As the high school football season gets under way in Cowley County, most eyes are focused on the 7 p.m. Kickoff today when the mostly-annual Cowley Cup game between arch rivals Arkansas City and Winfield kicks off at Richard L. Jantz Stadium.

“I don’t think we’re going to do much different and I don’t think Coach (Jon) Wiemers is going to do much different either. We’re just trying to focus on us and getting our kids ready to play,” WHS head coach Linn Hibbs said. “You don’t have to worry about getting your kids up. We just have to worry about execution. There’s obviously a lot of emotions, and the team that controls their emotions the best usually comes out on top.”

While the visiting Bulldogs must fill several pair of large shoes, especially in the backfield and at receiver, the host Vikings continue to deal with nagging injuries that must leave some coaches scratching their heads.

Winfield returns tailback and linebacker Nolan Foust, a senior who missed most of last season with a finger injury.

Oddly enough, the Vikings will miss a pair of starting offensive linemen in sophomore Jackson Angle and senior Logan Roark, who both suffered — wait for it — a broken finger.

“We’ll get both of those kids back at some point in time, so that’s a good thing,” Hibbs said.

Four years ago, Wiemers started a freshman named Clark at cornerback — Cevin — who turned into a solid quarterback for the Bulldogs.

Wiemers is reaching into the freshman well again and the name is familiar — little brother Cadon is penciled in to start at cornerback for Ark City.

Clark’s understudy, junior Haden O’Toole, gets the start at quarterback for the Bulldogs.

Senior Braiden Mattocks joins O’Toole in the backfield at tailback. And senior Daigen Moulton, junior Walker Moulton and sophomore Lucas Barnes get the start at wide receiver, lining up with senior tight end Andrew Schnackenberg. However, Ark City returns the nucleus of the offensive line in tackles Nate Kessinger and Gannon Metzinger, guards Max Shannon and Zane Ranzau, and center Jarrett Brooks.

“We will have a lot of new guys on the offensive side as far as wide receiver goes. We have more depth in that position now with 5-6 kids that will play and have worked hard to improve themselves over the last year,” Wiemers said. “They just need to get game experience. We return a few in the backfield and most of our OL. On the defensive side, most have had experience, with the exception of a few linebackers.”

In stark contrast, Winfield returns both starting quarterback senior KC Crandall and senior fullback Steele Morin.

Senior Jake Kaufman is back at tight end, but the Vikings return just two starting linemen on offense — center Zach Phillips and guard Isaiah Anderson-Lolar.

Four players — senior Chance Price, and juniors Braden Ledford, Trent Beckwith and Aidan Harper, will share duty at receiver.

Tackles Connor Woods and Sam Nasworthy join guard Dalton York on the line.

“We feel really good about our group and I’m excited to watch our kids play,” Hibbs said. “We’re going to play well.”

Though the offensive line may take time to gel, the defensive line returns intact. York, Phillips and Anderson-Lolar started at tackle, and Woods and Kaufman at end.

Morin returns at inside linebacker, where he will join senior Ace Singvongsa. Foust and Riley Yingling are the outside linebackers. Beckwith, Price and Ledford are in the secondary.

“Their defensive fronts is what concerns me the most,” Hibbs said. “They play a different style of defense we don’t see a whole lot — that’s a big concern.”

Sophomore Taviahn Mack joins Shannon and Metzinger on Ark City’s defensive line. Mattocks and Rhett Lathers are the inside linebackers, and Nicholas Bahm and Jamauri Jordan are outside. O’Toole is the other corner, with Daigen Moulton and Owen Bucher at safety.

Though the Bulldogs are in Class 4A again this season, a likely move back to 5A is imminent. That’s where the majority of their AV-CTL Division II foes sit.

“Our league will be tough this year. It does come down to a numbers game sometimes,” Wiemers said. “A lot of the teams in our league two-platoon. We have more numbers this year and are closer to being able to do that, but still have to play some guys both ways. We cannot, however, use that as an excuse. The fact of the matter is we will probably move back into 5A at some point, so we need to build our program like that.”

The Kansas State High School Activities Association allowed jamborees for the first time this preseason, so teams didn’t have to play scrimmages against their own teammates. That also allowed two-way players to get some solid practice on both the one offense and one defense.

“You get more quality reps with guys that are used to playing beside each other. The Purple & Gold is a fun thing to do, but isn’t as productive as a jamboree format,” Wiemers said. “We still had a practice with the middle school and all of the little league teams. I thought it was a great deal; it should be a fun event for the kids.”

Unofficially, Ark City leads the Cowley Cup series 52-24-1 following last year’s 7-3 victory. Winfield won the Cup in 2017, 24-14, snapping a four-game ACHS winning streak.

Since the rival game was christened the Cowley Cup in 2004, Winfield leads the series 7-6.

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