ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Ten years ago this summer, Dustin McEwen, fresh out of Norton Community High School, left his mark on the Kansas Shrine Bowl as a quarterback.
When the game’s 10-day orientation and training camp starts tomorrow, McEwen will try to do it again, this time as a head coach. The Hillsboro High School mentor will lead the West squad into action July 28 in the state’s 28th annual high school all-star contest.
“Having been a part of it and knowing what it’s about helped me know this was something I would like to do,” said McEwen, the first HHS coach to be picked for the honor.
Ironically, the game will be played at KSU Stadium in Manhattan, the same place where McEwen threw for 114 yards to spark the West to a 44-29 win in the highest-scoring Shrine Bowl on record.
One of McEwen’s completions was a 64-yard touchdown strike to Todd Deering of Hesston. The play stood as a Shrine Bowl record for the longest TD pass until two years ago.
The softspoken Trojan mentor, who has compiled a 31-18 record in five seasons at HHS, pooh-poohs the notion that his appearance in that game was a factor in his selection as a Shrine Bowl coach.
McEwen actually got his foot in the door last year when he was picked as an assistant coach based on his team’s performance the previous fall when they lost in the regional finals in Class 3A. Shrine Bowl coaches are selected according to their team’s final standing in the playoffs.
“I don’t know that (being a Shrine Bowl player) would have mattered,” he said. “The way we placed that year, I probably would have been asked anyway.
“It was our team’s performance, and it’s quite an honor not only for me, but for the Hillsboro community and for the players who have played for me over the past five years.”
McEwen was chosen as head coach this year on the vote of the game’s directors, assistant coaches and other officials.
As head coach, one of McEwen’s primary jobs is to coordinate his staff of five assistants, which he said can be intimidating to think about.
“The other coaches are very responsive to doing things you want them to do, but we’re all a bunch of head coaches,” McEwen said. “Most of the guys who are on the staff have been head coaches for at least as long as I have-most of them almost twice as long. So they have their ways and you have your ways.
“That’s a little bit nerve-racking if you’re doing things really different from them. What do they think of your philosophy and approach to the game? But when you’re actually around them, you find out they’re good guys, and that takes over.”
The coaches have only a little input about the selection of players, which is done by a committee of around 50 writers and broadcasters in the state media.
“We’re there to kind of guide them, like, ‘Hey media guys, I don’t have enough linemen. Do you think you can look at some more?'”
McEwen has turned over the responsibility for defensive strategy to three assistants, while he and the other two assistants will oversee the offense.
Shrine Bowl rules place restrictions on both sides of the ball because of limited preparation time.
On defense, both teams have to play with five players on the line and two linebackers, and stunting is restricted to some degree.
On offense, each team must have at least one tight end and two backs on every play.
“As a coach, that takes away a big chunk of your offense,” McEwen said. “But it also helps you narrow things down to focus on what you’re going to do as a team.
“Personally, I think it takes away some of the pressure, knowing that you’re not going down with your full arsenal. You won’t be judged on the complete package of what you have.”
Some of the Shrine Bowl players come to camp with a lot of media hype, but that doesn’t mean a lot, McEwen said.
“You always have some surprises when you come to camp-kids who have a tremendous work ethic and a passion for the game. And sometimes you find a few who aren’t willing to sell themselves out for a Shrine Bowl game.
“For players, it’s the closest thing they’ve ever had to a college game,” he added. “The speed factor that’s going to be involved is just awesome compared even to what you’d see in a (Class) 6A game somewhere. These guys are good players. If you’re not a good player, you’re not on the team.”
Key to the Shrine Bowl experience for players and coaches is the one-day trip to St. Louis to visit the Shrine Children’s Hospital, McEwen said. The Shriners’ 22 hospitals across the country provide free care for children with burns and bone or muscle problems.
“It gives you some perspective as to why you’re there,” he said. “We have this phrase that gets passed along: ‘It’s bigger than you or me.’ It’s bigger than what we players and coaches have to do with it, and we have some traditions to live up to.
“Some guys are going to come in and their chests are going to puffed out, and they’re going to be like, ‘I’m the guy.’ Then you go on the trip, you get to the hospital and see the children. You get a chance to mingle with them and they’re just in awe of you and the fact that you came to visit them-and they tell you their story.”
In Manhattan, McEwen will leave the defense to others, but he expects to call the plays on offense.
“We’re going to try not to be shy about throwing the ball in the right situations, but then again I think I have some very talented linemen on the West side-very big,” McEwen said. “Of course, they’ve got some big defensive linemen as well, but we’re going to find out early what we can do. If we can do it, we’ll run the ball and try to win the game.”
At least one of the West players won’t need much orientation to McEwen’s offensive scheme. Trojan standout Jeremy Loewen will be on the squad.
“Jeremy will probably be looking at the defensive side of things, but I’m going to make him work out as a running back, too,” McEwen said. “I think it’s a big advantage to have him there because once kids realize he came from my system, he’s going to be able to answer questions. He may be someone they can approach easier than approaching a coach.”
This will be the third straight year the Trojans have landed a player in the Shrine Bowl. Chad Duerksen played in 1999 and Tyson Ratzlaff played last year.
“I’d like to encourage people to come (to the game) just to pay tribute to Jeremy and Tyson and Chad,” McEwen said. “Where I was from, it was a big deal. People were very excited about it. They recognized it as being a great tribute to the team and the player.
“Even if people aren’t encouraged to come for Jeremy’s sake, it’s just a great game to come and watch.”