Great and Small
Located 12 miles southwest of the continental United States' geographic midpoint, Smith Center, Kans., is in the center of the country but the middle of nowhere. It's a three-hour-plus drive from the closest commercial airport and an 80-minute haul from the nearest McDonald's to the town, which has 1,931 residents, one stoplight -- and 14 state high school titles in five sports over the last 26 years.
Smith Center High athletics are the lifeblood of the townsfolk, who take ownership in the success of their youth. "The community is so supportive of all our teams," athletic director Greg Hobelmann says over lunch at Second Cup Café on Main Street. "It's not like Friday Night Lights, but everyone understands [the athletes] have to work hard to be competitive." Banker Lynn Zierlein, who was a football coach from 1972 through '77, chimes in from a nearby table, offering one reason why the Redmen have won the last four Class 2-1A football titles: "I made a spot available for Coach Barta. If I hadn't left for banking, we'd be watching miserable football."
Roger Barta, whom even administrators and colleagues refer to exclusively as Coach Barta, took over the downtrodden football program in 1978 with plans to run it for only two or three years. But that changed after the Redmen reached the state final in his second season, and then won their first championship in his fifth. After 30 years he has a 276-58 record, including 54 straight wins heading into next season and seven Kansas championships. One of Barta's former players, Mark Simoneau, is a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints. No surprise then that two months ago School Avenue was renamed Roger Barta Way.
Last fall Smith Center (13-0) outscored opponents 844-20, punted only once and set a national record with 72 points in the first quarter of an 83-0 win over Plainville. Nine of the 12 seniors from that team are expected to play college football this fall, including one Division I recruit, running back Braden Wilson, who signed with Kansas State.
For Barta, success is born of repetition. Both the junior high and high school teams run the same belly-option offense. "I can tell you what we're going to do [at practice] Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and at what time we're going to do it," says senior quarterback Joe Windscheffel. "The offense gets a little boring sometimes, but winning never gets boring." One rival athletic director, noting the Redmen's physical play and flawless technique, suggested that the 2007 team might have been able to compete with four-time 6A champ Hutchinson. (Class 6A is the Kansas division for the largest schools, with 2-1A the football division for the smallest schools.) "In a small town you don't just get [athletic] kid after kid after kid," the AD says. "They get the most from their talent."
Since 1982, in addition to the seven state football championships, Smith Center has won the last two state wrestling titles plus championships in boys' track ('84 and 2005), girls' track ('85) and powerlifting (1990 and '91). There were two golf titles in the early '70s. What's more, the girls' volleyball team has won 11 of the last 14 Mid-Continent Conference volleyball championships; the girls' basketball team went to the state final three times in the last 10 years; and the boys' hoopsters went 21-2 this season. "I honestly think it's because we have nothing else to do," says assistant volleyball and girls' track coach Amy Terrill.
Farming is the primary industry in this part of Kansas, mostly wheat and sorghum, and the Smith County School District is the second-largest employer. The median household income is only $27,000. Smith Center High fields 10 varsity sports (plus cheerleading) but has an enrollment for grades nine through 12 of only 149. Even though 60% of the students participate in athletics and most play multiple sports, the school cannot support baseball, softball and soccer teams. Head coaches receive 12% of their teacher's salary -- a little above the area average -- for directing the teams, and most, like Barta, stick around for a while. Volleyball coach Nick Linn is approaching 500 wins at Smith Center.
Days in advance of each football game, fans of the Redmen duct-tape blankets to the home bleachers at Hubbard Stadium. "That's our reserved-seating policy," jokes Hobelmann. Two thirds of those 1,200 seats were covered before the state semifinal win over St. Francis in November. "It looked like a quilt," says principal Greg Koelsch. Farm equipment companies, banks and Smith Center merchants sponsor a free tailgate before each home game, and there's a waiting list for the chance to serve. (Three sponsors are picked per game.)
For all that support -- "We even have people sit and watch track practice," says senior Sarah Tucker, a three-sport standout -- the community's focus is not just on wins and losses. Teaching the athletes accountability is right up there too. The school district sponsors a program in which senior athletes, who must pledge to refrain from alcohol and drugs through their last year of high school, are featured on trading cards, which are distributed as rewards to elementary school students. "I remember being a little kid and watching from the stands," says Wilson. "Those guys were our heroes." And the superintendent's office is trying to capitalize on the teams' popularity by running regional television commercials and other ads to attract families to Smith Center. The slogan for that campaign?
Together We Are Champions.