Kansas City’s most interesting high school football game in years is happening because of the area’s grandest program transformation this century.
There are other reasons Bishop Miege is hosting Rockhurst on Friday in a game so anticipated that $50 reserved tickets sold out within days and school officials are expecting every seat filled two hours before kickoff.
Logistics, for one. Miege finally had an opening in its schedule that fit, and Rockhurst was happy to take the game against a good opponent 15 minutes or so from campus. Interest, for another. Alums and athletes at both schools and around the city have wanted this matchup for years.
But, mostly, Miege had to transform itself, to build from a mediocre program to a curious one to the most dominant power in Kansas — winner of four consecutive Class 4A championships, and a 29-game win streak that includes blowout wins over bigger-class state champions each of the last two years.
Rockhurst and Miege used to be one of the city’s top football rivalries. Miege won several state titles in the 1970s, and often beat Rockhurst, but dropped the game after 1986 because of a combination of scheduling difficulties and an inability to compete. Thirty years later, Miege is back.
“We want to be (Rockhurst),” Miege coach Jon Holmes said. “The only way to be them is to play them.”
For some of us, it doesn’t seem like too long ago that Miege playing the city’s most established football power would have resulted in a metaphorical bloodbath, a notion that Holmes — Miege Class of 2002, and now in his 15th season as a head coach or assistant — agreed with.
The Stags won just two games in 2005, the year before former Chiefs Pro Bowler Tim Grunhard took the job. Forty freshmen came out his first season, a significant jump credited largely to his local fame.
He wasn’t the first former Chiefs player to coach at a local high school, but he became the most successful. In his third season, Miege won its first playoff game in more than a decade. In his fifth season, Miege won its first state championship in more than three decades.
That’s about when Holmes first felt the program was good enough to fulfill one of Grunhard’s first goals when he took over — to schedule Rockhurst.
Grunhard left Miege to be an assistant at Kansas in 2011, then rejoined Miege’s staff a few years later. He decided that 2017 would be his last season coaching shortly before the game against Rockhurst was scheduled. Holmes laughed as he repeated the R-rated adjective Grunhard used for him when he heard the news.
“I think this is really good for high school football in Kansas City,” Holmes said.
Miege’s success started with Grunhard’s name recognition but was built with work and brains and by attracting some of the city’s best athletes. Holmes has helped push that success to unimagined heights.
There is also the inherent advantage of being a private school near the geographic center of Kansas City, and that always comes up when discussing Miege’s rise. It should. It’s important. Holmes knows it and openly admits it.
Miege built itself into a program strong enough to attract stars like Shane Ray and Jafar Armstrong. The most telling example might be that Graham Mertz transferred out of Miege after losing the starting quarterback job to Carter Putz. Mertz was a Simone Award finalist last year, ranked by Rivals as the nation’s No. 2 pro-style quarterback recruit, and committed verbally to Wisconsin.
But the debate around Miege nearly always devolves, with one side saying Miege’s coaches could do this anywhere and the other side throwing unproven accusations of recruiting. As part of the reporting for this column, six coaches with top athletes in their district who attend or recently attended Miege were contacted and granted anonymity to talk openly.
Most were (understandably) frustrated at losing top athletes, but none said they had any knowledge of those athletes being recruited.
“Notice I’m not saying recruit — I’m saying attract,” said Paola principal Jeff Hines, a proponent of a so-called success modifier that would push Miege and some other programs to a larger class. “You just have to get them through the door and you’re going to attract them. The aura of it does the rest.”
There is an irony here. Holmes and Grunhard have wanted to build Miege into a peer of Rockhurst’s, but the mile-marker isn’t necessarily Friday’s game. It’s that they hear the same complaints about “recruiting” that Rockhurst football coach Tony Severino has grown so accustomed to.
Miege is still fairly new to the recruiting complaints. Severino has heard them for decades.
District boundaries are seemingly loosened all the time. Many districts allow students to choose their high school. The criteria are academically based, but everyone knows kids’ decisions are often made with sports in mind, too.
This happens easier, and more directly, with private schools. Miege and Rockhurst are separated by less than seven miles. Many kids who’ll play on both sides of Friday’s game considered attending the other school.
“We’re seeing the two best teams over (in Kansas),” Severino said, referencing Blue Valley, who Rock beat last week. “It’s a great rivalry game, one of many we have on our schedule.”
Old-timers at Rockhurst will always see Jefferson City as a bigger rival, and the Rockhurst-Blue Springs game is one of the best in the city every year.
There are others, of course. Park Hill and Park Hill South, Blue Springs and Blue Springs South, Olathe South and Olathe North, Blue Valley and Blue Valley North. St. Thomas Aquinas has emerged as a power in recent years.
But as long as Miege maintains or vaguely matches its current level, the game with Rockhurst has the biggest potential — one program from each side of the state line, two schools that draw students from all over the city, Power Five recruits every year. The schools have a two-year agreement, but each side expressed a desire to extend it further.
If the interest is high enough, how cool would it be to play this game at Children’s Mercy Park?
A week or two ago, Kevin Regan, a local attorney and proud Rockhurst grad, called to share a story. This was from the fall of 1972, and Rockhurst scored a touchdown to take the lead with just a few seconds left. Regan remembers telling Rock’s kicker not to kick it to the Miege star who just gave up the touchdown.
“He’ll be so (ticked) off he’ll run it back,” Regan said.
Well, the ball went to the star, and the star ran it back, and Rockhurst lost. Regan’s parents had made a bet on the game with some friends. The loser had to hang the winner’s pennant from the fireplace for a year.
“I waited 365 days, to the day, so I didn’t cheat,” Regan said. “But at midnight I took it down and burned it.”
That memory is 46 years old, but it’s still clear to Regan, who planned on being at Friday’s game.
That’s the kind of memory now set in motion, so that perhaps some of these teenagers will be telling the story of Friday night nearly a half-century from now.