what makes him special is he’s hungry to play.”
Hamilton broke his leg in the first game his sophomore season and almost quit football. Buhler convinced him to return to the gridiron, and Hamilton recorded 119 tackles for the defense.
“I’ve just always really enjoyed flying around to the ball,” the senior linebacker said. “I’ve always been the kind of kid that has a noise for the ball and just goes around and makes plays. When we’re in a defense that kind of spreads it around a little bit more, it’s nice to give me a little bit more space and fly around and hit some people.”
He will captain a defense that gave up 15.5 points per game last season. Hamilton will team up with Cummings and senior defensive lineman Jacob Glendinning to build off last year’s success.
“I think we can be even better,” Hamilton said. “We have a couple good returners and a couple good juniors that didn’t play much varsity last year that I think can make a really big impact this year.”
The Junior Blues will face all three of their 6A rivals from the Centennial League this season, which will serve as a barometer for how good this team will be.
When Buhler arrived from Rossville, he came to Washburn Rural to change the expectations. Now in his fifth year, Buhler has the players believing they can compete with any team. As Hamilton put it, the Junior Blues want to “leave no doubt.”
“In the past, we lost a bunch of those close games against those big 6A teams,” Hamilton said. “Those wins showed that we compete with those teams. We can compete with the big 6A dogs in the state and we can play with anybody if we play hard and we play disciplined.”
Stats from Topeka Capital-Journal