Dreaming big in Burlingame

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My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday's Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

My stepson, wife and in-laws at Saturday’s Eight-Man Division I state quarterfinal.

A few days into our tenure as members of the Burlingame school board, my best friend and I attended a welcome-back-to-school barbecue for faculty and staff. One of the first people we spoke with that steamy August day in 1997 was a new history teacher and football coach with big dreams.

As an alumnus and supporter of the Bearcats, I was curious what this new coach had in mind for a football program coming off a winless season. So, I asked him what his goals and expectations were for the season.

“To go 13-0 and win a state championship,” he said.

Steve and I looked at each other and literally laughed. A few years later, that teacher/coach was gone.

The highs have been few and far between in the nearly 20 years since. Going into the 2014 season, Burlingame had not had a winning season since 1990. From 1992 to 2014, the Bearcats had one playoff team, a 5-5 squad that slipped into the playoffs as the district runner-up.

To say Burlingame was in a drought would be an understatement. Imagine walking through the Sahara for two decades with a shot glass of water to hold you over. The only time the Bearcats made news was during a long losing streak. A feature story about the team ending a losing streak happened at least twice in local papers.

Friday Night Lights. Dreaming big. Daring to believe. These things amounted to a leprechaun riding into town on a unicorn while sipping from the Holy Grail.

After years of hopelessness and frustration, that began to change in 2014. A group of kids I’d been hearing about for years welcomed a young, energetic coach to town. It didn’t take long for the community to fall in love with football again.

The Bearcats didn’t make the playoffs in 2014, falling a touchdown short of ending a 10-year drought during a 6-3 season. As it turns out, they were building the foundation.

The kids bought in, the coach’s energy was contagious. Big crowds started traveling to road games again, just as they’d done during a three-year run in the early 1990s that included three straight district championships.

Finally, it all came together in 2015. The Bearcats stampeded through the regular season, going 9-0 with a series of blowouts to win league and district championships, the latter the first in 24 years.

Last week, Burlingame ended one of the longest playoff droughts in the state, knocking off a tough Rock Hills team 40-18 to improve to 10-0. It was the school’s first playoff win in more than 15,000 days (43 years).

Many of us traveled to Burlingame’s first quarterfinal game since 1972 on Saturday, driving through scenery straight out of “Children of the Corn” to watch the Bearcats’ fight off Central-Burden in southeast Kansas on their way to sub-state, one win away from the state championship game.

As a stringer for the Capital-Journal, I got to cover the game in Burden and write a story that wrote itself. For the first time in a generation, they’re dreaming big in Burlingame.

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10 thoughts on “Dreaming big in Burlingame

  1. Nick Gray

    As the coach mentioned above, I thought it was possible to do in Burlingame, just wasn’t willing wait for a community and administration to recognize what it would take to make a winner. Good to see a beleaguered program turn things around. I still tell stories about the bearcats about 18 years later. Thanks the experience and the memories.

    • Ernie Webb III

      I feel bad for laughing. You didn’t stand a chance in that environment, Coach. Was happy to see you move on to bigger things.

      • Cody criqui

        Really coach gray?? Some kids never made the field because of older siblings …. Some kids can be changed, just have to find the people willing to help them change. Barb Engler never gave up me though:) with that being said in a round about way you drove me to succeed! So thank you but you shouldn’t feel satisfied. This is Cody Criqui by the way, I wouldn’t expect you to remember so I’ll put it out there. Good luck with all your future endeavors! Also as a team member mentioned above, no matter what, go Burlingame!! Kids deserve it and it is obvious hwpo!!! And maybe you will remember this “Criqui why aren’t you wrestling?” Me as a freshman “coach i suck at it.” coach gray “didn’t stop you from playing football.” Me “didn’t stop you from coaching either.” Coach gray “RUN the fence.”

  2. Cody criqui

    Really coach gray?? Some kids never made the field because of older siblings …. Some kids can be changed, just have to find the people willing to help them change. Barb Engler never gave up me though:) with that being said in a round about way you drove me to succeed! So thank you but you shouldn’t feel satisfied. This is Cody Criqui by the way, I wouldn’t expect you to remember so I’ll put it out there. Good luck with all your future endeavors! Also as a team member mentioned above, no matter what, go Burlingame!! Kids deserve it and it is obvious hwpo!!! And maybe you will remember this “Criqui why aren’t you wrestling?” Me as a freshman “coach i suck at it.” coach gray “didn’t stop you from playing football.” Me “didn’t stop you from coaching either.” Coach gray “RUN the fence.”

  3. K deere

    I have known Jeff Slater since he was a young boy and his moms family all of my life. What you see is what you got a passionate young coach of character and quality.

  4. Julie Slater

    How ironic is it that former head coach Nick Gray is new Vice Principal at
    Lansing High were Both head coach Jeff Slater and assistant coach Nick Brungardt were born and raised!

  5. Nick Gray

    Cody,
    I remember you well. I don’t remember to tell you to run the fence though. I do remember telling a young man that as the free safety he would be responsible to call coverages according to the front and stunt called. I remember you making flash cards and studying them before and after practice. That said tons about you and your character. Hope you are well.

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