No. 5 Buhler High School football, No. 2 McPherson to collide in top-five rivalry game

Billy Watson
The Hutchinson News
Buhler's Bo Van Bruggen, left, head coach Steve Warner and Sam Elliott plan for Friday's game against McPherson in Buhler. The last time Buhler beat McPherson was in the 2016 season opener.

BUHLER – It's been more than five years since the Buhler Crusaders beat the McPherson Bullpups in a football game.

As a matter of fact, the last time it happened was in the 2016 season opener when Buhler beat McPherson 26-13 and went on to finish the season as the state runner-up, falling to Bishop Miege in the Class 4A-I state championship.

Last year, the Bullpups beat the Crusaders in the regular season and also knocked them out of the playoffs. The two rivals meet again in Buhler at 7 p.m. Friday. The Crusaders are currently the No. 5 team in the 4A state rankings by the Kansas sportswriters. The Bullpups are No. 2. 

The game is also The Hutchinson News Game of the Week.

Up to this point in the year, Buhler head football coach Steve Warner said his team has handled a lot of adversity, including trailing at half in a big game against Andover Central early in the season but coming back in the second half. Although they lost that game, they had a chance to win the game, and Warner liked the way his team played. 

Buhler's Sam Elliott (20) scores the first touchdown of the game against Augusta Friday Oct. 1, 2021 at Buhler Crusader Stadium. Buhler defeated Augusta 56-21.

Since that loss, the Crusaders added two wins over ranked opponents, Winfield and El Dorado.

"Every week, we've got to play hard," Warner said. "We've got to focus on ourselves and not get all hyped up about playing McPherson. They're doing a great job. Coach (Jace Pavlovich) is a good coach, and his kids play hard for him. So, we just got to be ready to go against him."

Senior running back and linebacker Sam Elliott talked about the emotions heading into Friday's rivalry game and said they run a little higher because they're playing the Bullpups, but they approach every game the same.

"We come in with the same mentality that it's another week," Elliott said, "(but) it's a tough game every year. It's always been a close game until that fourth quarter every single year for us. We've just got to come in with the same mentality that it's just going to be another game. Can't let it get too big in our heads because that's when problems occur."

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Defensive lineman Bo Van Bruggen – a three-year starter – has been a part of a Buhler defense that has played efficiently this year. The defense has forced nine turnovers through five games, including two interceptions returned for touchdowns (in the same game). Van Bruggen said the front four have done a great job attacking and going to the ball and preventing the big play.

"This is the best secondary I've ever played with in my three years of starting here," Van Bruggen said. "That's definitely helped out a lot."

Elliott talked about McPherson's offense being top-notch. He said communication will be highly needed on Friday.

Buhler's Bo Van Bruggen (40) takes down Augusta's quarterback Gavin Kiser (9) during their game Friday, Oct. 1, 2021 at Buhler Crusader Stadium. Buhler defeated Augusta 56-21.

"Our communication during the game is going to be our biggest thing," Elliott said. "The way their offense is running, they have a really good offense, and we just got to know who exactly we're lined up with and play our hearts out."

Part of the Crusaders' success has been being able to look ahead at the next challenge. Elliott talked about their first drive against Augusta not being successful, but he said they forgot about it and moved on, thus scoring 56 on the night and punching in three touchdowns of his own. Van Bruggen agreed, saying the defense has the same mindset.

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"Something bad happens, you got to make something good happen," Van Bruggen said. "Rally to the ball, good communication... Our whole defense likes to talk a lot to each other, and that makes it easy for us to know what's going on and where we need to be."

There are similarities between the two teams right now: they have speed, and they can both put up a lot of points. Last week, McPherson beat El Dorado 63-36 while Buhler topped Augusta 56-21. Warner said McPherson is very talented and has many players to keep an eye on but to be winners on Friday, he said the Crusaders will need to limit the mistakes and execute. 

Buhler's Bo Van Bruggen, left, head coach Steve Warner and Sam Elliott plan for Friday's game against McPherson in Buhler. The last time Buhler beat McPherson was in the 2016 season opener.

"That's what happens when you get into a tough game like this," Warner said. "Everything's going 100 mph in somebody's head, and they've just got to relax, and hopefully the game becomes slower. I feel like we play faster every week, and we got to play fast this week."

Elliott, who has over 600 yards rushing on the season so far, said a win Friday would be a major confidence booster to their already dominant season.

"Only time we've beaten them was freshman year, but that's just freshman year," Elliott said. "Varsity-wise, me and Bo are 0-5 against them. Just getting a win against them would be the biggest thing. We'd be on cloud nine. We know we can compete with the best. So, I think it'd be the best confidence booster we can have."