Shelby Hoppes and the Canton-Galva football team accomplished an unprecedented comeback in the 2019 Class 8-Man, Division I state title game by erasing a 36-point deficit to win, 66-36. In three years at the helm of the Eagle football program, Hoppes has established a winning tradition with a record of 27-7.
Shelby Hoppes glanced at the scoreboard, which read 36-0.
With 2:57 left in the first half of the Class 8-man, Division I state title game, Hoppes’ Canton-Galva Eagles trailed for just the second time this season.
“You get down that many and you’re thinking, ‘We’re going home. We’re going to go home at half and get embarrassed,’” Hoppes said. “You’re feeling awful for the community and for the kids and everybody else. Then we got the two scores (before halftime), and it went from the lowest of lows to, ‘Hey, if we do a couple things right, maybe we can make it competitive.’”
On the verge of a mercy-rule loss, Hoppes and the Eagles not only made it competitive; they orchestrated the largest comeback in Kansas history to give Canton-Galva its first state title, a testament to the winning culture Hoppes has established in three years at the helm.
Given a chance
A 2003 graduate of Canton-Galva, Hoppes is no stranger to the Eagle football program, both as a student-athlete and as a coach. During his high school career, Hoppes played wide receiver and defensive back and handled punting and returning duties for the Eagles—which at that time was an 11-man team.
Hoppes also has prior coaching experience in the district.
After serving as an assistant high school football coach at Canton-Galva from 2005-2009, Hoppes was an assistant coach in McPherson for a few years before returning to Canton-Galva to accept a head coaching position at the junior high level in 2015.
A coaching vacancy at Canton-Galva just a week before the start of the 2017 season gave Hoppes the chance to fulfill a dream—serving as head coach at the high school level.
Hoppes took over a program with just three wins in the past two seasons. Canton-Galva had gone 1-8 in 2015, even forfeiting a game when only seven players were available, and 2-7 in 2016.
“When I took over, I had multiple people tell me, “That’s a dead end—it’s Canton-Galva; that’s not what they’re known for,” Hoppes said. “Being from here, I didn’t want to accept that.”
Building a program
Canton-Galva was 4-5 in Hoppes’ first season in 2017.
Quick to credit his assistant coaches for the program’s turnaround the last three years, Hoppes said one of the first things he did as head coach was hand the defense to assistant Tyler O’Connor. A part of the previous two coaching staffs at Canton-Galva, O’Connor not only brought knowledge of the program, but also a past winning tradition as a member of a state-champion Sharon Springs team led by coach Kevin Ayers, who currently coaches at Little River.
“(Coach Ayers is) one of the most successful 8-man coaches ever, so I knew that Coach O’Connor knew a thing or two about winning tradition,” Hoppes said. “So I picked his brain.”
Hoppes and O’Connor identified two potential areas for growth: changing the culture and getting kids in the weight room.
“As a coaching staff, you can do everything in your power, and if you just don’t have the kids that want to buy in, it’s not going to work,” Hoppes said.
The sophomore class that first year—this year’s seniors—invested in the program.
“They took it and ran with it,” Hoppes said. “They showed up to the weight room every day, and they continued to get better, and they took some tough coaching out on the field. They did everything right, and they changed the culture. The class behind them, who are now our junior class, they helped out with that as well.
“And now, all of the sudden it’s changed to where as freshmen coming in, they don’t know any different. They don’t remember that losing tradition that we used to have.”
In 2018, the Eagles went 10-2, the 2018 season culminating in a state semifinal loss to Solomon.
A special season
With the entire roster returning from last year’s state semifinal team, Hoppes said he knew 2019 could be special, and the team set its sights on winning a state championship.
“We conditioned like it was the first week of practice every week,” Hoppes said. “I’m big on conditioning. I also think it’s injury-prevention. It helps your kids, and a lot of teams don’t do that.”
Canton-Galva won its first 10 games by mercy rule—which ends the game once a 45-point differential is reached in the second half—and did not play a complete game until the postseason. By the end of the year, the Eagles had rattled off 13 consecutive wins, outscored opponents 724-97, and knocked off four ranked teams.
