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Bob Lutz: Football is king in Derby

Published Sep. 6 at 11:40 p.m. | Last updated Nov. 2 at 7:25 a.m.

I went to Derby’s football opener against Salina South on Friday night to write about the zany, off-the-wall atmosphere at Panther Stadium. I spent most of the first half hearing pins drop.

Nothing silences potential zaniness like an early three-touchdown deficit. And Derby dug itself a hole against the Cougars, who still led by three TDs after a touchdown early in the third quarter.

But this is Derby, where the Panthers rarely go quietly. This is jam-packed Panther Stadium, where a good chunk of Derby’s citizens gather for football home games. This is Derby, where football zaniness rules.

The Panthers, buried by Salina South’s early blitz, shoveled their way out. They tied the game, only to lose 41-35 on a three-yard touchdown run by Salina South’s Mike Jones with six seconds to play to end a battle between the preseason top-ranked teams in their respective classes. The Cougars’ score was set up by a Panthers fumble. Losses don’t come more painful.

But the Derby fans will bounce back. That’s what they’ve been doing for years.

You want to arrive early for a Derby football game. And the earlier the better.

You’re going to get to know the person sitting next to you, trust me. They consistently cram close to 6,000 into the friendly confines of a stadium that has served a football-hungry community for more than 40 years. And the facility hasn’t grown as fast as the town, which makes for extremely tight quarters.

Derby was a sleepy bedroom community of about six or seven thousand when I was in high school during the dark ages. It’s a bustling 25,000 now and if there’s one thing that has always brought Derby together it’s the high school football team.

People start milling around the stadium, located just east of what was the high school when I was in Derby, several hours before the opening kick. By 5, grills are full of brats and dogs, soon to be desposited into the nervous bellies of anxious Panther fans.

It’s been this way for decades. Through good times (almost always) and bad (rare).

But even when Derby was 0-9 in 2005, even then, the Panther faithful showed up. Brandon Clark, in his eighth season as Derby’s coach, was an assistant for that team.

“The fans never left us,” Clark said. “Derby is a unique community.”

Clark was hired to replace Mark Bliss, whose single-wing offense never flew at Derby. At the time, Clark was 26. And the Panthers improved by just one game in his first season, 2006, beating Wichita South in the eighth game of the season to break a 17-game losing streak.

Derby has gone a decade without 1osing 17 games, but Clark knew he was up for this challenge.

A former Kansas State tight end who played at Valley Center under Mike Smith, Clark had faith in himself and in Derby. He knew the townspeople would continue to show up at games, but that they wouldn’t be happy unless the Panthers started winning.

“That game we won in our first year, against South, was probably the best win I’ve ever been a part of,” Clark said. “The kids who were able to win that game hadn’t won one in so long and that kind of turned the tide for us. We actually played Southeast the next game for a spot in the playoffs.”

Derby lost that one, but the Panthers were 5-5 in 2007 and are 41-17 since 2008. This season, the Panthers are the preseason No. 1 team in Class 6A and loaded with experience and potential Division I talent.

As you would imagine, football-crazy Derby is off its rocker.

“It’s pretty difficult in this community to reference Derby High School and not mention football in the same breath,” said principal and life-long Derby citizen Tim Hamblin. “Of course, there’s way more to the town that that, but at the same time we’re not going to apologize. The community has always — at least in my life — been completly behind this football team and we embrace that. There are very few people who stay home during a Derby football game.”

That, of course, is an overstatement. But if you try to draw a breath inside the cramped stadium during a Panthers game, you might tend to believe Hamblin is telling the truth. It is wall to wall people, buoyed Friday night by not only a game against Class 5A’s top preseason team but by the third annual military night, during which Derby pays tribute to men and women in uniform.

It’s a natural, given that McConnell Air Force Base is nearby and a part of Derby’s school district. Anybody who has ever gone to school in Derby has made friends with people from the base only to wonder the next year what happened to them. Try planning a Derby reunion sometime and making contact with the kids who lived at McConnell. Good luck.

Being a one-high school town helps with enthusiasm, too. Derby residents are not divided the way those who live in Andover are, for example. There will probably never be a “Derby South,” because residents have never pushed to split the school in two, even though there are nearly 2,000 students in the school that was opened 20 years ago.

“We still have a bunch of empty classrooms and small class sizes,” Clark said.

Thousands of Panthers fans left the stadium disappointed Friday night. Football season can never get to Derby quickly enough. The fans will be back. In droves.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.