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Class 4A state football preview: Arkansas City vs. St. James Academy

By Blake Chadwick

Class 4A

Who: Arkansas City (6-6) vs. St. James Academy (7-4)

When: 1 p.m., Friday

Where: Hutchinson Community College

Overview: In the Class 4A state championship, the St. James Academy Thunder take on the Ark City Bulldogs. 

St. James knocked off the six-time defending 4A champs Bishop Miege 36-35 in overtime in the semifinals.

Ark City, which finished the regular season 2-6, has won four straight playoff games including the last two by one point each. 


Arkansas City Bulldogs

Head Coach:  Jon Wiemers

  • Key Players
      • OL-DL Max Shannon 5-11, 285, Sr. (1 sack and 1 fumble recovery)
      • QB Gabe Welch 6-0, 180, So. (2,406 yards passing) 
      • S-RB Owen Bucher 5-10, 170, Sr. (leading tackler and 2 sacks)
      • OLB-RB Wyatt Bahm 5-9, 170, So. (7 sacks and 3 ff)
      • WR-DB Cadon Clark 5-9, 165, So. (4 int and 573 receiving yards)
      • WR-DB Haden O’Toole 6-1, 170, Sr. (485 receiving yards and 5 int, missed four games)

What makes your team special?

“They are ‘all in’ with the culture of our football program. They are unselfish kids that put the team before themselves.”

Have any players been a surprise?

“Wyatt Bahm is a player we knew would be good for us on defense. I think he exceeded everyone’s expectations with the effect he had on our defense.”

What got your team into the state championship game?

“Our belief in the process of getting better every day and not focusing on the results. Even when we were 2-6, we didn’t focus on the scoreboard or wins and losses. Failure is the best teacher if you use it right. Our players bought into that and didn’t fall apart; they just got better every day.”

What does your team need to do in order to win the state championship game?

“We aren’t going to do anything different from what we do any other week. We are going to put a plan together that our coaches and players believe in. We are going to practice the plan and go execute it at the highest level we possibly can.”

St. James Academy Thunder

Head Coach: Tom Radke

  • Key Players
    • RB La James White 5-8, 180, Sr. (1,249 yds on 189 carries, 585 yds receiving and 28 total touchdowns)
    • QB Dakota Burritt 6-1, 170, Sr. (176/295 for 2,613 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and 6 int)
    • WR Ty Claiborne 6-3, 191, Jr. (72 receptions, 1,078 yds and 11 touchdowns)
    • Senior LT Harry Spencer 6-4, 260, Sr. (20 pancake blocks)
    • LB-DE Sam Schmidt 5-11, 202, Sr. (87 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks)
    • S Jack Gossman 5-10, 176, Sr. (100 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 int, 4 fumble recoveries)
    • LB Brendon Lee 5-10, 218, Sr. (47 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack)

What makes your team special?

“The first thing that comes to mind is unity and pride in the program and the school. One of our mottos is ‘keep the main thing the main thing,’ which is God, and this group has done that. This team is playing off the examples set by last year’s class and the senior group when they were freshmen. Those two teams put the belief in this senior class. 

“This team loves playing together. LaJames said to me the other day, ‘coach this team is crazy, they actually like to go to practice every day.’ The brotherhood of this group makes them special. Our team pillars are Faith, Toughness, Brotherhood and 212º, and this group embodies all of them. But again they had great classes above them to show them the culture of our program. 

“This is a very competitive team. Whenever we go to inside/outside period in practice, it’s like game day, and it gets really chippy. And the coaches are talking smack on each other, but it has made us who we are. We fear no one we play, but we respect all of our opponents because we have taken our lumps in the past and in the EKL. This group has really taken to heart what we have said since the spring, treat every day that we have together as a gift, you never know what tomorrow will bring. I am just so proud to be the head coach of this team and this program.”

Who have been key players for you this season?

“Dakota Burritt, our QB, has done a tremendous job of leading our offense.  He has done a great job of running the office with a quiet confidence and outstanding consistency. La James White is obviously a special talent and the only bright spot I can see out of this whole COVID deal. He brought a contagious love of playing the game of football. He plays both ways and never wants to come off the field. He can do it all on the field and is a great student. Even his sewing teacher Mrs. Nunn adores him. 

