Heading into one of the most rewarding football seasons in the storied history of Blue Springs High School, coach Kelly Donohoe and his Class 6 state championship team – which is seeking a second consecutive state title – faced two huge question marks.
“We answered one when (junior quarterback) Ian Brown moved to Blue Springs,” said Donohoe, who lost last year's starting quarterback, Wylson Lamb, to graduation. “We needed someone to run the offense, and Ian has been outstanding. You'd think the kid had been a part of our program the past three years.”
Brown has completed 109 of 173 passes for 1,767 yards, 22 touchdowns and just four interceptions and helped turn Darrius Shepherd (57 catches, 994 yards, 12 TDs) and Kaleb Prewett (18 catches, 381 yards, 6 TDs, 21.1-per-catch average) into two of the most explosive receivers in the metro area.
The other question concerned the offensive line, which returned just one player.
But that one player has taken it upon his broad shoulders to work even harder and engage his new linemates into the work ethic it takes to win a second state championship.
“I knew there were a lot of questions about the line, and that bothered me,” tackle Jordan Benson, an all-state tackle who has committed to Colorado State University, said as the 11-0 Wildcats prepared for tonight’s Class 6 District 4 final against 10-1 Lee’s Summit. “I didn't want the line to be a weakness, and neither did the guys who were going to start this season.
“We got off to a little bit of a slow start, then, we got it together against Lee's Summit West (the top-ranked team in Class 5) and we've gotten better each game since then. I was proud of the group we had last year because there was talk it might have been the best line in the history of the school and Dalvin (Warmack) won the Simone Award.
“But I'm just as proud of this year's line because we've had to work hard and come together as the season has gone on, and we've been able to do that.”
Warmack, the 2012 Simone Award winner and one of the favorites to win it again this year, rushed for 270 yards in the 42-35 win over West. He now has 212 carries for 1,916 yards and 26 touchdowns and 2,184 all-purpose yards, and he points the spotlight directly at the offensive line.
“I owe those guys a meal or two,” Warmack said, grinning. “They keep asking me to go to the buffet with them, but they stay there for two hours and I've got other things I need to take care of. But I wouldn't have any stats this season if it weren't for my brothers on the line.
“They work as hard – or harder – than any group on the field. and they take a lot of pride in what I do, and I take a lot of pride in what they do.”
On many practice days, Benson is matched up against the reigning Buck Buchanan Award winner, defensive end Elijah Lee.
“You know that spin move Dalvin has?” Benson said. “I've been watching that spin move since we played in Little League together, it's just that now, he's bigger and stronger and can push people off him and spin away from people.
“But Elijah has that spin move, too. And man, he's tough in practice. Some days I get him, and some days he gets me.”
When asked if that is true, the towering Lee responds, “We get after it in practice. Some days I win and some days Jordan wins. That's why we're such a good team. We got after each other, and it makes you better when you practice against the best players in the city.”
Helping Benson pave the way for Dalvin Warmack are center Trevon Warmack (Dalvin's younger brother who moved over from the defensive line), guards Tre'von Allen and Colton Higgins, tackle Nathan Weddle and tight end Jackson Hood.
“These kids have bought into getting better every play, every day, in practices and games,” Donohoe said. “And Jordan has been an outstanding leader for them to look up to.”
But like Warmack, Benson refuses to take any credit.
“Our coaches – Coach (Kent) Cramer and Coach (Joe) Cusack – are the best,” Benson said. “They inspire us. We want to work hard because they work so hard. Coach Cramer came up with a motto that we all believe in: ‘Good or Great?’ We can be good, or we can be great, and we want to be great, we want to win a second state championship. And to do that, we have to be great, and that's the challenge we face every day.”
The Wildcats, though, say they won’t be overconfident in tonight’s game against Lee’s Summit despite posting a 49-7 rout of the Tigers on Oct. 25 in the regular season.
“I don't think about that last game,” Lee said, “I think about a 10-1 team coming to our house and what we have to do to defend against a great quarterback like Drew Lock. No one on our team expects another 49-7 game.”
“They're a very, very good team that we had a very, very good night against in the regular season,” Donohoe said. “I have so much respect for Coach (Eric) Thomas and his team, and believe me, we're getting after it this week in practice to get ready for what they're going to bring to our house.”
Entering the game, Lock has completed 181 of 295 passes (61 percent) for 2,904 yards, 35 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Against Blue Springs on Oct. 25, Lock was 10 of 21 for 133 yards and a touchdown. Lock, though, isn’t the entire offense for the Tigers. Running back Casey Slaughter has rushed for 1,078 yards and 10 touchdowns on 199 carries (5.4 average).