Little River and new coach Kevin Ayers face top-ranked Canton-Galva in season opener
Canton-Galva defensive coordinator Tyler O’Connor played and learned from two of the state’s all-time great coaches during his high school career at Wallace County-Sharon Springs. In football, O’Connor was an all-state player for coach Kevin Ayers, who came to Wallace County from Jetmore in ’06. The Wildcats captured three wins the previous season, and then went to the sub-state title game in Ayers’ first year.
“His big thing was just discipline,” O’Connor said. “And doing all the little things right. I would say overall that is the big thing that always stuck with me from Ayers, is just discipline, leadership and doing the little things correct.”
In 2007, the Wildcats finished 13-0 and won the Eight-Man, Division II title. O’Connor, a junior, collected a team-high 133 tackles and eventually played in the Kansas vs. Nebraska eight-man all-star game as one of the state’s best.
O’Connor’s dad, Larry, has won state championships at Brewster and Sharon Springs in boys’ basketball. Ayers is one of six coaches in state history to win football titles at multiple schools, according to “Under the Lights,” the book released this summer on the first 50 years of the KSHSAA football playoffs.
“From my dad, growing up and seeing him in his success in basketball, it’s always been the time that he puts in,” O’Connor said. “I don’t think anyone outworks him as far as how much time he’s spending in the gym with his kids, and that’s really what struck home with me watching him is you want to get better, you have got to spend time perfecting the craft, and building relationships with those kids.”
Because of his father, O’Connor always knew he wanted to coach. He attended Kansas State and joined Canton-Galva in his first year of coaching. The Eagles’ defensive coordinator, O’Connor led a unit that earned a signature win against Solomon in district play, had a six-victory improvement and went 10-2. C-G, one of the biggest surprises of 2018, has no seniors last fall and is ranked first in Eight-Man, Division I this year.
On Friday, Canton-Galva plays host to Little River – and Ayers’ first game with the Redskins. Ayers left Wallace County and moved east to his wife’s hometown. Ayers believes it is the first time he has ever coached against one of his former players in his coaching career. Ayers is 158-39 as a head coach.
“It’s kind of a weird feeling,” Ayers said. “He knows me inside and out, and so it’s kind of a different feeling going up against a former player who has been in your program, knows how you do things, and knows how you go about things.”
He has several previous players become coaches, most notably O’Connor, Chris Bamberger (Ness City and currently Lakin head coaching positions), and Jeff Hennick (Wallace County and currently Oakley as head coach).
Bamberger was a key member of state titlists at Jetmore, while Hennick was the quarterback on the ’07 state squad. C-G allowed 22.2 points per game in ’18, in the top 25 percent of eight-man football.
“Tyler was an extremely physical player,” Ayers said. “And he loved the game, and you can see that in his coaching, and the way his defense plays. They just take on his personality. They are physical, they fly to the football, very disciplined. Tyler was a student of the game. It’s been real fun talking to him as a colleague. I pick his brain about the way he does things. Going back and forth. It’s been fun to watch as he developed into a coach, and just the tremendous job he has done with the Canton-Galva defense.”
Little River was 7-2 last fall and defeated the Eagles, 52-20, in Week 1.
“Especially with coach Ayers coming in, they are going to have new concepts and new schemes,” C-G coach Shelby Hoppes said. “So it is going to be a completely different game, but as far as last year, I do think that was what kind of got us turned in the right direction was playing against a team that physically dominated us, and it kind of opened our eyes to how physical we would have to play to compete at a high level.”
O’Connor first came to C-G because of former Eagle coach Jeff Savage. When O’Connor played in the now defunct Kansas/Nebraska game at Fort Hays State, Savage, then at Quivira Heights, served as coach. Savage has coached multiple stops since, including Central Burden, C-G, Goodland, Mission Valley and Doniphan West. When Hoppes took over in ’17, O’Connor became the defensive coordinator and weights instructor. He has helped the Eagles improve from 1-8 to 2-7 to 4-5 before the breakout year.
O’Connor’s “core base” of his defense is “a lot” of the principles he learned from coach Ayers, one of the defensive masterminds of the 3-2. Ayers’ first season as head coach at Jetmore was ’98.
“It’s a read defense, and when you get really good at it, and your kids are really good at it, it’s almost like a called blitz,” Ayers, 3-1 all-time in state titles, said. “You are blitzing to the proper gap the proper way by what the offense tells you, and it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of drills and a lot of reps to get really good at it.”
“But when your kids finally get there,” Ayers added. “It’s so fun to watch, and they are not thinking anymore, they are just reacting to what the offense is telling them by the keys that they read, and then it gets really fun watch your team come together, and the whole team on the same page.”
O’Connor has stayed in contact with Ayers and been able to talk defense. O’Connor has added some of his own “twists” to the look. O’Connor talked to Ayers soon after he took the LR job and has spoken once since.
“There’s always those little jokes in there about seeing him Week 1,” O’Connor said.
Last year, C-G’s Landon Everett and Tyson Struber each recorded double-digit interceptions. Everett and Struber were both first team all-state players. Everett, the starting quarterback/cornerback, has added around 20 pounds.
Struber, a starting wideout/safety, has put on 15-20 pounds, too. Hoppes said C-G has “quality depth” at all positions with a 25-player roster, the biggest for the Eagles in years.
Hoppes said the experience allowed C-G to have “everything in” during the summer camps and platoon at several positions. Seniors Nick Pearson and Jay Nightingale and juniors Keaton Littrell and Tyler Rummel return up front on the offensive line.
“We coach the little things every single day with our snaps and our hands,” Hoppes said of his offensive line. “And sometimes they get a little lazy with that, but as far as concepts and things go, they know what they are doing on every play, which a lot of coaches don’t have that luxury.”
The only o-line starter who plays defense is Pearson. He holds offers from McPherson and Sterling. Junior Connor Koehn, senior Mason Reedy and Pearson are on the defensive line. Senior Kinser Colgin is at cornerback. Junior Brandon Huff and Brayden Collins are back at linebacker. Huff led the team with more than 80 tackles.
“We are really fortunate to have some really good athletes back there in those positions that are just making a play on the ball,” O’Connor said. “Also in the film room, they are very concentrated on what they need to do, and they are always paying attention, so 100 percent of the glory goes to those guys there. They are just extremely good athletes, all five of them, from linebacker to the secondary.”
In Week 7 of ‘18, C-G defeated Solomon, 38-20 for the district championship. Last year, Hoppes praised O’Connor’s preparation and labeled the defensive game plan “spectacular.” O’Connor put in extra time, and brought the team together for film studies on Saturday and Sunday.
“As far as game film, it was watching everything I could get my hands on,” O’Connor said. “Copying down plays, and looking at tendencies that they have. All that stuff goes into a good scouting report when you are playing that caliber of a team.”
C-G gave Solomon multiple looks and confused the Gorillas on their read option. Solomon averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. Entering the game, the Gorillas averaged 57 points per game.
“So I wanted to make sure that if we got beat, it was because they were the better team, and it wasn’t because we were less prepared,” O’Connor said. “And that kind of goes back to something that I learned from my dad as well. It takes time.”