Game of the Week -- Natoma enjoying turnaround
By CONOR NICHOLL
The Natoma High School football team posted records of 3-6, 1-8 and 3-6 in the first three seasons of seniors Cale Hooper, Jackson Stull-Meiers and Elijah Holmes' careers. This fall, the Tigers opened with four straight victories and stand at 4-1.
"It's nice to kind of be on the winning side," Hooper said. "The best way to go out as a senior in my opinion."
It's the biggest early-season turnaround by any Eight-Man Division II team. The classification has 14 teams that are 4-1 or 5-0. Thirteen finished at .500 or better last season.
In Eight-Man Division I. 19 squads are 5-0 or 4-1. Only Uniontown (3-5) finished with fewer than four wins in 2012, according to preppowerindex.com.
The season opened with a 17-12 victory against Sylvan-Lucas -- decided on the game's final play -- the first time since '08 Natoma defeated the Mustangs. Then the Tigers defeated Tescott 69-36, Wilson 55-6 and Stockton 53-6.
"A lot of attention that we are not used to, that's for sure," Hooper said. "To be in the papers and mentioned, just not used to actually people watching out for us. Usually we are just kind of like on the schedule as 'OK, there is a win.'
Natoma, which opened 1-5 last fall, has enjoyed a change behind the senior trio, junior quarterback Triton Frye, junior linebacker Jacob Chambray, junior lineman Seth Hachmeister, sophomore running back Joseph Raat, sophomore end Dean Masters and sophomore lineman August Homburg, coach Aaron Homburg's son.
"We've just kind of got the right mix," coach Homburg said.
Natoma has outscored opponents by an average margin of 21.6-11.8 and is close to the program's first winning season since a 6-3 mark in 2008.
The 4-0 start was the best opening month since 2003. From 2009-12, Natoma allowed 34, 31.4, 50.3 and 43.1 points per game. Homburg, the longtime school superintendent and defensive coordinator, said the defense is "a lot more physical" this year.
"Our first eight or nine guys, you have to have a defensive mentality like, 'I am going to stop the other team from running,'" Homburg said. "It can't just be one guy. You can't just rely on one guy, two guys. You have got to have confidence that you, plus the other seven guys out there are doing their job."
Holmes is a high-energy player at 6-foot, 215 pounds. He leads the Tigers with 63 tackles. Homburg doesn't track forced fumbles, but said Holmes has forced at least five.
"Just hitting people, and they drop the ball," Homburg said.
Natoma has recovered eight as a team and picked off six passes, including four from Chambray.
Homburg, a defensive coach for nearly 20 years, said Masters (47 stops) and Raat (44 tackles) have played as well as any defensive ends he has coached. Both players are in the top-12 in Kansas among eight-man sophomores for tackles.
"I can count on one hand the number of times they haven't set the corner," Homburg said.
In the summer, Homburg had a choice between Meiers and Frye for quarterback. Meiers prefers to run the ball. As well, having Meiers on the edge spreads out the defense more frequently. Meiers has continually beat people one-on-one on the edge.
"When I go wideout, they have to put two people on me, so then that leaves someone open," Meiers said.
Meiers, one of eight-man's top players, has fought a kneecap issue all season and recently had some quad pain. He has 51 carries for 568 yards and six scores. Hooper has 37 carries for 381 yards and six TDs.
Frye, who works for Meiers' grandfather, has long been close with Meiers. Frye completed 23 of 50 passes for 391 yards with an 11/1 TD/INT ratio in the first four games. Frye tossed two interceptions in a 46-0 loss to Thunder Ridge last week, but both balls got caught up in the wind.
"I always knew he could throw, but really summer when we were getting together, he just started coming on and on, and there was more zip on it and I am just sitting there thinking, 'Wow, he is really throwing it well,' and he has continued that," Homburg said.
Frye enjoys studying the game and different quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III. He attended some quarterback camps this summer, including one at Fort Hays State University.
Frye has pitched for his baseball team, a position he called a natural transition to playing quarterback. In the four wins, Frye rushed just 13 times, but has averaged 7.7 yards a carry. Against Thunder Ridge, Frye noticed the Longhorns rushed five blitzers, so he could roll out and run. Other times, Frye has stayed in the pocket.
"Some of the quarterbacks that come from college, their instinct is to run right away and then they get two yards a gain, and that's it," he said.
Opponents have tackled Meiers once after a catch - he has six TDs on seven catches for 181 yards. On one play against Stockton in Week 4, Meiers ran a deep route on the left side. The wind drew the ball all the way to the right and Meiers made the catch.
"If he is out there, and they are not double-teaming him, I always tell Triton, read it and if he has got single coverage, throw it there," Homburg said.