Long-time Northern Valley coach leaves legacy of success
Coach Chuck Fessenden’s 1985 Almena-Northern Valley football team featured multiple sophomores in key roles. The Huskies returned senior running back Shane Baird, who tallied 1,573 rushing yards as a junior.
Northern Valley lost in state title games in ’82-’83 and posted a 10-2 record in ’84. In ’85 the Huskies opened 4-0 with all wins by at least 22 points.
Then, NV fell 41-38 to Mankato in district play, a game Fessenden vividly remembers nearly 34 years later. Mankato featured a strong line, and a hard-running fullback. Mankato kicked one extra point and ran in a fake for a two-point conversion.
“They’d just pound it, and pound it, and pound it, and drive it down the field and score,” Fessenden said. “And then we were real explosive, and we’d score in about three plays, and then do the same thing all over again. They’d get the ball, and just pound it, pound it, pound it, and end up scoring, and then we’d score real quick again, and ended up coming down to extra points.”
At that time, only one team from each district reached the playoffs. Northern Valley knew a trip to the postseason wasn’t going to happen.
The Huskies, running the Midway-Denton misdirection trap offense, often called the Midway series, captured their final four contests: 44-12, 72-26, 118-6 versus Pike Valley and 68-12 against rival Logan. The 112-point margin of victory, accomplished before the current 45-point mercy rule, is still the biggest in Kansas eight-man history. It also remains the most points NV has ever scored in a game.
“That was a pretty tough loss there, because we had a super team,” Fessenden said of the Mankato game.
Additionally, the Huskies finished 8-1 and averaged 66 points a contest, also the school mark for scoring average. The four-game winning streak eventually grew to 41, currently the all-time Kansas eight-man consecutive victories record in the 50-year KSHSAA era.
On Friday, Hanover, winners of three straight Division II titles under Wildcat alum Matt Heuer, will have the chance to tie Northern Valley’s record. Hanover has won 40 straight games and travels to Mankato-Rock Hills.
“If they win, tell Matt congratulations for me,” Fessenden said.
Fessenden retired this past spring after 43 years with Northern Valley and a 290-143 mark on the gridiron. Last year, Northern Valley named its football field “Fessenden Field.” He is believed to be the only coach in Kansas to win state titles in football, boys’ basketball and track. Last spring, Fessenden ended his career with a Class 1A boys’ track crown – his first track titles since ’86-87.
In ’86, Fessenden captured his first football state title with a 12-0 mark and Division I crown. Then, the Huskies followed with a 13-0 record and Division II state crown in ’87 with a team full of seniors who had several years of experience.
“We knew they were going to be good, because that year we’d lost, they were sophomores that year,” Fessenden said. “And that’s why we scored a lot of points was that we had a good first team. Then when we subbed, we had these kids that were sophomores that were really good players, too.”
The following fall in ‘88, Northern Valley won its first 12 games, including a 38-36 overtime victory versus Hanston in the semifinals. It marked the first OT contest in NV program history, according to Kansas Football History.
Hanston featured fullback Oliver Salmans, one of the state’s all-time great players. Salmans, the current longtime assistant at Hodgeman County, played at Kansas State. Despite Northern Valley’s winning streak, Hanston was favored. The Elks continually ran the sweep.
“First of all, they were supposed to be unbeatable, and we weren’t exceptionally big,” Fessenden said. “We weren’t real big or anything, but in the game, we just kept switching defenses constantly. Every other play, we were running a different defense, and we were able to move the ball some on them.”
Hanston scored in overtime before Northern Valley made the stop to win. It remains the only time Northern Valley has defeated Hanston.
“There was no way that we could stop Oliver Salmans for less than three yards,” Fessenden said. “But they threw a halfback pass, and one of our defensive backs, Clint Lowry, tipped it and knocked it down. I think they kind of overthought things a little bit.”
At state, Northern Valley fell 41-18, to Attica to end the streak. Fessenden said Northern Valley was “just drained” at state.
