If you glance at the Kansas football state championship brackets, a feeling of déjà vu might pop up.
Three teams that played for state titles in 2015 have returned to championship games this year. Even more unlikely, all three of those teams are members of the Eastern Kansas League.
Bishop Miege, in Class 4A-DI, will compete for its third consecutive state title Saturday. Mill Valley, an addition this season to the EKL, will defend its Class 5A championship. And Blue Valley, which lost the Class 6A title last year to Derby, will make a return to the final, facing off against the same team.
It’s an unprecedented accomplishment for three EKL teams to play for Kansas state titles in the same year, but not quite a surprise to those who play and coach in the conference.
“It’s a pretty tough grind to get through our league,” Blue Valley coach Eric Driskell said. “The ones who do get through it, and get through it healthy, usually have a pretty good chance down the line.”
This year, that mantra has been especially true. Should Blue Valley, Mill Valley and Bishop Miege all win their respective championships Saturday, it would be the first time the league has brought home three trophies in the same season. It would also be the first time since 1973 that three Kansas City-area programs have won football state championships.
The week-in, week-out competition in the EKL is a championship-builder in itself, according to those in the league.
“There’s not a game in this league that’s not incredibly physical,” Mill Valley coach Joel Applebee said. “There’s great coaching, so everybody is always in the right position, and everyone’s always playing fast. That’s good for everybody, because it prepares you for future games in the playoffs.”
Although three of the top teams in the league will be playing for state titles Saturday, even those who finished in the bottom half of the EKL provided challenges throughout the year.
Blue Valley Southwest, the last-place finisher in the league, handed St. Thomas Aquinas an upset loss in the regular season. And Gardner Edgerton, which finished 3-5 in the EKL, was two points away from knocking off Class 6A No. 2 seed Shawnee Mission East in the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s amazing,” Miege senior lineman Colin Grunhard said. “I mean, one of the bottom teams in our league still almost pulled off an upset in the playoffs. There is no bad team and that makes you play that much harder every week.”
Blue Valley linebacker Michael Maffry said: “I think a lot of it has to do with tradition. Both my brothers played in the EKL five, 10 years ago, and it was the same way. It keeps things interesting when everybody we play is really good. It’s definitely the hardest league in Kansas, in my opinion.”
The league has a chance to prove that Saturday, with Miege, Mill Valley and Blue Valley all kicking off their title games at 1 p.m. at various locations throughout the state.
“It doesn’t shock me at all to see this level of success,” Applebee said. “But this is pretty awesome. We’re rooting for them as much as I’m sure they’re rooting for us.”