We have made it to week 1 of the high school football season. Only three more days until our first game of the season on 1440 KMAJ. Shawnee Heights will travel to Hummer Sports Park to play the Topeka High Trojans. Today, we highlight Jason Swift’s Shawnee Heights Thunderbirds. To read the other Topeka 7 previews, find the links for each team at the bottom.
Change has arrived at Shawnee Heights.
This year, the Thunderbirds will compete in the new United Kansas Conference, a move which better positions Shawnee Heights in the recently remodeled 5A playoff format. Shawnee Heights joins Basehor-Linwood, De Soto, Lansing, Leavenworth, and KC Turner in the new league.
The team must replace several key members of last year’s co-Centennial League championship team. Quarterback Mitchell Lady, running back Trey Jenkins, center Connor Hicks, wide receiver Michael Hoffer, defensive lineman Cade Holmes, linebacker Dane Terry, and defense backs Zach Cummings and Tre Munoz all played significant roles in last year’s magical Centennial League finale. Each of them received All-Centennial League honors, some first and second team, other honorable mention. All of them have graduated.
One aspect remains the same for the T-birds: Head coach Jason Swift returns to lead the team for his 16th season.
In a season where everything changes for the red and white, nothing changes for Swift.
“I have as much enthusiasm about this year as I did the first, second, third, fourth,” Swift said.
“New faces, but it’s still football. The rules don’t change. The lights don’t get any less brighter.”
“It was great,” Swift said. “Our kids – that senior class, along with the juniors and sophomores underneath them – had worked hard all off-season. That was their goal. We had a good football team and we knew that was going to be a reachable goal in the Centennial League, which is very tough. So, when we got a chance to get a piece of the title, that’s something that those kids are going to keep forever and cherish.”
The 2018 version wants to reload, not rebuild, to duplicate last year’s success, even with massive roster turnover and a new conference.
“Well, in high school, you realize that’s what you get,” Swift said. “Each class is unique and different. They get up there, that senior year, sometimes we have a great number of kids that have played that senior year. They have a lot of experience, like last year, and then they move away and it [is] next guy up. These kids just know it’s their turn.”
For the offense, it starts by replacing first team All-Centennial League quarterback Lady. Last season, Lady completed 62 percent of his passes while throwing for 673 yards and four touchdowns in a heavy run-based offense. He also ran for 655 yards, 5.6 yards per carry and a team-high 10 touchdowns.
Coach Swift has chosen T.J Swietek to start at quarterback.
“TJ’s worked hard,” Swift said. “He’s done what he’s needed to do. It seems like every single day in practice he’s getting better, and the offense is getting better.”
Shawnee Heights runs a “flexbone” run-based offense with multiple running backs, wing backs and tight ends. Swietek and junior running back Davion Gardenhire have worked together to perfect the time of the option. Swift said the team still has work to do, but the chemistry between the two has improved during preseason camp.
Gardenhire replaces Jenkins, who ran for 934 yards and eight touchdowns last year. Gardenhire qualified for the 5A track and field 100 meter and 200 meter dash finals in Wichita as a sophomore last May. Gardenhire’s speed makes him a different running back than Jenkins, a bruiser who averaged 4.6 yards per carry last year.
Swietek will look for junior Tyce Brown as his primary target in the passing game. A three-sport athlete currently committed to Xavier to place baseball, Brown has tremendous length and athleticism to add another dimension to the T-Bird offense.
“The way he sees stuff on the basketball court, the ability he has athletically, the work on the diamond is awesome,” the 16-year head coach said. “Then you translate that onto the football field, I think he has great vision on space awareness, getting open, catching the ball, running with the ball, and defensively making nice reads.”
Defensively, the T-birds surrendered 17.4 points per game, the best scoring defense in the city. The defense graduated four players that received first and second-team All-Centennial League honors. Zyree White and Reid Holthaus will play on the defensive line, while Brown, Chris Glenn, Eli Penrod and Santiago Soto will cover the back end in the secondary.
Shawnee Heights will only play one opponent from Topeka in 2018. Heights will play Topeka High Thursday, August 30, at Hummer Sports Park. Shawnee Heights will begin play in their new conference on September 7 at KC Turner.
Shawnee Heights will face Basehor-Linwood and De Soto at home this year. De Soto, advancing to 5A this season, made it to the 4A semifinals last year. Basehor-Linwood – in 4A – made it to the first round of playoffs last year and the state semifinals in 2016.
With only six teams in the United Kansas Conference, Shawnee Heights can play three non-conference games. With Topeka High scheduled as the first non-conference opponent, Shawnee Heights will play KC Schlagle and KC Washington to complete the non-conference schedule. Schlagle finished as the top seed in the east region in the 5A playoffs the last two years but have failed to advance past the second round each time.
“When you get something new it’s like the first day of school, you’re excited,” Swift said. “You’re excited to see what happens. I surely did love playing in the Centennial League. I have a tremendous amount of respect for those coaches and players that play in that league. Now the decision is that we are in a new conference. We’re still going to play against great players and great coaches, and to me that’s something I look forward to.”
Swift recognizes the changes around him and his team. Despite all the new faces – both from his team and newly acquainted conference foes – Swift awaits the challenge ahead.
“We haven’t been under the lights. So, when we get underneath [the lights], we are going to find out what we’re like.”
All stats from the Topeka Capital-Journal