Northern Valley ran 78 offensive plays, the second-most ever in an eight-man title game, according to “Under the Lights,” the 50-year history of the KSHSAA football state championships released this summer. Lowry fought an infection that caused sores in his mouth.
The Huskies were aware of the state record, and Fessenden said the team was “pretty sure” it had set the mark.
“Our kids really played a good game that game,” Fessenden said of Hanston. “It was just unbelievable, because they were probably better than we were. But that night, we ended up being better than they were, and then it took a lot out of our kids. You could tell the next week when we got to the state championship, our kids were just spent from that week before.”
Midway-Denton dominates with unique offensive scheme, Fessenden takes notice
In 1981, Northern Valley also finished 8-1 before a 12-1 mark and state runner-up to Midway-Denton the following fall. M-D, led by brothers-in-law Mark Juhl and Mark Martin, had moved to eight-man before the ’81 season.
Juhl learned the three-play misdirection trap offense from coach Jim Waters in Turpin, Okla. After one season as an assistant, he finished 0-9, 4-5 and 6-3 as Midway-Denton’s 11-man coach before he took over as head coach.
Midway-Denton eventually won seven state titles from ’81-88, though lost three times total in the state title seasons and couldn’t match NV’s winning streak. M-D often played Falls City, a Nebraska power.
“Our guys, we just really got a lot better as the season progressed,” Martin said. “We didn’t want to get beat, don’t get me wrong. But the losses that we had were usually to decent competition early in the year, and then we could fall back on those things to kind of beat them over the head with as far as getting better.”
Early in his tenure, Juhl thought video tape machines had terrible quality. He called up the television station in St. Joseph, Mo. Without telling his wife – “I wanted it so bad,” Juhl said – he bought a $300 camera. One of his assistants drove down to Topeka to get the tape developed. He started watching the players on the new tape and projector and noticed the blocking was poor.
Juhl created a blocking system and graded each player on a zero to 10 scale. Each Monday, he handed players a sheet with 20 to 30 graded plays. He had three blocking rules and had the backs do the same thing every time.
“I can tell you, if you are going to qualify for the state championship, you have to have a 6.5 blocking percentage or you are not going to make it,” Juhl said. “…To get a 10 block, you have to keep your man out of the play the entire duration of the play, and you get a 10 block, or if you flat back your guy, that’s a 10 block.”
M-D worked hard on ball faking with a “hide-the-ball drill.” In practice, M-D ran a drill where the quarterback took the snap, The fullback came up, planted down like he had the ball and stayed there. The halfback came by, and the quarterback either faked or handed off the ball. Then, they both took two steps and froze. The linebackers had to figure out who had the ball.
“When we got good enough to fool the linebackers standing there with no line, we figured we had it made,” Juhl said this summer.
Juhl sent the guards one way, and had blocking on the end. The linebackers often followed the pulling guards, and the ball went the other way. Juhl, now retired, used the same offense in the ‘90s to build from scratch, and eventually win a state title in 2006, with St. Joseph (Mo.) Christian. He won more than 125 games with St. Joseph.
“A combination I think of a good system, and then we had smart players,” Juhl said of M-D. “You’ve got players with great work ethic, and I pushed them, and then we had speed.”
In the first round of the ’81 eight-man playoffs, Midway-Denton defeated Mankato, 27-26. The players had pizza on the way to Mankato and felt sick during the game. After that, Juhl decided he would provide healthy, nutritious snacks.
The following year, Midway-Denton defeated Northern Valley, 58-14, in the state title game in Almena, the last time eight-man title games were played at home sites. Juhl asked how the players felt with the better food.
“They said, ‘Coach, we feel great, just like we were at home,’” Juhl said.
Fessenden adopts Midway series
Fessenden graduated from Clifton High School and was a sophomore when his team captured the first Class 1A football state title in 1969. He attended Kansas State, and then moved to Almena and became head football coach.
