By midseason, there were whispers that the East Kansas League was far from a powerhouse.
Blue Valley, which was picked to win the league before the season by the league’s coaches, lost two of the season’s first three games, and the Tigers weren’t even competitive in a 28-7 whipping at home by Salina South.
Meanwhile, the Trailblazers opened the season with a rain-soaked 8-6 win over Blue Valley before promptly losing three straight games.
Finally, Bishop Miege dropped four straight after a two-game winning streak that included a promising 37-20 victory over Gardner Edgerton.
“There were just a lot of equal teams,” St. Thomas Aquinas coach Mike Thomas said. “The EKL was pretty tough all the way around.”
Picked seventh among eight teams in the preseason coaches’ poll, St. Thomas Aquinas mostly stayed above the fray and Blue Valley West – a two-game midseason hiccup aside – also put together a solid regular-season run.
Still, there was ample reason to think the EKL was down.
Of course, now that the playoffs have arrived and the only teams left standing in Kansas 5A in the eastern half of the state are all EKL squads, such dire predictions just seem silly.
“I wouldn’t say the league was down,” BV West coach Scott Wright said. “The league didn’t have a dominant team, though. Top to bottom, the league was actually stronger. It was by far the most balanced league I can remember in the 12 years I’ve been at West.”
Perhaps that is a much more fair characterization of the 2012 EKL when parity reigned.
Of the 27 games played between EKL teams, 17 were decided by a touchdown or less, while only five games featured point spreads larger than 20 points.
“I think people look at it as being down, because everybody was so evenly matched this year,” first-year Miege coach Jon Holmes said. “We were picked third, but we finished in seventh. We were only 4-5, but there weren’t many blowouts in the league. Everybody is looking at the games this season and saying, ‘We could have been 7-2.’”
Overall, the EKL went 16-6 in non-league matchups with BV North and BV Northwest absorbing four of those six losses against Sunflower League powers during district play or last week’s opening round of the playoffs.
Gardner Edgerton took the league’s other loss last week when it missed a potential game-winning field goal as time expired in a 34-32 defeat by Sunflower League runner-up Lawrence.
“I don’t think balance means that the league was down,” Wright said. “Time will tell, but obviously there’s going to be a team from the EKL in the state championship, and we’ll have two teams in the semifinals next week.”
Those two semifinals combatants will be decided by a pair of thrilling EKL rematches in the 5A quarterfinals.
Seeking to avenge its only loss of the season to date, Aquinas, 9-1, plays at Blue Valley, 6-4, while BV West, 8-2, meets Miege, 5-5, in a rematch of a 41-36 shootout BV West won in the final game before district play.
Just as it was during the regular season, any of the four teams could be the one that wins out this little EKL mini playoff for a berth in the 5A title game Nov. 24 at Emporia State’s Welch Stadium.
The Saints, who won the EKL championship, have been the most consistent team all season, but Blue Valley, which has played for the 5A state title the last two seasons, nipped them 29-28 with a fourth-quarter rally (and also by surviving a missed field goal as time expired).
“After we lost that game to Blue Valley, we had talked about it some that we might see them again,” Thomas said. “Since then, we’ve been taking it a game at a time, but there’s no doubt the kids were kind of happy about how it worked out.
“I don’t know how much revenge is factor, because it’s always a big game with Blue Valley, and they are the next team standing in the way of a state title, which has been our focus all season. It probably helps add more excitement, though.”
Miege feels the same way.
After being crushed by the weight of expectations in midseason, the pressure is off, and the Stags are finally realizing their potential.
Entering Friday, nobody is ready for the season to end.
“We have a lot of seniors,” Holmes said. “We have 24 seniors, and none of those guys wants this to be their last football game. We told them before the last game, ‘We’ll go as long as you guys want them to go’ and that hasn’t changed.”
Of course, it hasn’t changed for BV West, Aquinas or Blue Valley either.
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.