Months before it drew the two-time defending champion in the Kansas Class 6A title game, the Blue Valley North football team had to lock itself in a room.
It was late September. The Mustangs had lost three games in a row to Eastern Kansas League opponents. If they were going to make good on fourth-year coach Andy Sims’ prophecy that the class of 2018 would win a state title, something had to change.
After 90 or so minutes, something clicked. As the season continued, they won eight of their next nine games, including six in a row. They beat a top-ranked Shawnee Mission East team in sectionals and won a double-overtime thriller at Blue Valley last week to earn a trip to Emporia State.
And on Saturday at Welch Stadium, the Mustangs racked up 561 yards of total offense in a 49-42 victory over powerhouse Derby (11-2) to secure the first state football title Blue Valley North (9-4) has ever achieved.
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“Every year we’ve gotten better, every year we’ve worked harder, and coach (Sims) told us, ‘You can be state champions,’ ” said senior defensive end Mason Alvarez, who made a sack to end the first half. “When we started to believe that, that’s when we took off.”
Junior quarterback Graham Mertz, a Wisconsin commit whose pair of overtime touchdowns at sub-state sent Blue Valley North to its first appearance in a championship game, just barely squeaked over the goal line for a 15-yard touchdown run with 57 seconds remaining in the game. He completed 24 of 30 passes for 462 yards.
Senior safety Grant Hamel, who also ran for 59 yards and two touchdowns, intercepted Derby’s final pass around the 0:40 mark to seal the back-and-forth affair, which saw more than 1,000 yards of combined offense.
“I’m gonna be sick in the morning because I’m an old linebacker,” Sims said. “I don’t like seeing that 49-42. But it’s pretty special knowing we’re on the other end of it.”
Blue Valley North trailed 7-0 early and went three-and-out on its first possession. But when Derby turned the ball over on downs at BV North’s 29, the Mustangs mounted a 10-play drive over 3 minutes to tie the game 7-7 on a Hamel’s 5-yard touchdown run. Tripp Shertenlieb kicked his first of seven successful point-after attempts.
Despite trading scores throughout the game, the Mustangs never trailed again.
“Ever since our freshman year, we were talking about state and how by the end of our high school careers we would get it,” Hamel said. “We promised ourselves that we’d get it. No matter how many wins we got or losses we got, we just kept fighting until we got all the way here.”
Derby junior quarterback Hunter Igo combined with senior Brody Kooser to knock Blue Valley North off balance. Derby pulled off a pair of trick plays, including a fake punt late in the third quarter that set up a 6-minute touchdown drive.
The Mustangs struggled to defend the run, and Derby recorded nearly 290 yards rushing.
“We had a lot of mistakes,” said Kansas commit Miles Emery, who recorded 11 tackles. “They had a tough running game.”
But BV North’s ability to make big plays on long passes was enough to give the Mustangs an edge.
A trio of seniors — Dylan Freberg hauled in 222 yards, Nijel Roberts made two touchdown catches and Alex Garcia caught a 20-yard pass and a 14-yard pass for touchdowns of his own — kept Derby’s defense, which had allowed about 26 points per game, on its toes.
And when Blue Valley North got the football at its own 3-yard line with 3:07 remaining in a tie game, those seniors and a staunch offensive line paved the way for Mertz’s title-winning run.
“It’s gonna hit me in about an hour on the bus,” said Mertz, a first-year starter who transferred from Bishop Miege after his sophomore season. “I don’t know how I’m gonna feel. … It took a little bit of time, but we got where we wanted to be.”
Before this season, Blue Valley North had four playoff wins in its history, two of them last season. When Sims was appointed BV North’s football coach on Nov. 26, 2013, the Mustangs were essentially a doormat in the EKL. They’d only won once in the previous three seasons.
“Blue Valley North has never been a football mecca,” Sims said.
Sims sank himself into the program, anyway. He mounted a rebuild and led Blue Valley North to the postseason for the third year in a row.
“Every year we chipped away to a better record, more stages every year,” said Roberts, who caught an 87-yard pass for a score and totaled 174 yards on seven catches.
Sims’ unflagging confidence in this senior class finally paid off Saturday.
“He told us that he was going to turn the program around,” safety Calvin Masters said. “Four years later, he won us a state championship. I couldn’t be happier.”