The Wamego High football team found itself seconds away from Class 4A state semifinal berth at the end of the 2020 season. A failed two-point conversion was the only thing that kept the Red Raiders from advancing — falling to Arkansas City at home by a single point, 17-16, in the sectional championship.

The Raiders, who won their fourth regional title in school history last season, are back at it in 2021, with several key pieces from last year returning.

And they’re ready to show that their deep playoff run in 2020 was just the beginning.

“These guys are hungry to prove that a state championship isn’t really that far-fetched,” head coach Weston Moody said. “The players who were here when I got here thought we were crazy to talk about a state championship, because there’s never been one here before. So when we went as far as we did (in the playoffs) and when we show that each year we just keep getting better and better, it shows that we’ve come a long way. We’re going to continue to be consistent and we’re going to keep putting together a good product with the end goal being a state championship.”

Leading the pack as Wamego vies for a state title is junior quarterback Hayden Oviatt, who burst onto the scene last year as one of the top dual-threat slingers in the state.

Oviatt threw for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns to go along with 1,539 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground in 10 games. (Oviatt was quarantined and did not play in the season opener). He did all of that without ever playing a snap at quarterback before, at any level.

“We knew he was very special athletically,” Moody said. “He’s a gamer, but he’s also a kid who prepares everyday as if he’s about to play in a state championship. I don’t think he’s missed a day of weights. He just has that attitude he’s going to put in the work and spend time as a student of the game.”

Despite his inexperience, the junior adjusted well to his role last year and now has garnered statewide praise heading into this season.

“He had a huge learning curve from being a guy who’s never played quarterback to having to read coverages, take charge of the huddle and understand the game from an X’s and O’s standpoint. He’s a kid who’s training to be a college quarterback even though the cards may be stacked against him,” Moody said. “He’s hungry.”

Surrounding Oviatt are pieces in a similar situation: young players thrown into the fire last season and made notable strides because of it.

“Everything that happened last year has helped our depth, and we wouldn’t be in as good of a position this year if we didn’t go though what we went through last year,” Moody said.

Wide receiver Hagan Johnson will lead the way among the Raiders’ skill position players.

“(Hagan) was forced to fill a pretty big role and he showed out,” Moody said. “He was kind of in the shadow of (former Raider star wide receiver and current Washburn freshman) Taybor Vetter and became an all-league receiver who also was a threat in the run game. He ended up being one of our main threats in the passing game, and we went into last season not sure how he was going to be.”

Defensively, multiple players saw their first action last year and now will be stepping into full-time spots, led by linebacker Grant Larson, who got his first start versus mighty Bishop Miege last season. Koltan Boeckman and Mason King will fill out the linebacker corps along with Colyer Brummett, who will play some safety and some linebacker.

James Derouchey and Gage Woodward will return to anchor the defensive line.

Wamego is in a different spot than many schools its size: The Red Raiders had a whopping 90 kids show up for preseason camp, which allows for plenty of depth.

“The good thing about what we’ve done is that we’re a two-platoon system,” Moody said. “So we have kids that go on one side of the ball. We have a lot of good depth and we have lots of guys who are fighting for spots. It’s a next-man-up mentality with us. We don’t typically move guys back and forth unless it’s a very special situation.”

Moody, who is entering his fourth year at Wamego, has learned the value of getting as many players involved as he can.

“Every year, it seems like I learn something different,” Moody said. “Last year there were several times where I didn’t listen to the players as much as I should have. … They’re the ones playing the game, and sometimes they see more than the coaches. I think we spend so much time drawing stuff up that we forget that beyond these X’s and O’s are people, and depending on the situation, that X may not be working like it should. Having the perspective of that has been huge for me and my growth as a coach.”

The Red Raiders open their season at home versus Concordia on Sept. 3.