SM North still seeking return to winning ways
In last year’s win-or-go-home regular season finale against Leavenworth, the Shawnee Mission North football team had a chance to validate its disappointing season by earning a spot in the postseason as it had a year before. Instead, there was pain.
SM North’s then-senior quarterback Ryan Theis was one of 20 seniors going through an emotional breakdown after what would be their last high school football game when he tossed his playbook over to then-junior Nick Finazzo.
“This is your team now,” Theis told him.
Becoming the starting quarterback next season was the last thing on Finazzo’s mind. He and his teammates felt like they had let down all the graduating seniors who would never play with their teammates again. Amid the silence, the tears said everything.
“I just don’t think I’ll ever forget that,” Finazzo said.
SM North fell to Leavenworth that night, 35-14. The Indians, who thought they could use their 20-plus seniors to improve upon their previous season’s result, finished with a 2-7 record. Since 2005, former coach and now SM East athletic director Sam Brown’s final season, SM North has not won more than three games in a season.
And if anything changes this year, it will be at the behest of the upperclassmen who vowed to make drastic improvements for this program.
“This group of guys is tired of the losing reputation, really,” junior running back Jesse Patterson said. “In the past, guys just kind of went with the flow. But this year, we want to make a change.”
Around the SM North facilities this offseason, there was a buzz, an energy, that hinted that this team was ready to become a force in the Sunflower League. Defensive end Will Carter was the first to acknowledge it, saying the team last year loathed practices. This year, the players can’t wait to get pads on.
Typically, a select few players get the team captain title, but most of the upperclassmen have taken on the role as a unit, inspiring a conscious shift to a winning psyche. Stemming from their failure to deliver last season, Finazzo said, this team and its leaders are closer than they have been in recent years.
Coach Dennis Grayless senses a difference, too.
“I feel better today than I did a year ago at this time,” he said.
Of course, it’s common for teams to say the upcoming year is going to be better, but doing it is something else entirely. For the Indians to live up to their own expectations, Carter said, there can never be a dull moment.
“We can’t have those practices where nothing gets done and we just get yelled at the entire time,” he said. “We have to be productive every day that we’re out there.”
The Indians lost a lot of experience in those seniors, but the Wing-T style offense remains in place. It might even be better than it was last year because, as everyone on the team will tell you, they have more speed at almost every position.
The biggest loss might be wide receiver and defensive back Mason Perez, a senior last season who was the ultimate safety net when the Indians needed a big play.
“He did everything except sell popcorn at halftime,” Grayless said.
Given Perez’s talent, SM North got away from doing what it does best: running the ball. But with explosive backs Patterson and Henry Bell projected to get most of the carries, fans can expect running plays that went three yards last season to be huge breakaways this season.
“People expect us to be the same old North,” junior tackle Maceo Mitchell said. “But when it counts, that first game, we’re going to show everybody we’ve changed.”