“Ty Claiborne, our TE/WR, has had a tremendous year. He is a tall, fast, competitive player, who expects to catch every ball in the air and usually does. He has made some big-time plays for us this year when we have needed it. With all of the attention going to him in the secondary, it has left teams in a big-time bind. I believe we have the best WR corp in the state, hands down. Seniors Jake Boone, Josh Kirby, Hayes Manning and Brennan Coffey, and sophomore John Niesen are really something special to watch on Friday nights. They all run great routes, have great hands and expect to make plays. Coach Snell, our receiver coach, has done a great job of getting them ready each week. 

“Up front I have to talk about Emilio Zaldivar. He is the rock of this team. He has an infectious positive attitude that has fueled this team. Don’t get me wrong he wants to compete, but he loves this team and everything about St. James Academy. He played guard to start the year, but due to injuries, he is playing center and has done a great job of making all the calls up front and leading the OL group along with our other senior linemen Harry Spencer, Louis Bautista, Caleb Pelts and Sam Schmidt. 

“On defense LB/DE Sam Schmidt and FS Jack Gossman have been the leaders of a group who have brought great passion and attitude to our defense every single day. Our (defensive coordinator) Jason Denton wanted to make sure we talked about Danny Walsh as one of our key players on defense this year. He has been a bright spot this year in secondary. He is a tall, lanky kid, who has gotten better and better each day. He has the impossible task of guarding Ty Claiborne every day, but because of that, he made a game-changing interception vs. Miege last week. So proud of Danny, and the young man he has grown up to be. In the kicking game, I have to talk about Josh Kirby, he is 46 of 47 on PAT’s (bad snap on the miss), and has consistently put the ball in the endzone on kickoffs. He was crucial in our win vs. Paola, executing a perfect onside kick. He has been a big part of success this year.”

Have any players been a surprise?

“One of our big surprises this year has been Louis Bautista, he is a big fella who has taken the left guard spot and made it his own. His improvement from freshman year is truly amazing. The young man has been consistent and so coachable. So happy for him. Holden Arter has also been a big surprise for us. He took over for his good friend Aiden Janatello after he was injured in the BV game, but he has made it his mission to make him proud. He made the key interception to seal the victory over Paola. Sophomore Wade Spencer, brother of captain and two-way starter Harry Spencer (Semper Fidelis All-American) has had a tremendous year at DE. He has crazy energy on the field and is one of the toughest players I have ever coached. Senior Charlie Rieke has been the other big surprise this season. We kept trying to find the right spot for him on the field and his willingness to take on a new position has been an inspiration.”

What got your team into the state championship game?

“An ALL IN attitude and a fire to never quit and just find a way. The alumni have set the tone of respecting everyone we play but fearing no one. This group has taken care of each other. When someone has gotten injured, they have rallied around them and kept them a part of the team. The way this group prays for each other and for others in our community is truly an inspiration. It is a tradition we started when I first started here, to pray for special intentions to start practice, and it is always great to see young men thinking and praying for someone other than themselves.

“The confidence in this team has grown week to week in practice and on Friday nights. This group has been really coachable and they have an attitude of trying to get better everyday. You can see this team trying to live up to the attitude set by our teams and players in the past like, (Jack Petz, Mason Dunsmore, Max Kalny, Cade Lautt, Jack Holton just to name a few). Another key aspect to our success this year has been very few injuries. I credit our offseason training. We did not stop working out together.  I ran Zoom workouts out of my basement along with OC Matt Joshi. We had guys bench pressing furniture and lifting paint cans, whatever it took to get a lift in to be ready for this moment. 

“Playing such a tough schedule every year has also helped us prepare for this year. The EKL is a grind and we took on some big schools again this year, to get our guys ready for big moments like Friday night against Miege. This group has taken on every challenge and adversity with a great attitude. We have made the best out of what we have been dealt. I credit our coaches and captains for this but also senior DB Jack Stienlage for his unwavering positive attitude and faith. 

“The ball has bounced our way this year in the playoffs, and our confidence has grown week to week. After beating Miege last year, our guys had the confidence we could do it again, and it was our expectation, not hope, that we would be playing during Thanksgiving week this year. I’m so proud of my coaching staff and ALL of the coaches who have coached with me in the past at SJA. You all helped us get to where we are now. We did this. Also, to all of our alumni, especially to those alumni who started this program with Coach Muehlberger from the ground up, thank you. This playoff run has been for all of us.” 

What does your team need to do in order to win the state championship game?

Stay poised and don’t beat ourselves. We need to stay balanced on offense and keep the defense guessing, and on defense, we just need to communicate in the secondary, put pressure on the quarterback and make open field tackles. Special teams have won us some games this year, so we need to be perfect in that area.”


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