By Conor Nicholl for Kpreps.com
NEWTON – Thunder Ridge took losses to Axtell in the 2020 and ’21 Eight-Man, Division II playoffs. The Longhorns allowed a combined 88 points in those defeats. Axtell returned all its starters from last fall, including quarterback Isaac Detweiler and sophomore all-purpose threats Eli Broxterman and Brandon Schmelzle.
Thunder Ridge coach Joel Struckhoff installed multiple significant defensive changes for Saturday’s Division II state championship game. Notably, the Longhorns heavily focused on Schmelzle and didn’t allow him a touch until 7 minutes, 13 seconds remained in the first half. Plus, Axtell missed 6-foot-4 senior lineman Owen Strathman, who tore his ACL in the state semifinal.
The contest featured six lead changes midway through the second quarter. Then, Axtell showcased its historically great offense with 52 unanswered points. Axtell captured its second straight Eight-Man, Division II title with a 76-28 victory at Newton’s Fischer Field. The game was called with 3 minutes, 53 seconds left in the third quarter because of the mercy rule when Broxterman rushed for a 41-yard touchdown. Six players scored.
“That’s the best thing about it,” coach Eric Detweiler said. “They want to take one of our weapons away, we have got three or four to verse that. That’s what makes us so good is that we have got multiple weapons that can do anything.”
Axtell bumped its winning streak to 26 games and completed its second straight 13-0 season. The Eagles averaged a remarkable 10.1 yards per play this fall. A semifinal 36-32 win against Canton-Galva marked Axtell’s only game within 44 points.
“The entire team, we bonded really well over the past couple years, and we know that,” Schmelzle said. “I don’t think anyone can beat us if we stay together and do our jobs.”
The Eagles have won three state titles: 1993, 2021 and 2022.
Thunder Ridge went 11-2 and moved to 1-2 all-time in championship contests. The Longhorns list eight seniors, all but one that weighed at least 200 pounds.
“I have seen them all the way through, and they have kind of set the tone for what Thunder Ridge football should be,” Struckhoff said.
Axtell finished with 786 points, a new eight-man single season state record. Division I champion Leoti-Wichita County, which won the second title game played in Newton on Saturday, delivered 782 points. The previous mark was 764, set by Osborne in 2016.
“We switched some things up,” Struckhoff said. “We knew we couldn’t do what we did last year and stick with these guys, so we had to change up a lot of things defensively, give us a little bit better look, and just after time, Axtell is going to find ways to expose everything you do with as many athletes as they have. But early on, I think our change really worked great for us, and just couldn’t keep it consistent throughout the whole game.”
Detweiler finished 16 of 24 for 268 yards and seven passing touchdowns. He tied the eight-man state championship game touchdown record of seven set by Dentin Chapman from Waverly, per historian Brett Marshall. Detweiler finished with 12 carries for 112 yards and a rushing score.
“They stopped some of our things of bread-and-butters, but we come out and have a couple of other plays ready for them, and they were not expecting it,” Isaac said.
Detweiler, the reigning classification Offensive Player of the Year, holds the all-time Kansas touchdowns responsible for record (passing, rushing and receiving). Detweiler, with three college offers, went over 200 TDs accounted for, including more than 110 passing.
“It’s good, because you know he’s going to get you the ball where you want it,” Broxterman said.
Last season, Struckhoff, eight-man’s all-time rushing leader as a former Thunder Ridge running back, called Detweiler “probably one of, if not the smartest” he’s ever seen. Detweiler showcased an array of throws, including on the run, and manipulated Thunder Ridge’s defense with his eyes and pump fakes.
Those next-level quarterback skills came from being a four-year starter, likely four-year first team all-state player and three-year starting quarterback.
“Pre-snap, you can even move (defenders) if you try,” Detweiler said.
Broxterman caught three passing scores and rushed for two. He delivered seven offensive touches for 122 yards.
“It feels good,” Broxterman said of another crown. “But it’s going to feel better when we do it two more times.”
Detweiler completed one of Kansas’ all-time great careers. As a freshman, he was a first team all-state receiver on a state runner-up team that featured quarterback Quinn Buessing, who set the career eight-man completion percentage record. Buessing delivered 182 career TDs responsible for. Quinn and Isaac had a special bond during Isaac’s freshman year when Buessing was the quarterback.
“A guy I looked up when I was in junior high, and he helped me through my freshman year,” Isaac said.
Buessing wasn’t planning on coaching and first played college football. He took a year off. In the summer before 2021, coach Detweiler talked with Buessing about helping in the press box as another pair of eyes during games. This year, Buessing became a full-time assistant, along with veterans Dale Buessing and Craig Wiebe. He helped with game-planning and the consistent film study that formed Axtell’s historic offense.
A couple times a week, Buessing and the Detweiler watch film together. They view film on their own, text each other and help with the practice plan.
“Worked hard all my life to get to this,” Isaac said.
Eric Detweiler improved to 82-21 in nine years at his alma mater. Buessing has really enjoyed coaching.
“We just think of plays or like ‘This is going to work,’” Quinn said.
“It’s really nice to have him,” Schmelzle added.
Axtell has just 18 players and was healthy throughout 2021 and again this fall. However, the 215-pound Strathman, a standout on both sides and captain, hurt his knee in the state semifinals.
“Honestly, I was pretty nervous,” coach Detweiler said of the line.
Sophomore Blaise Buessing came in on the offensive line. Freshman Landon Schmitz played defense. Axtell stressed controlling the line of scrimmage. Axtell finished with just one negative rush all afternoon, and Detweiler consistently had time.
