The last time Stratton/Liberty and Fleming hooked up, the contest came down to a special teams miscue. Fleming ended up getting the go-ahead score in last year’s title game on a safety. The Wildcats then had to come up with a game-sealing interception on fourth down to earn their third championship in the decade, 28-27.
Stratton/Liberty was the favorite heading into that contest, but the Knighted Eagles just may be the underdog this time around. They lost preseason player of the year candidate Jaret Lichty to a season-ending elbow injury in the first quarter of game two, but the younger players have stepped up in his absence. All of the numbers for the team have been impacted by only having five games played on the field. The Knighted Eagles also received a forfeit from Hi-Plains.
Sophomore Alex Cruz leads the team with 570 yards and eight rushing touchdowns, with a good chunk of those totals coming in the game in which Lichty was injured. Cruz finished that contest with career-highs of 269 yards and four touchdowns. Junior Charlie Clapper has again filled the #2 running back role, after tallying close to 700 yards and 13 scores as a sophomore. This season, he’s gone for 409 yards and seven TDs, including a season-high 138 in the week two win over Eads. A refreshing surprise for the team has been the development of freshman Cyler Notter, who has added 150 yards on only 11 carries. Five of those carries have gone for scores. Riggin Williams provides the power in the backfield, with the junior scoring four times on a dozen attempts.
A big question mark heading into the season was at the quarterback position. Gone was Zeke Craig, who manned the spot last year. In stepped a freshman, Charlie Tagtmeyer, who has completed 18 of 32 attempts on the season, for 225 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s only had one pass intercepted this year. Logan Breyer is the leader in receptions with six, while Cruz leads with 88 yards (on five catches). Those two, and Tyler Hase, are tied with two touchdown catches, apiece. Hase missed almost half of the season due to injury, but returned last week.
Williams is a sideline to sideline linebacker who leads the defense with 41 tackles, 31 being solo. He’s forced a fumble and also recovered one. Breyer, who broke out on the scene as a freshman in last year’s championship contest, is second on the squad with 36 tackles. He has nine sacks, including three in Stratton/Liberty’s semifinal win over Cheyenne Wells last week. Cruz has 27 tackles, and Hase, despite missing two games, checks in with 24. Will Witzel has done a bit of everything on defense, registering 20 tackles, three sacks, and a team-high three interceptions. Two of those picks came in consecutive series last week. Cruz had one of his two interceptions in that 36-15 win over Cheyenne Wells.
Braden Wedel is a weapon in the kicking game, recording 19 touchbacks on 24 kick-offs, and the junior’s converted 20 of 27 PATs. He drilled his only field goal attempt of the season, as well. One possible area of concern, hearkening back to last year’s game with Fleming, is the punting. The Knighted Eagles have only had to punt twice during the season, so getting all aspects of that to function properly at game speed could be an issue.
After losing last year’s player of the year and championship game MVP, Brandon Williams, along with the team’s top two receivers, Fleming was somewhat overlooked entering the season. Sure, the Wildcats were #2 in the preseason coaches rankings, but a lot of that could have been attributed to the mindset that the defending champs are #1 until someone beats them. No one has been able to do that so far. The Wildcats ride a 20-game winning streak into the championship game.
Kade Comstock was one of the known commodities coming into the season, as the senior was about to begin his fourth season as the starting QB. He entered the year with more than 2800 yards and 56 touchdowns through the air, but for the most part, was not asked to do much during the year. He had his best yardage total in last week’s 52-46 semifinal victory over Granada, when he completed seven of 12 attempts for 132 yards. It was only the third time he threw for more than 100 yards in a contest. The 12 attempts was a season-high. For the year, Comstock is 29 of 52, for 589 yards and 10 scores. He’s been intercepted three times.
The running game is a three-headed monster, with Charles Hobbs and Nolan Japp alternating series as the tailback, and Chris Goss holding down the fullback position. Hobbs has a team-best 540 yards and 11 touchdowns on 35 carries, while Japp has added 485 yards and seven TDs on 41 attempts. Goss, who tends to earn the “dirty work” carries, has run for 410 yards and nine touchdowns on 40 attempts.
With three of the top four options in the passing game lost to graduation, someone new had to step up this season and that has been Brady Kuntz. The senior, known more for his defensive and special teams work, leads the way with 13 catches, 262 yards, and seven touchdowns. Goss, who was one of the top threats last year, is second with 10 receptions and 200 yards.
Those two are also the top guys on defense, with Goss recording 88 tackles and Kuntz, 73. Kuntz has a team-best six sacks, and Goss adds two fumble recoveries and an interception. Comstock has intercepted three passes, while Joel Muller and Blake Feather each have a pair of picks to their credit. Muller also has a team-leading four fumble recoveries and two blocked kicks.
Special teams is always a strength for Fleming, and this year is no different. While the Wildcats don’t have a touchback specialist handling kick-offs, Charles Hobbs does a good job of directional kicking. Kuntz broke the state career kick return for touchdown record this season. He’s taken three kicks back for scores this year, giving him 11 for his career. One more, and he will tie the total return TD record. He also handles the punting duty, and has had five of his nine downed inside the 20. Comstock has a punt return for a score this year.
Few of the big playmakers from last year’s championship contest will be involved this time around. Lichty was responsible for 267 yards and four rushing touchdowns for Stratton/Liberty, and Williams led Fleming with 164 yards and three scores. Eric Resendiz, who came up with the game-clinching interception and scored a receiving touchdown, is also gone for Fleming.
However, Muller had two big PAT blocks in that one-point victory for the Wildcats, while Kuntz was credited with the safety. And, Cruz and Breyer each recorded two sacks for Stratton/Liberty.
Fleming will not only be aiming for a second consecutive title, but the Wildcats would become the first six-man program to repeat since they did so back in 2011 and 2012. Fleming won its first title by beating Otis 62-28, and then earned the repeat with a wild 84-56 win over Eads in 2012.
This is the fourth straight appearance for Stratton/Liberty in the title game, with a crown in 2018 over Kit Carson (57-18). The Knighted Eagles finished second to Peetz (38-28) in 2017. The co-op program also owns a 2013 championship, as they beat Hi-Plains 44-40 that season.
FLEMING WILDCATS (7-0)
Coach: John King
Outscored Opponents 369-14
W: Arickaree/Woodlin 54-6
W: North Park 56-6
W: Prairie 32-8
W: Peetz 68-19
W: Granada 49-44
W: Kit Carson 58-14
W: Granada 52-46
State Championship History (3-3)
2019: Beat Stratton/Liberty 28-27
2012: Beat Eads 84-56
2011: Beat Otis 62-28
2010: Lost to Idalia 70-36
1993: Lost to Crow Valley 35-26
1964: Lost to Genoa Hugo 20-6 (8man)
STRATTON/LIBERTY KNIGHTED EAGLES (6-0)
Coach: Toby Kechter
Outscored opponents 288-100
W: Genoa Hugo 64-19
W: Eads 66-27
W: Miami Yoder 62-0
W: Hi Plains 2-0 (Forfeit)
W: Briggsdale 58-39
W: Cheyenne Wells 36-15
State Championship History (2-2)
2019: Lost to Fleming 28-27
2018: Beat Kit Carson 57-18
2017: Lost to Peetz 38-28
2013: Beat Hi Plains 44-40
- Stratton: 6 titles (02, 97, 95, 94, 93, 92)
- Liberty: 1 title (99)