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Football 2014: Maize aims for more of the same excitement

Published August 22 at 2 p.m. | Last updated August 18 at 10:32 a.m.

Replicating the 2013 football season probably is an impossible task for Maize, but not in the context of wins or losses.

Maize is a favorite not only for a league and district title, but also a 5A championship.

Replicating the emotion, the atmosphere and aura of 2013 – that’s what could be difficult.

There was something special about 2013, a level of excitement that wrapped itself around that season, including a surprise win over Salina South, then ranked No. 1.

Maybe that atmosphere was due to Maize’s eagerness to find success on the field, where it hadn’t earned a playoff berth since 2007, and the athletes making it happen.

“We were honestly kind of shell-shocked. Every week it was so much fun,” said Maize senior quarterback Connor Lungwitz, a three-year starter. “… Every game was so exciting. I don’t know if you can repeat that.”

Part of the difficulty in recapturing the thrill of 2013 is the absolute highs the Eagles experienced that were then followed by deep valleys.

Maize’s win over Salina South led to a matchup at Derby, which was the favorite to win Class 6A but had lost its season opener to Salina South. Maize’s high crashed when Derby won 62-13 and Derby went on to win 12 straight and the 6A title.

“We learned really to keep your head out of the media, keep your ego in check,” Lungwitz said after the loss at Derby. “We got behind quick and never could get out of that hole.”

After a five-game winning streak, Maize finished its regular season with a two-point loss at Hutchinson, but still qualified for the 6A playoffs. The Eagles lost in the first round when Manhattan went for a surprise two-point conversion, out of the swinging-gate formation, to end the five-overtime win.

“We’ve all tried to forget about it,” senior wide receiver Kendall Stewart said of the Manhattan loss. “But I always bring it up. I hate losing. We didn’t go out the right way.”

There’s no reason Maize can’t recapture the success of 2013.

Lungwitz (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) returns after his All-Metro season when he had 1,975 passing yards, completing 152 of 252 passes with 28 touchdowns and just interceptions. His No. 1 target is back, too. Senior receiver Kendall Stewart (5-9, 156), also an All-Metro selection, had 750 receiving yards on 43 catches.

“With a guy like Connor running the offense, you’ve got a chance,” Maize coach Gary Guzman said. “He fits into what we’re doing. He’s perfect for the offense that we’re trying to run because he understands it so well.… It’s his pre-snap reads, post-snap reads, understanding defenses.

“Connor gets rid of it so quickly and puts so much velocity on the ball, that it makes it tough for the defender to get there.”

Lungwitz and Stewart are an explosive combination.

“Kendall’s got great speed, very good hands,” Guzman said. “He and Connor have this connection. They obviously know each other well. Kendall’s a playmaker. We’ll use him on kickoff returns, punt returns because every time he touches the ball, he can go.”

There are some questions offensively for Maize, which scored 400 points over 10 games.

Maize graduated All-Metro running back Chase White, who had 1,670 rushing yards, but will replace him with Jordan Guererro and Gabe Chavez, a transfer from Campus.

The offensive line is a question because once again the Eagles graduated the majority of its starters. Only sophomore Konner Swenson (6-3, 227) returns.

Maize has a healthy Elijah White, a smart, hard-hitting defensive back to lead the defense. He missed the Eagles’ five-overtime playoff loss to Manhattan due to a knee injury.

But the Eagles must improve a defense that gave up 28.3 points.

“We gave up some points last year,” Guzman said. “We play in a very tough league and had a very tough district. It’s hard not to give up points when you’re playing Derby, Hutch, Garden City, Dodge City, Salina Central, Salina South.

“We hope we can slow down opponents and give our offense opportunities.… If the defense could get some turnovers, and put the ball in the offense’s hands, we’d have a chance to do well.”

While Maize opens its season by playing host to Derby, the defending Class 6A champion, that game will not directly affect whether the Eagles get back to the playoffs.

Maize has dropped down to Class 5A, and two of its final three regular-season games are against Maize South and Carroll in Class 5A-District 7.

A playoff berth is not guaranteed in that tough district.

But while there will be plenty of differences between 2013 and 2014, the confidence gained from captivating 2013 season can’t be denied.

“Our expectations are pretty high,” Lungwitz said. “… I don’t know if we can follow last year with a more exciting season.

“I think we can, if we stay healthy and do our jobs and execute, we’ve got the guys who can do the job.”

Reach Joanna Chadwick at 316-268-6270 or jchadwick@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @joannachadwick.