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Prep preview '13 -- New Redmen coach knows the ropes

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

SMITH CENTER - For many coaches, replacing legendary Smith Center High School coach Roger Barta wasn't desirable. Barta finished with 323 victories, eight state championships and a Kansas record 79-game winning streak, among many other accolades. But Darren Sasse grew up in Smith Center, played for Barta and since 2001 has been the junior high coach. Every Sunday, he helped the coaching staff prepare the scouting report and understood the workload.

"When you have been involved in it, you just don't feel the monumental challenge of it," Sasse said. "You have seen the day-to-day workings.

You just hope that you can continue to do those kinds of things. You can't pretend to have all the answers the way Coach Barta did. I think as a staff, we will figure stuff out as we go."

Smith Center will have plenty of experience back after a 6-4 season that included a district crown and four wins within a touchdown. Last year's squad featured just three returning starters, the fewest under Barta. This year, the team has eight starters back on each side, including seven returning all-league players.

"We were young, but I think just being in practice with those older guys and just making us better and just making us a team, brought us together and maybe won more than we should have won," senior quarterback Kody Molzahn, who earned second team all-league honors at running back in 2012.

Helped by last year's experience, Smith Center is again expecting to play deep into the postseason. In the west, Meade and Oakley are considered the top two teams, but the Redmen are close to the top.

Sasse said answering the typical preseason question about expectations is "the toughest."

"I think you've just got to go through the nine-game season and have the amount of success and get into the playoffs," Sasse said.

"Playoffs is as much about luck and putting yourself in the right situation and having a few things break your way."

Sasse has coached virtually the entire team in junior high, a position he enjoyed. After high school, Sasse played offensive line at Bethany College.

He first taught and coached junior high at Gypsum-Southeast of Saline. For two years, Sasse was at Alma-Wabaunsee and didn't coach before he taught two years at Osborne and coached junior high. Then, Mike Rogers moved from Smith Center junior high head coach to varsity assistant. Sasse took over jr. high program. A few seasons later, Smith Center started its run of six state championship appearances and five titles from '04-07.

In junior high, Sasse taught the "Barta bone" system, but said teams can dominate in junior high with a fast player.

"In this sense, I am almost like Coach Barta," Sasse said. "I almost enjoy the practice more than the game. We had several 7-0 seasons. We also had several 3-4, 2-5 seasons at the junior high. Seeing the 7-0 groups go on and win state championships was cool, but a 3-4 team going on to win a state championship was tremendously satisfying, knowing that you taught the basics. They weren't there physically at the time. They were smaller."

Beyond the record, Sasse tried to quantify success in other ways. If he had 10 eighth-graders, he wanted all 10 to play as freshmen.

"Seeing them go onto high school and have success was the one thing that pushed me," Sasse said. "Not saying that wins and losses weren't important. I would get frustrated with losses and stuff, but I always felt, if I am teaching things the way that they need to be taught and get them out - we have always had pride in getting kids out here - and getting as many kids involved as we can, that's another big thing."

This season, Tim Wilson, also a Redmen graduate and longtime varsity assistant, stepped aside last year to spend more time with his family.

He returned this year to end up the junior high program.

"We had a few opportunities to get some other guys that had been here in the past and things just didn't work out, so Coach Wilson agreed to do it," Sasse said.

Sasse will have Rogers, longtime defensive coordinator Brock Hutchinson and new assistant Jared Kingsbury at the varsity level. Sasse will be the offensive coordinator and coach the offensive line after longtime line coach Dennis Hutchinson retired. Sasse's personality is quiet, similar to Barta.

"I have had to change over the years depending on what kind of assistants that you have," Sasse said. "Fired up assistants or quiet assistants. I think I am probably more reserved. I think Mike and Brock are more reserved. I think our new one, Coach Kingsbury is young and very fired up and enthusiastic."

Even with the changes, though, Smith Center is still known for one thing: winning.

"We are still the Redmen," Molzahn said. "I think we are going to prove something this year."