The first eight-man football game Fessenden ever saw was the first one he coached in 1976 – also the inaugural year for eight-man football at Northern Valley. Fessenden finished 22-21 in his first five years. In his first three seasons, NV went 2-6 versus Nebraska schools.
“Learned the hard way of playing these other guys, and playing these Nebraska schools,” Fessenden said.
Fessenden taped Midway-Denton’s offense, and then studied the film. He attended a clinic in Nebraska, and heard Waters talk about the scheme. For the next 35-plus years, Northern Valley has run the Midway-Denton offense as its base look. In 2017 and ‘18, NV used the offense out of the shotgun.
Hanston, known for its power sweep and passing game with coach Jerry Slaton, defeated Northern Valley in the playoffs in ’98 and ’00. In a nod to NV’s offense, Matt Housman, a former Hanston player and the current Hodgeman County head coach, said Hanston had a play called “Q34 Husky.”
Fessenden’s last football title came in 1990, a 13-0 team that scored within the first three offensive plays of each of the four playoff games. Since then, the Huskies have made three semifinals, the last coming in 2000.
Twins Keith and Kevin Sides helped NV capture the last football title, as well as basketball crowns in ’90-91. Fessenden served as the assistant basketball coach to Doug Reusink, who has now led Norton more than 25 years.
“Had opportunities to go somewhere else, but you always hate to leave the next class of kids,” Fessenden said. “You’ve always got a group coming up, and I kind of hated to leave them ever.”
Two years ago, Kevin’s son, Riley, earned Class 1A, Division II Player of the Year honors as Northern Valley captured the state basketball title with Fessenden as head coach. Last season, Fessenden led NV to a 21-3 mark in Riley’s senior year with a sub-state title game loss.
Kevin was the Huskies’ assistant coach, and Keith is the longtime Phillipsburg boys’ basketball coach. The normally reserved Fessenden was emotional on the court afterward.
In the spring, Northern Valley held off Hanover, 55.5-48, to win the 1A boys’ track title, a competition that came down to the final event, the 1,600 relay.
Riley Sides sustained an injury in basketball and missed six weeks. Two others suffered from a cough and had trouble running a full lap. At regionals, NV put the quartet together and posted 3 minutes, 32.25 seconds to beat St. Francis.
At state, the Huskies knew they had to beat Hanover or finish really close in the 1,600 relay. Northern Valley ran 3:29.96 behind Riley Sides, Aidan Baird, and Nick Stutsman, along with junior Ivan Varela, won the race and sealed the crown.
“That was pretty special,” Fessenden said.
Fessenden enjoying retirement
This summer, Fessenden ran the Northern Valley weight room. He and his wife, Jennifer, have two grown daughters, Cathryn and Regan.
They went on a couple of trips with their family. He has long enjoyed golf and played often with Reusink and Kevin Jilka, now retired after a long career as Norton girls’ basketball coach.
“Usually, my game deteriorated when football season started,” he said with a laugh.
This year, he has stayed on the course and carries a handicap in the three to four range. He recorded another hole-in-one August 10, his second in five days and eighth overall. On Thursdays, he participates in senior tournaments. On Wednesday, he was leaving for Maryville, Mo. for a golf tournament.
“I don’t know if I have really missed practice a whole lot or anything,” he said. “I’ve missed the games.”
Fessenden attended Northern Valley’s first game, a loss versus Alma, Neb. In Week 2, he went to Wichita for a golf tournament to benefit the food bank and watched Hutchinson-Central Christian against Norwich. Central Christian’s Lee Smith coached with Fessenden in the eight-man all-star game this past June, Fessenden’s last football game.
Northern Valley has decided to play six-man football starting next year, confirming that Fessenden led the entire history of the Huskies’ eight-man program except this season. He turned 65 on Monday.
“I kind of hated to see them go to six-man, but the numbers are getting pretty low and they are having to play some freshman and stuff, so I understand what the problem is,” he said. “It would be nice to see them stay at eight-man, but it’s the way things are out here kind of.”