August 17, 2009

Smith Center, Kansas is a home to winning

MORE: How Redmen became best little prep team in America

In Smith Center, Kan., they produce good football players and better people.

Playing in a football stadium located only a few miles from the geographic center of the United States, the Redmen currently own the nation's longest winning streak at 67 games and have won five consecutive Class 2-1A state championships. The nation's longest winning streak is 151 games by De La Salle High School in California from 1992-2004.

The Redmen have won eight state championships under Roger Barta, their coach of 31 years. He was the U.S. Army All-American Bowl Selection Committee's national coach of the year after the 2007 season.

While teams across the country are embracing speed and finesse and moving to the spread offense, the Redmen play smash-mouth football. The team's four returning starters play both offense and defense. The offense is a variation of the wishbone with two tight ends and three running backs, but the quarterback rarely runs an option or keeps the ball, and he passed only 17 times last year - including for a touchdown in the state championship game.

"We try to keep it fairly simple, but it's a little more complex than most people realize, and we don't try to do a lot, but we try to teach well what we do," Barta said. "We believe in execution, and that's what we're after."

So how does the Smith Center program maintain such a winning streak? Barta said he doesn't really know and that luck has a little bit to do with it, but he pointed out that in the small Kansas town, there's not much else for boys to do besides play football. Meanwhile, the team's wishbone offense creates a physical mentality and some finesse teams struggle to adjust. Moreover, players start learning the offense in seventh grade and know it cold by the time they reach high school, so coaches mainly have to worry about execution and preparation. Finally, the community supports the team heart and soul, and while townsfolk expect success, they don't require it.

"Our kids, they expect to win here," Barta said. "Our community expects them to do well. I don't think it's about wins so much. They just expect them to give good effort and work hard and play as well as they can, and they usually go out there and do that. Some years we're not as talented, and some years we have more talent, but they can always play hard and give great effort."

New York Times writer Joe Drape spent last season in Smith Center chronicling the team's efforts. His new book, "Our Boys: A Perfect Season on the Plains with the Smith Center Redmen," is obviously not the first of its kind, but it has a decidedly different tone than Buzz Bissinger's earlier best-seller, "Friday Night Lights."

While Bissinger recounted the excesses of the Permian High School program in Odessa, Texas, "Our Boys" features only an abundance of community spirit and pride. Townsfolk who fill the stands on Friday nights also come to watch junior high volleyball games. The players, few of whom will play major college football, are involved in school plays and other activities.

Guidance counselor Keli Winder created a program where trading cards featuring the likenesses of each Redman player are passed among elementary students, but there's a catch: Players must sign contracts pledging to remain drug-, alcohol- and tobacco-free before they can be featured on a card.

If a player is caught violating those terms, his card will be collected and he will be required to speak to an elementary class about his choices. Even though the contracts are voluntary, Barta said all his players sign them - and none have been caught violating them.

Last year the Redmen won the school's fifth consecutive state championship with a 48-19 thumping of Olpe High School in the Class 2-1A final, completing a season in which they outscored opponents 646-124 and pitched five consecutive shutouts. But while some past teams have dominated from start to finish, this squad required a goal-line stand in the third game of the season against Norton to eke out a 22-20 victory and keep the streak intact.

According to Drape, the players lacked confidence as they tried to escape the shadow of the previous year's team - one of the best in school history. So, the Monday after the game, coaches met with the players and - position by position - explained that they were as good as or better than their counterparts from the previous year. The Redmen responded by beating Phillipsburg 36-23 before beginning their five-shutout run.

Describing that season, Barta said, "Last year, we kind of struggled early. We had a hard time finding ourselves and getting the chemistry that is necessary to do really well, but probably overall, when the year was said and done, that might have been one of our teams that improved the most, or right up there with the most, of some of the teams we've had in the past."

This year's team returns four starters, all of whom played both offense and defense last year. Running back and safety Colt Rogers rushed for 1,745 yards last season despite suffering from allergies so severe that he took a dozen shots each week. Logan Tuxhorn plays both center and middle linebacker, Dillon Corbett plays guard and defensive end, and Van Tucker plays guard and linebacker. But because the team enjoyed its usual run of blowouts, the other starters will enter this season with plenty of experience.

According to Drape, "They have a very talented and confident class coming back. They are far more established than last year's seniors. They're confident to the point of cockiness and that might be the only thing, but they take it very seriously [and have] a lot of leadership, a lot of talent."

Eventually, the team will lose, and both Barta and Drape say the community will embrace it when it does. That's because while lots of football programs pay lip service to character-building, at this school in the center of America's heartland, they really mean it. In 31 years, Barta has coached only one future NFL player - Mark Simoneau, linebacker for the New Orleans Saints - but he's helped mold many future doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have lived successful lives in every way. And, Barta said, that's what really matters.

"The streak doesn't really mean that much to us," he said. "We're concerned about our kids graduating and being good citizens and being productive and leading good lives. I think the football practice field is the best classroom in the world to teach young men about life."

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