But the season was not without adversity, both in injury and tough competition.
Star wideout Tyson Struber missed four games with a broken hand, and quarterback Landon Everett injured his shoulder in the sub-state game versus Madison.
Canton-Galva’s road to the championship included three undefeated teams, beginning with South Central in the sectional round. The Eagles faced their first deficit of the season, trailing, 16-10, heading into the fourth quarter before scoring 32 unanswered points to win, 42-16. It was the Eagles’ first complete game of the season.
Canton-Galva then earned a sub-state victory over undefeated Madison, 46-6, to set up a state title game with St. Francis.
Winning it all
On the state’s biggest stage, Canton-Galva soon found itself in an unfamiliar position. St. Francis scored three first-quarter touchdowns and tacked on two more in the second to lead, 36-0.
The Eagles were plagued by turnovers—four of the Indians’ first-half touchdowns came off drives of 17 yards or less, Hoppes said.
“We couldn’t get a handoff, we were fumbling kickoffs, just shooting ourselves in the foot basically,” he said. “And then on defense, we would get to the point of attack and we couldn’t finish a tackle.”
Not only were the Eagles facing their largest deficit of the season, they were nine points from a mercy-rule loss.
“There started to become a sense of urgency once the score got out of hand,” Hoppes said. “When it’s two scores or three scores, we were still thinking, ‘We’re in this. We can score in a hurry. We’re a quick strike offense.’ But then when you look up there and it’s 36-nothing, now you’re thinking, ‘We’ve got to get one. We’ve got to start somewhere,’ and that’s what we did.”
With 1:39 left in the half, Everett crossed the goal line on a 1-yard touchdown run, and when St. Francis gifted the Eagles with a turnover, Everett completed a 26-yard touchdown pass to Struber just 41 seconds later to bring the Eagles within 36-14 at halftime. Momentum had firmly shifted the Eagles’ way.
“We had some things to figure out, but we knew it wasn’t an impossible task at that point,” Hoppes said. “We could score that many points, and we did multiple times during the season. That’s what I had told them at the half.”
The Eagles carried their momentum into the second half. With improved tackling, the Canton-Galva defense got a stop, allowing the Eagle offense to go back to work.
“We just needed to run quality stuff to get that score and sure enough, we run a couple plays, Landon (Everett) gets more comfortable with his throwing shoulder—
because it was banged up going into that game—and he’s completing some passes.”
Two third-quarter touchdown passes from Everett to Struber made it 36-26 heading into the final period.
“You (could) just see their mindsets and their attitudes and everything change,” Hoppes said of his team. “They were like, ‘We’re in this. We’re pretty good, too.’”
A string of five touchdowns in the fourth quarter effectively erased the deficit, stunning St. Francis and giving Canton-Galva a 66-36 victory.
“I told the coaches afterwards, I said, ‘That was a rollercoaster of emotion,’” Hoppes said, adding later: “I just took a deep breath and took it all in. It was something that nobody had ever seen before. We just made history.”
An unprecedented comeback
Not only did Canton-Galva set a state record for largest comeback in any regular-season or state game by erasing a 36-point deficit, to Hoppes’ knowledge the Eagles’ comeback is the second-highest nationwide, he said. The Eagles’ 66 points is the second highest in state title game history, and Struber’s 188 receiving yards set a new record for a state game in Class 8-man, Division I.
“I would contribute our comeback against St. Francis to what we do in practice,” Hoppes said. “At the end of that game, to me it looked like they were kind of beat up and we had run them down to where we were just catching our first wind. That was the difference in that game.”
With the victory, Canton-Galva claimed its first title in school history. The Eagles had made two previous appearances in a state championship game—in 1991 and 1978.
“I told the kids, I gathered them up and I said, ‘You’ll remember this for the rest of your lives because nothing’s ever been done like that before,’” Hoppes said. “It was so cool, and I was so proud of them. They never gave up.”