The 2018 Canton-Galva football season ended with mixed feelings.

On one hand, it was by far the best season the Eagles had experienced in decades. Canton-Galva went 10-2 and reached the sub-state finals, capturing a district championship in the process.

On the other hand, the Eagles fell one game short of reaching the state championship, losing to a Solomon team they had beaten earlier in the season.

The feeling of coming so close to a state championship was the driving force behind the Eagles’ 2019 run.

“We brought up that Solomon game from last year a lot,” Canton-Galva head coach Shelby Hoppes said. “I feel like I didn't do a good job of preparing. We learned a lot from that game, especially how to prepare for a team twice.”

The graduation of seniors is often the hardest part about ending a season, especially for coaches who have to say goodbye to players they have mentored for years. But the 2018 Canton-Galva football team had no seniors.

Hoppes said a team with no seniors is rare, and it was a new experience for him.

“It was a little different feeling at the end of last year. You usually have a sad feeling for your seniors, but we didn’t have that,” Hoppes said. “We just had a feeling of motivation.”

The summer before the 2019 season was full of hard work. The Eagles bought-in to their summer weight room program, and entered the new season a bigger and stronger team.

“We knew internally if we had a good summer we had a good shot at playing for a state title,” Hoppes said. “The biggest difference from this season and last was the experience factor - getting bigger and stronger.”

Canton-Galva opened its state-championship season against a Little River team that has had Canton-Galva’s number in recent memory. Under first-year head coach Kevin Ayers, Little River would go on to finish 9-2 and reach the state quarterfinals.

Canton-Galva dominated the game, beating Little River 70-23. Little River defeated Canton-Galva 52-20 in last year’s season opener.

“For our seniors and our program, Little River is one of those teams we’d like to consider our rival. But I don’t believe you can consider a team a rival until the games are competitive. And for the past five or six years, they’ve kicked our butts and our seniors haven't really been in the game against them,” Hoppes said. “That game let everyone know that our foundation had been built. We hope to have fantastic games with them every year.”

Canton-Galva was not tested the entire regular season. When the Eagles lost all-state sophomore wide receiver/defensive back Tyson Struber to injury on Oct. 11 against Goessel, they did not miss a beat and destroyed Solomon 60-0 the following week.

During the eight regular season games, Canton-Galva outscored its opponents 466-31.

Hoppes says it was a challenge to keep the kids engaged throughout the season, but it was a challenge the players accepted.

“Sometimes you watch film and you know the competition isn’t that high. We had to let the kids know that at some point we would play difficult competition and that if we were slacking now, it would be a bad habit that would hurt us in the playoffs,” Hoppes said. “The kids being disciplined to stay engaged week in and week out was why we dominated. It was a challenge they accepted and they did a very good job of doing.”

Canton-Galva defeated Chase County and Lebo in the opening rounds of the playoffs by a combined 104-8.

The 8-Man Division I Quarterfinals was a battle of 10-0 teams as the Eagles hosted South Central. For the first time in four weeks, Struber was back on the field, even though he wore a large club cast on his hand.

Canton-Galva was tested for the first time in 2019 against South Central. The Eagles trailed 16-10 entering the fourth quarter.

The Eagles scored 32 unanswered points in the final 12 minutes. Brayden Collins scored three times in the fourth, Struber broke off a 74-yard run, and Landon Everett found Kinser Colgin for a 22-yard touchdown as the Eagles won 42-16 in a game that was much closer than the score would appear.

“The team that was better conditioned and could execute late in the game would win,” Hoppes said. “We felt like we prepared for that all season long, and it showed in the fourth quarter.”

In the sub-state championship, the Eagles hit the road to 11-0 Madison. The environment was electric, and the game was highly anticipated.

Everett found Struber for a 65-yard touchdown early in the first quarter, and the Eagles led 24-6 at halftime.

However, Everett sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder and missed the rest of the game. Freshman Garrett Maltbie came in off the bench and helped lead the Eagles to a convincing 46-6 win.

Maltbie rushed for two touchdowns and threw for 77 yards on just two completions. Hoppes credits Maltbie for having the composure to finish the game, but also his upperclassmen who supported the freshman quarterback.

“He came in and did his job, and the rest of the team rallied around him,” Hoppes said.

For Canton-Galva to win its first state championship in program history, the Eagles would have to beat an undefeated team for the third straight week. St. Francis, led by all-state quarterback Brady Dinkel, entered the 8-Man Division I State Championship game with an identical 12-0 record.

Hoppes was confident Everett would play, but he knew his senior quarterback would not be at 100 percent.

“It was a pain tolerance sort of deal. Knowing that we had a good idea he’d play, Landon didn’t practice at all that week,” Hoppes said. “Maltbie took all the snaps that week. If Landon wasn’t able to tolerate the pain, Garrett was well prepared to play in that state title game.

“Landon has given us his all the past three years. He deserved the chance to play in the state championship.”

The 2019 8-Man Division I State Championship game sent shockwaves throughout the state of Kansas. Canton-Galva painted Newton red and blue and had a clear home-field advantage over a St. Francis team that was making a four-hour drive.

Home field was not a factor early on. Canton-Galva committed four first-half turnovers, and fell behind 36-0 with with just under three minutes left in the half.

With Canton-Galva down five scores, some wondered whether or not the game would end in a mercy rule.

The Eagles quickly scored on a one-yard rush by Everett, then forced a turnover on defense moments later. Canton-Galva capitalized on a 26-yard touchdown pass from Everett to Struber, giving the Eagles life and cutting the deficit to 36-14 at halftime.

“I’d be lying if I know we would score 66 unasered, but I knew we could get it competitive once we got it going,” Hoppes said. “The locker room at halftime, it felt like we captured all of the momentum. The rest is history.”

Everett connected with Struber twice in the third quarter to make it a 10-point game entering the fourth. Everett rushed for three touchdowns in the fourth, Collins rushed for the final two touchdowns, and the Eagles completed perhaps the most improbable comeback in Kansas high school football history, 66-36.

Everett managed to throw for 197 yards despite his injury, with 188 of those yards and all three passing touchdowns going to Struber.

Perhaps most impressively, the Canton-Galva defense kept St. Francis off the scoreboard the entire second half, and forced St. Francis into five turnovers.

The days after capturing the program’s first state championship were a blast, according to Hoppes.

“The kids have been having a blast designing championship rings. The community couldn’t be more happy for the kids and the team, and they showed so much support,” Hoppes said. “I’m proud of the team and the community, and I hope it continues in the future.”

Canton-Galva will graduate seven seniors in the spring, headlined by Everett. In addition, Colgin, Nick Pearson, Jay Nightingale, Mason Reedy, Cyler Johnson, and Andre Patton will all go out as state champions.

This senior class began with a 2-7 season under head coach Dustin Patee, and goes out as undefeated state champions.

“This senior class has gone through the lowest of lows. A lot of them had to play as freshmen and got whipped up. I was fortunate to come in for their sophomore season, and I could tell they were hungry,” Hoppes said. “They did something that will never be accomplished again; they won the first state championship. Their history will live on forever in Canton-Galva.”

The Eagles will look a bit different next season, but Canton-Galva should still be a solid team. Collins, Struber, Maltbie, and Brandon Huff will all be key pieces for Canton-Galva next season.

“We’re excited for next year. We have to replace some very important positions. We’ve got to have a great summer again. We’re excited to build where we left off last year.”