The 2017 McPherson High School football team reached the state semifinals for the second time in school history, and the first time since 2008. The defense was unbreakable, and the offense had playmakers who put points on the board.

As a result of McPherson’s 10-2 season, the Bullpups have been named the Great Plains Federal Credit Union Team of the Fall, presented by the McPherson Sentinel. The McPherson High football team was chosen from nine different teams throughout McPherson County as the best team of the fall season.

Coming off an 8-3 season and a trip to the state quarterfinals in 2016, McPherson High returned the bulk of its defense and enough firepower on offense to be considered one of the better teams in 4A.

Teams with a track record of success — Buhler, Maize South, Bishop Miege — entered the season ranked ahead of McPherson. Although the Bullpups were generating some preseason excitement from within the community, others were not sold on the Bullpups as state champion contenders.

“Everyone knew we were going to be a good football team,” McPherson head coach Jace Pavlovich said, “but they didn’t know how good of a team we had a chance to be.”

The Bullpups had dropped their last two decisions to Buhler heading into the first game of the season. A confident and experienced group of Bullpups marched into Buhler and came away with a 33-21 win.

A rivalry win over the Crusaders set the tone for what would be an exciting season.

“It reaffirmed what we believed we could do,” Pavlovich said in reference to the Buhler win. “We knew who our guys were, and who we could rely on, and they proved it week one.”

It’s not often a team has an even harder challenge the week after playing Buhler, but that was the position the Bullpups were in when they traveled to Maize South the following week.

Outside of a 65 second stretch to end the first half, McPherson and Maize South played a dead-even game. However, 65 seconds was all Maize South needed to force a safety and score a touchdown, taking a 9-0 lead into halftime.

Neither team would score in the second half, as Maize South collected its third win over McPherson in a year’s time.

But the loss did not deter the Bullpups; it only made them more focussed.

“In hindsight, I feel like that loss really helped us,” Pavlovich said. “Not that our kids were ever unfocused or too confident, but it was great for us at the end of the day to get back to the basics and refocus on fundamentals.”

Sitting at 1-1, the Bullpups rattled off seven convincing wins en route to their second straight district championship. McPherson knocked off Winfield, Augusta, Circle, and Rose Hill by a combined score of 175-21 to conclude league play, then proceeded to defeat Hays, Wamego, and Abilene by a combined score of 144-12 to cap off a district championship.

The Bullpups rode a seven game winning streak into the playoffs, where they hosted Buhler in the first round.

Years from now, community members from McPherson and Buhler alike will be telling the story of this game. It had everything: high-stakes, rivalry, and a dramatic finish.

McPherson scored first on a Kyler Hoppes touchdown pass to Tayln Huff late in the first quarter. Buhler responded in the second quarter on a 49-yard touchdown catch by Dalton Smyres.

The second half was dominated by defense, as the fourth quarter ended with the game tied at seven.

It took three plays for Buhler to score in overtime. The Crusaders tacked on an extra point to make it 14-7.

It took three plays for McPherson to score as well, but the Bullpups were not playing for double overtime.

Instead, Pavlovich rolled the dice and went for two. Everyone in McPherson knows what happened next.

The Bullpups went with the reverse pass to the quarterback which ultimately was the difference in a 15-14 thriller.

“It was one of those games where both teams were deserving to move on,” Pavlovich said. “We’re going to remember it for a long time.”

Perhaps the most essential victory of the season came in the quarterfinals of state. Three previous times the Bullpups tried to defeat Maize South, and three times the Bullpups came away on the wrong side of a close matchup.

But on Nov. 10, McPherson High refused to lose.

A Ben Nikkel kickoff return was the first of 21 unanswered points for the Bullpups, who blasted Maize South 28-7 in the state quarterfinals.

Once the Bullpups took a sizable lead, they kept the clock running on offense and rode their defense to the finish line.

“Once we got up two scores on them, I really went conservative with our play calling” Pavlovich said. “I knew that if we could just move the chains a few times and keep the clock running, it would be nearly impossible to get two scores on our defense.”

The Bullpups ended their season one win away from a state championship berth. Undefeated Andale was able to make enough explosive plays to outlast McPherson, 20-13.

The Bullpups had chances to win the game, but five turnovers — two fumbles and three interceptions — were too much to overcome.

“You’re not going to beat a great team when you turn the ball over five times,” Pavlovich said. “Andale took away our passing game with a cover two scheme. We had to be able to run the ball effectively, and I felt like we did but we had two fumbles that really hurt us in crucial moments.”

The Bullpups will lose eight seniors on defense who were All-AVCTL DIII. Whether it was the defensive line, the linebackers, or the secondary, the Bullpups were carried by an elite defense.

“This defense had no weaknesses,” Pavlovich said. “There are times when you have a great defense that one position group may be lacking, or there are times when you have a great defense where a position group was pretty solid, but one guy was your weak spot. We didn’t have one this year, and it showed.”

The Bullpups will no doubt take their biggest hit defensively, but offense could be the area of biggest improvement.

Hoppes, who Pavlovich believes will be one of the best quarterbacks in the state next year, will be throwing to proven receivers in Gabe Hoover, Tayln Huff, and Chandler Wiard.

Jace Kinnamon will also be one of the best running backs in 4A next year, as the pieces are there for the Bullpups to be an explosive offense.

“Our offensive scheme really hasn’t changed in 13 years,” Pavlovich said. “Scheme wise, you won’t see anything different; formation wise, we don’t know yet. If we can develop another receiver or two, we may be exclusively spread. If we can develop another fullback, then we may be more two-back than we have been. It’s hard telling at this point, but I can tell you we’ll have the ability to score points.”

At the end of the spring season, the Bullpups will have a chance to win the Team of the Year award against the Team of the Winter and the Team of the Spring.

McPherson High School football was chosen over McPherson soccer, McPherson volleyball, McPherson girls tennis, Little River High School football, Smoky Valley High School football, Canton-Galva High School football, Inman High School volleyball, and Smoky Valley cross country as the Team of the Fall.

Contact Gallagher Martin by email at and follow him on Twitter @GMartinSentinel