Webb: Because they’re winners, Bearcats will learn from loss

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Burlingame finished the 2016 season at 11-1 and in the state semifinals for the second straight year. The Bearcats should be a state title contender next season.

There are few redeeming qualities about a loss. It stings. It makes you angry. It makes you sad. It can be devastating, especially when it ends your season and you have a four-hour bus ride home to think about it.

I can only imagine how Burlingame’s football team felt Friday night in Osborne as virtually nothing went right in the final game of a season in which virtually everything went right.

It reminded me of arguably Burlingame’s best team in the two decades leading up to this current group’s wildly successful run that has included back-to-back Lyon County League and district championships and trips to the Eight-Man I semifinals.

In 1991, the Bearcats had a team that many believed could make a deep run in the playoffs. Six games into the season, much of that hope had faded during a 2-4 start (keep in mind that the LCL was brutal in the early 1990s, featuring traditional powers Olpe, Waverly and Lebo).

By the time October rolled around, few had Burlingame getting through a district that included a good Alma-Wabaunsee team. The Bearcats rolled past Marais des Cygnes Valley and Lyndon to reach the .500 mark and set up a showdown in Alma for a trip to the playoffs.

That game, in late October, is one of the most memorable at Burlingame, partly because it was played during a snowstorm. My memories of that game include giant space heaters on the sideline, one of our assistant coaches (I’m talking about you, John Lujano) pacing the sideline in a short-sleeve shirt in sub-zero temperatures and a field on which only the yard lines were cleared.

Time and time again, a player broke into the clear, only to slip and fall on several inches of ice inside the yard lines. On one of the few times a player didn’t slip, Brandon Masters found just enough traction to burst up the middle and into the end zone in double overtime to clinch a playoff bid.

The weather was so awful that week that our opening-round game was postponed until a week later on a Saturday night. Awaiting Burlingame in the first round: Big, bad Waverly, a team that hammered the Bearcats during the regular season.

Memories of that game also are vivid. The coaching staff made a great decision, moving a bullish, powerful lineman to fullback to counter Waverly’s physical defense. Time and time again, said fullback barreled into linebackers, who bounced off him like pinballs.

Burlingame dominated the game, marching up and down the field with ease. Unfortunately, turnovers and penalties squelched many of those drives. Burlingame had the ball inside the 5 in the closing minute, only to be flagged for three straight holding calls. I also remember that a long field goal as time expired in regulation looked true until curving wide left by a foot.

What I remember the most is how we lost. On fourth-and-goal from the 1 in overtime, Masters bounced off left tackle and dove for the end zone. As the team stats geek, I was watching on the goal line. There is no doubt in my mind he scored. In fact, his upper body, with the ball, was in the end zone. The officials ruled he did not score. Waverly scored two plays later, gutting the team and town.

That was the first time I’d seen many of my classmates cry. Some of the toughest kids I knew were devastated. In many ways, it felt like it set the tone for the next two decades of football.

There aren’t many comparisons between the 1991 and 2016 Bearcats. The former scrapped its way into the playoffs and wasn’t considered a state championship contender. The latter rolled through the regular season like an F5 tornado, cutting a swath through a schedule loaded with playoff teams.

What the teams do have in common is that they brought the community together. Both of these runs, first in the early 1990s and now in the mid-2010s, came after long droughts. Friday Night Lights are no longer dim in Burlingame, they’re illuminating.

The 2016 team had loftier goals than getting back to the state semifinals. They expected to win the school’s first championship since 1972. They fell short, and that’s something they’re going to remember.

Almost all of these kids are back next season, and they’ll learn from this loss, because they’re winners.

 

 

 

Team with a big heart takes a small town to the big time

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Burlingame football field

Burlingame fans lined up down the sideline and filing into the bleachers for Friday’s state semifinal game, the first at Burlingame in more than four decades. Every graduating class from 1958 to 2014 had at last one member at the game.

The drive to Burlingame on Friday was similar to our previous trips back home. As you head into town from the east and the hustle and bustle of Kansas City into the sleepy confines of Small Town, America, the view rarely changes.

Past the city limits, just north of Highway 56, are the remnants of an old café, Jo’s Place, where my wife worked during high school. The old, red brick road covering two blocks of downtown is still there. It’s a road those of us who grew up in Burlingame spent hours on during our youth, circling the main drag after school and on the weekends.

Downtown Burlingame is one of the few areas in town marked by change. Several buildings are gone, including the defunct Osage County Chronicle building where I learned more about writing and newspapers from Kurt Kessinger than I have anywhere during my career as a journalist.

Across the street, the old grocery store and another café, both closed, continue to decay. For years, the town lacked energy.

As we walked from my in-laws’ house across a park on the north side of town, bright lights exploded into the sky, and the roads leading into the Burlingame High parking lot were flooded with red tail lights for blocks to the north and south.

IMG_4631It was quite a sight: Friday Night Lights in Burlingame. Hundreds of people lined up just off the track circling the football field, the stands full of purple and white, electricity in the air. All due to a football team that served as a shot of adrenaline for a community that needs – and deserves – a big winner.

“This is what we wanted, what we hoped we could do,” Robert Hutchins, a senior running back, said after the Bearcats’ loss to Hanover in an Eight-Man Division I semifinal. “It was amazing to see this town like this.”

Until Friday, I assumed the community was in a frenzy because its football team was 11-0, something that hadn’t happened since the 1972 team won the Class 1A state championship. After I met Hutchins, I realized the connection was much deeper than that.

As I walked off the field following Hanover’s 56-32 win in a game that was much closer than the score, I noticed Hutchins taking photos with several friends and classmates. I stopped briefly and said, “Robert, you had a great season. You should be proud.”

Tears welled in eyes already red and weary.

“I’m Ernie Webb,” I said.

“I know. Thank you for those stories you wrote,” he said. “And for that email you sent me.”

That didn’t register. I didn’t remember Hutchins at first, but I said “You’re welcome” and walked away after wishing him luck. Then it hit me: Was this the kid I exchanged emails with when he was an eighth-grader?

I turned around and said, “Robert, are you the one who emailed me after Ms. Day contacted me?”

As it turns out, this was the young man who I emailed several years ago. Twenty years earlier, the late Ms. Day, a wonderful art and science teacher, had been kind to a young man from Missouri who continued to root for his favorite college team despite living among Kansas and Kansas State fans.

Ms. Day contacted me years later and asked me to reach out to a student who needed a little guidance as a Missouri fan in the heart of Kansas. I readily sent him an email, never realizing the impact it had.

Nearly five years later, I introduced Robert to my wife and spoke with him for a few minutes, extremely impressed by his thoughtfulness and gratitude over the email, especially after he’d just finished his high school football career with a loss one game short of the state championship.

At that point, I realized why this community, so desperate for a big winner that at least one member of every graduating class from 1958 through 2015 was in the bleachers, loved this team so much: not only were these guys great football players, they were fine young men, many of whom will be back next season to make another run at the school’s first state title in 43 years.

The Bearcats lost on Friday night, but this team will always be a champion in the eyes of Burlingame.

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.