ST. MARYS, Kan. (KSNT) — More playoff football is on the way this Friday, and for two small-town teams, a win guarantees a trip to the 1A state championship.

The 9-2 St. Marys Bears take on the undefeated Centralia Panthers in a semifinal matchup on Nov. 18.

Both teams have been representing their hometown crowds well, playing with a lot of heart to dominate their opponents along the way. However, their similarities stop there.

Centralia is 11-0 this season, but that’s nothing new. The Panthers took home the state title just a few years ago in 2019, but making a deep playoff run is new to St. Marys. Bears senior quarterback Keller Hurla said this is the first time in his career with the Panthers that he’s left practice after dark.

“Playing this deep into the season for my first time in my career, at least this far,” Hurla said. “It’s been a ton of fun, and I think all these guys really have enjoyed this ride.”

His teammate Josh Deiter agreed. The senior right tackle said things have clicked with the squad much more than they have in past years, and that it’s been rewarding to see everything fall into place.

“This year we’ve had great communication, great effort, been putting in the work all summer, all season,” Deiter said.

The Bears say they’ve come together to finish what last year’s seniors started. Head coach Kyle Schenk said his younger players have been a huge factor in the team’s success this season. He said they’ve had some help from the coaching staff, but that they’ve been excellent leaders all season long.

“We actually have several sophomores that we had to fill in for seniors last year, and those guys have really stepped up and done an awesome job,” Schenk said.

The young St. Marys squad will meet the veterans of Centralia on Friday, as many of the Panthers have been playing together for quite some time.

“We’ve been playing with some of these guys since third and fourth grade, and it’s just nice to get to do it one last time,” senior outside tackle Nick Thompson said.  

The players said they spend a lot of time together off the field, often eating dinner at each others houses with their families. Head Coach Roger Holthaus is in his first year of coaching the Panthers, though he was an assistant coach under previous head coach XX for several years. He said the bond between his players, especially the seniors, is a big reason behind Centralia’s undefeated season.

“You can see it when they’re playing,” Holthaus said. “They’re close, they like playing the game, they like each other. We’re not the fastest team, we’re not the biggest team, but they play hard every time they step on the field.”

For that reason, Centralia relies on the ground game with a heavy run offense. The Panthers have the ability to make explosive plays, but they don’t pass the ball super often. They’ve bruised their way to 11 wins this season. St. Marys, on the other hand, likes to take shots downfield and doesn’t hesitate to open things up with the deep ball from Hurla.

Both strategies have worked for each team this year, but Friday’s contest will put both philosophies to the test. Play calls aside, Centralia’s senior quarterback Trenton Talley said he’s just excited to take the field one last time.

“It’s a great last run for me and all the seniors out here, you know,” Talley said. “It’s the last chance we ever get to step on this field or any other field in high school.”

Both the Bears and the Panthers are excited to be playing through November. The semifinal game kicks off at 7 p.m. at St. Marys.