The corn harvest in Southwest Johnson County took place a little later than usual this year. Most of the crops had to be planted late because of the unusually wet winter and spring.
It’s normal for someone in Gardner and Edgerton to notice these things; as normal as being stuck behind a combine on a gravel road.
In 1999, Gardner-Edgerton High School played its final football game at the 4A level. The student body is nearly four times the size it was then and the school is solidly in Class 6A.
The community is becoming more and more suburban but the remains of its rural roots are not hard to find.
That lifestyle is not lost on head football coach Ryan Cornelsen, who grew up in Liberal, in the far Southwestern Corner of Kansas. Cornelsen’s coaching career began in WaKeeney. From there he went to LaCrosse, then Hays, then Hutchinson.
“Being from Western Kansas, what’s normal to me is a one school district,” says Cornelsen. “I had some opportunities; some offers from different Kansas City schools in prior years and it didn’t feel normal to me.”
Class 6A high schools are common to this part of the state, one high school districts are not. The closest one high school district that plays at the 6A level is Washburn Rural, over an hour away.
That was something that attracted Cornelsen to Gardner-Edgerton when he took the job in January of 2018.
“I always liked this area. I liked the thought of possibly ending up in this area but I really wasn’t interested in the multi-high school districts. That just felt so foreign to me…[It’s] still kind of country feeling [here]…That was a draw to me and my family.”
There have been some adjustments for Cornelsen. He’s not used to Thursday night games, which are sometimes necessary at the district stadiums with multiple tenants.
But at home on Fridays, it’s clear who the home team is.
“It’s all Blazers. When you’re in town, it’s all about this high school,” said linebackers coach and strength and conditioning coordinator Mark Simoneau.
“You know on Friday nights, everything’s blue and everybody’s supporting. It’s a really special thing for our kids to be able to grow up in that environment and to have the opportunity to play in that environment.”
Like Cornelsen, Simoneau is used to the one high school district. He graduated from Smith Center High School in the 1990s before a successful career and Kansas State and in the NFL, including a stint with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2010.
Simoneau said his first experience with Gardner-Edgerton was watching the 2010 Trailblazers play on ESPN, led by quarterback Bubba Starling.
It was not long after Simoneau took off the shoulder pads before he put on a coaching whistle. He spent 2016 at St. Thomas Aquinas and 2017 at Blue Valley Southwest prior to coming to Gardner-Edgerton last season.
“It’s the closest thing that I’m going to have to being in a small town while living in [this area],” he says of the Gardner-Edgerton district.
While Cornelsen and Simoneau are in their second season with the district, they are not short on players who are more familiar with Trailblazer football.
One such player is senior quarterback Teven McKelvey, who moved to Gardner from Houston prior to his fifth-grade year.
“I remember watching Traevohn Wrench…It was the craziest thing ever,” McKelvey said, referring to the Trailblazer running back, who graduated in 2014.
McKelvey and some of his teammates have been playing football together for nearly a decade.
“When I was younger it was all about growing up with the same dudes that I was playing with and none of us splitting apart,” he said.
McKelvey played in the Trailblazer youth program as a kid. The program has doubled in size since last season, a trend Cornelsen hopes to see continue.
The senior quarterback, who has committed to play football at the University of South Dakota, says he knows what it’s like to be a young Trailblazer, so he makes sure he shows appreciation for them now.
“I like to talk to [the kids]. A lot of them come to the games and stuff so I like to talk to them and give them a lot of attention,” he said. “When I see the kids, I like making them smile because making their day makes my day.”
The Trailblazers (8-1) entered the Class 6A playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the East and will face Blue Valley North on Friday night - the team G-E was bumped from the playoffs a year ago.
There will be no doubt whose stadium they’re in. The Trailblazer logo can be found painted in the middle of the field and throughout the complex. Future Blazers will join an entire community in cheering on a team that is exclusively theirs.
McKelvey hopes this will be the beginning of a long playoff run.
“What we’re trying to do is win a state championship. If that happens, that’s just the dream that I have. It’s the fairy tale to me.”