Juniors Grant Buessing (220) and Sawyer Deters (265) are returning starters up front. Schmitz enjoyed a huge game with a sack, fumble recovery and pass defended on defense.
“They both stepped up and played really well,” Grant Buessing said.
Along with the defensive changes, Thunder Ridge often used junior Mason Baker in a variety of roles. On the first drive, Baker caught a 53-yard touchdown pass for a 6-0 lead. Additionally, Thunder Ridge used Baker at quarterback and put senior Dylan Bice, the normal signal caller, at running back.
The lead alternated several times, and Thunder Ridge led 14-8 after the first quarter when Baker threw a 20-yard TD pass to Bice. Bice, the school’s all-time leader in total offense, hadn’t caught a receiving score since he was a freshman.
“Coach Struckhoff is a great coach,” coach Detweiler said.
Thunder Ridge took a 28-24 lead with 7 minutes, 27 seconds in the first half after Baker scored on a 38-yard run. At that point, Schmelzle didn’t have an offensive touch. At times, Thunder Ridge put two players on him.
“Once they get things rolling, Detweiler really knows what he wants as calls, and his son will come up there and audible, and get a look that he really likes,” Struckhoff said.
Fourteen seconds later, Schmelzle caught an eight-yard pass across the middle, though was instantly banged up when he hit in the rib area. After an incomplete pass, Thunder Ridge forced Axtell into fourth-and-seven from its own 36-yard line.
Detweiler broke a tackle, took off down the left side, avoided another defender and dove for the first down marker for a nine-yard gain.
“We had a little pass play designed up to the right, and they covered it up,” Isaac said.
Two plays later, Axtell was going to face third-and-nine, but Thunder Ridge committed a late hit personal foul. The drive ended on an 18-yard touchdown pass to junior Grady Buessing, and the Eagles took the lead for good.
“Those are kind of those defining moments in some of those games where you just really got to crunch down and get those things accomplished, and we just couldn’t get those things accomplished,” Struckhoff said.
That started a flurry of points, including three touchdowns in the final 1:37 of the first half. Detweiler did a perfect fake, the defense bit, and Broxterman was wide open for a 23-yard touchdown.
“We had the speed on them, so we were just trying to get outside, get around their size, and that worked for us,” Isaac said.
After a turnover on downs, Schmelzle finally got loose with 39 seconds left in the first half. He was on Detweiler’s left in the backfield, motioned out and, while guarded, caught a short pass on his shoulder. He spun, broke a tackle and outran everyone for a 53-yard TD. Along with the catch, Schmelzle tossed two halfback two-point conversions and rushed for a third off the same run-pass option play.
“Isaac kind of underthrew me, and I came back and caught it over the guy’s shoulder, and I saw Bice coming across, and I just spun and the rest was speed, just beating the guy to the corner,” Schmelzle said.
Thunder Ridge fumbled, Axtell scored with eight seconds left in the first half when Detweiler found senior Evan Buessing for 32 yards.
“That’s the dynamic about our offense, is they try to stop one of us, we have got somebody on the other side that they were not expecting,” Isaac said.
Following the win, Quinn Buessing quickly found Detweiler in the middle of the field for a hug. Struckhoff gave credit, too. As Schmelzle walked off the field to the locker room, Struckhoff walked over to shake his hand.
“When you have got momentum in your favor, you can really start rolling, and Axtell uses that to their advantage,” Struckhoff said.
Axtell 76, Thunder Ridge 28
Thunder Ridge 14-14-0-X | 28
Axtell 8-46-22-X | 76
Score by Quarter
T – Baker 51 pass from Dylan Bice (run failed)
A – Broxterman 9 run (Detweiler run)
T – Dylan Bice 20 pass from Baker (Dalton Bice run)
A – Detweiler 18 run (Broxterman pass from Detweiler)
T – Dylan Bice 1 run (Baker from Dylan Bice)
A – Broxterman 29 pass from Detweiler (Detweiler run)
T – Baker 38 run (pass failed)
A – G. Buessing 18 pass from Detweiler (Grant Buessing from Schmelzle)
A – Broxterman 23 pass from Detweiler (Grant Buessing from Schmelzle)
A – Schmelzle 53 pass from Detweiler (run failed)
A – E. Buessing 32 pass from Detweiler (run failed)
A – Broxterman 13 pass from Detweiler (Schmelzle run)
A – Schmelzle 4 pass from Detweiler (Schmelzle run)
A – Broxterman 41 run
Axtell – 21 first downs
Thunder Ridge – 11 first downs
Axtell – 42 plays, 453 yards
Thunder Ridge – 46 plays, 300 yards
Axtell – 18 rushes, 185 yards
Thunder Ridge – 26 rushes, 125 yards
Axtell – 16-24-268-7-0
Thunder Ridge – 9-20-175-2-1
Axtell – none
Thunder Ridge — none
Axtell – Isaac Detweiler 12-112-1; Eli Broxterman 2-50-2; Brandon Schmelzle 4-23-0
Thunder Ridge: Baker 4-71-1; Dylan Bice 20-39-1; Dalton Bice 2-15-0
Axtell – Isaac Detweiler, 16-24-268-7-0
Thunder Ridge – Dylan Bice, 8-19-155-1-1; Mason Baker 1-1-20-1
Axtell – Brandon Schmelzle 5-81-2; Eli Broxterman 5-72-3; Grady Buessing 3-67-1; Evan Buessing 2-41-1; Landon Schmitz 1-7-0
Thunder Ridge – Baker 3-135-1; Dylan Bice 1-20-1; Dalton Bice 1-8-0; Jace Randall 3-6-0; Kaleb Wagenblast 1-6-0