Narrow road

How the “narrow road” propelled Oakley into a remarkable turnaround

OAKLEY, Kan. (Catch It Kansas) – Jeff Hennick has been to church since he was young and grew up in a home filled with faith. He started out as the head coach of his alma mater, Wallace County-Sharon Springs. Hennick lost in the state semifinals in 2014, ’15 and ’16. Season 15 ended in tragedy when three sports star Luke Schemm collapsed in a playoff game against Otis-Bison. Schemm died the next day.

Hennick greatly increased his faith after Schemm passed away. He became Oakley’s head coach in 17 and constantly preached Matthew 7:14 – “But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Oakley entered this fall with eight wins in total over the past four years. On Friday, the Plainsmen continued their surprising turnaround with a 9-0 home win over Inman in the Class 1A semi-final. Oakley moved up to 10-2 and had a seven-game improvement from last fall.

The Plainsmen reached the first state championship game in school history. Over the past two weeks, Oakley has avenged its two district losses, against Smith Center and Inman, with a combined score of 29-0. The Plainsmen will face Olpe (12-0) in next Saturday’s title game at Fort Hays State University.

“We were kind of on the high road for a bit this season on those two losses, but we knew we could come together, pick ourselves up and help each other with our faith,” said running back Ethan Abell.

Earlier on Friday, Hennick got emotional as he thought of the three semifinal losses and the course at Oakley. Subsequently, as his team lined up for photos on the pitch, Hennick’s face, partially covered in a white mask, again showed emotions.

“God put me here for a reason,” Hennick said. “And it was tough, but just like those kids, I walked this narrow road with them. … For me, in my career, finally getting over that bump with these kids is special. It feels good.”

Hennick immediately touched on the narrow lane in his post-game speech to his team, a theme that echoes in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Oakley’s Bible Studies.

“Just amazing,” Hennick said. “I am so proud of our children. We’re talking about going the narrow road, and you know what, they’ve been going it all season. They never gave up, and that’s a testimony to each of these children. It is a testimony of this staff. I’m so proud of everyone at the moment.

Oakley, ranked fourth in Class 1A, had previously made two state semifinals, in ’05 and ’09, and lost to Smith Center each time. Last week Oakley beat SC for the first time in school history. Oakley had a 0-13 record against the Redmen since 2003. Inman (9-3) ranked second tied for the biggest advancement in school history.

“When we first played at the Smith Center, we still had the same game plan, we still ran the same defense,” Hennick said. “We just said to our kids, ‘You can’t make mistakes against them because they’re so consistent in what they do.’”

Inman won at Oakley, 39-13, in Week 4. This week, the coaching staff honed Inman’s finer points. They noticed where the tight end was at all times, saw the Teutons love to run to the strong side, and saw Inman nod whenever they found themselves in an empty set.

“Inman’s game, Homecoming, we had the worst game we’ve ever played this year,” 231-pound senior left guard Jensen Schoenfeld said. “We just had to put our helmets down and get down to work in training. We promised the coach that we would get there, that we would improve and here we are now.

This time, Abell, just under 2,000 rushing yards, totaled 24 carries for 111 yards in the Plainsmen’s heavy ball control offense.

Oakley senior quarterback Eric Cain often stood on the line of scrimmage and cut the playing time until the last seconds. The Plainsmen played 16 more games than Inman. Senior full-back Hunter Scheck had 20 carries for 84 yards, including 75 in the second half. Scheck carried twice for 16 yards in Inman’s opener.

“He’s been talking about the narrow road since he’s been here,” Abell said. “There are two roads. The wide road, the wide and easy road that a lot of people take, and the narrow and hard road which is really difficult, it is difficult, but it is the right way. And this is the way that we have to go, and that is the way that will get you where you want to go.

Sophomore Will Schmidt had a 23-yard field goal, his second of the season, in the first quarter. Defensively, Oakley went three in Inman’s loss to four on Friday.

“Their defense shot hard,” said Inman coach Lance Sawyer. “Their linebackers played physically. We couldn’t get our line to the second level. I thought their d-line was playing pretty well. So it was pretty cool playing a game like this. I think we might have come out a little tight.

Junior Christian Koch went from linebacker to line, and Scheck went from line to linebacker. Oakley had three assists, one from Schmidt and two from senior Eric Cain. Inman Sr. Jace Doerksen, Inman’s single-season passing yard record holder, finished 4 of 11 for 32 yards.

“We the seniors and our team leaders decided, ‘Hey, you know what, we’re going to come here and we’re going to shock the world,'” said Scheck. “And that’s what we’ve been doing this season – and we’re going to continue.”

At the start of the second half, Inman senior Derick Johnson was behind the defense for a touchdown but the ball slipped out of his fingers. In the first play of the fourth quarter, Inman missed a 33-yard field goal.

“This is how close we are,” Sawyer said.

Oakley then went on a 16-play practice that saw Scheck go two yards with 2:13 left. The 215-pound Scheck continued to play center diving behind senior center John Stoecker. The offensive line kept telling Oakley’s assistant Drew Siruta “run it again, run it again, run it again” on the sidelines. Scheck wanted the ball for the score.

“We said at the front line, ‘you see, it’s over,’ Hennick said.

In the past 16 months, Scheck has added about 45 pounds. The line also included Schoenfeld, junior left tackle Jonathan Temaat, senior right tackle Eric Annis and Koch at right guard. Scheck credited all five players; Hennick trains the offensive line. Inman kept changing faces.

“You just have to run downhill,” said Scheck. “Get as many yards as possible, run over anyone.” That’s the point. All power is all power. I eat a lot of food. I lift a lot of weight.

Inman’s final possession ended when Cain knocked out Doerksen at the Oakley 4-yard line in the last minute. Abell was part of the celebration on the pitch. He hugged Cain and lay on the ground for five seconds.

“We’re going to declare, and we’ve made history again,” Abell said. “And I just couldn’t be more proud of this team, my coaches and the whole community that has supported us since year one.”

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