RILEY — Steve Wagner isn’t going to speak in absolutes regarding the Riley County football team this early. He said nobody really can know how good their team can be in August, but there are some solid indicators. For one, Wagner said the team still had strong leadership over the summer.
“We lost a lot of seniors, and a lot of people are saying that right now,” Wagner said. “We played in the state championship last year. We didn’t win it, but we went on a good roll at the end of the season that got us in the state championship game, and I think we grew a lot of confidence in that.”
The Falcons may have fallen 27-0 in the title game to a dominant Phillipsburg squad, but they closed the season with a whiff of momentum, winning five consecutive games to get to the title game.
Losing seniors is significant, Wagner said, but the Falcons still have the tools to be an elite team after finishing last season with an overall record of 10-3. For one, their starting quarterback, Garrett Harmison, is returning. He was dynamic under center last season in the team’s first real year playing in a spread offense. Harmison, Wagner said, is the type of talent worth changing an offense to fit.
“In 2016, we had a kid who really ran the ball well, so we ran it,” Wagner said. “This year we will at least have run the spread for a year and will have more familiarity with what we are doing offensively.”
Wagner said the team often went with the flow of normal Kansas run-heavy offense unless they had a gifted playmaker like Jordy Nelson, but wondered if the Falcons should’ve moved to the spread earlier. After all, Wagner said the decision to finally play in the spread wasn’t entirely based on product.
“We were also looking for a way to make the game more fun,” Wagner said. “The spread is more fun to run and more fun to practice. We found that out last year because it would be more fun at practice throwing it around and a lot of guys getting touches. It’s more fun to watch and looking back, we probably should have done it sooner. But we are doing it now and had some success, so we are going to continue to do it and hopefully have some more success.”
Wagner also plans to take the season at a slower pace. The team is participating in a jamboree scrimmage with Clay Center and Valley Heights, where a total of 36 plays are allowed, including just 12 on offense. This will be a good tune-up, Wagner said, and he already spoke with opposing coaches to ensure it wouldn’t be played with the same physicality of an intense regular-season matchup, so all participating teams can try to avoid injuries.
The schedule also has changed for the regular season, making it so every team plays nine games, with the first eight being regular season and the final game being decided based on the success of the teams in order to orchestrate fair matchups.
“We really have always pointed our season toward district play, and now that is changed,” Wagner said. “You have more district games, so you can basically have three preseason games. But we don’t look at it that way.”
While Riley County is still going to go for a win every week, this gives Wagner and his team more time to finely tune their spread offense to work with the new personnel and account for the losses.
“We’ve thrown in the past, but still were in a (run-focused) scheme,” Wagner said. “But if you build your team around the pass and get a November night where it is cold, snowing and sleeting, then you can’t throw the football. It’s tough and we’ve had that happen. We are still going to run the football and need to run the football, but this is still more fun to play and harder to defend when we have more versatility.”