Of the 356 high school football teams in the state of Missouri, 33 are currently undefeated. Three games on Friday pit one unbeaten team against another. Lamar will face Carl Junction, Jasper will play Lockwood, and in Kansas City, Smith-Cotton will visit Center.
The Tigers and Yellowjackets also have a conference title on the line. Both come in 5-0 in the West Central Conference and the winner will claim the WCC title outright.
“We’re very proud of the kids and what they’ve been able to accomplish up to this point,” said Smith-Cotton coach Ryan Boyer. “We talked about this week is these are the games you want. These are neat. Especially for a conference championship because there you have that outright winner when it’s all said and done.”
Smith-Cotton lineman LJ Marsh said the attitude for the Tigers at practice this week has been “hustle, stay physical and stay focused.”
Center coach Bryan DeLong expects the Yellowjackets to be tested as they play for what would be the third WCC title in four years.
“It means a lot,” DeLong said. “It’s a chance to go undefeated. We’re definitely playing a high-quality opponent. Whoever made the league schedule did it the right way with us playing the last game of the year. It would mean a lot to justify our season against a team like Smith-Cotton that is very well-coached, plays hard, has some good players. They’re a big school. That’s kind of the big dog in our league.”
Smith-Cotton beat St. Pius X 38-13 in Week 8 but had to overcome nearly a dozen penalties including a face mask call on a potential drive-ending sack and a roughing-the-kicker penalty on a Warriors punt.
S-C has worked in practice to fix those issues this week.
“We’ve done some what we call ‘reminder running’ with that,” Boyer said. “The big thing that we stressed is that penalties and turnovers are things that you 100 percent can control. When we talk penalties, what that comes down to in our opinion is lack of focus. We told our guys we can’t have over 100 yards of penalties and expect to play at a high level.”
Last Year: Smith-Cotton 12, Center 7
Smith-Cotton played spoiler for the Yellowjackets in 2014. Entering the Week 9 meeting at the old Jennie Jaynes Stadium, Center could have clinched its third straight WCC title with a win. Instead, the Tigers shut Center down in a 12-7 win, handing the conference title to O’Hara.
“We got beat,” DeLong said. “We got out-played, we got out-physicalled, we got out-coached. … Sedalia drove the ball up and down the field on us last year, maintaining the ball, and that was part of the way we couldn’t score points was some of their drives just ate so much clock.”
When S-C has the ball
Center’s defense has been tough to score against this season. Other than Warrensburg’s 28 points in Week 7, teams are averaging less than six points per game against the Yellowjackets who have a pair of shutouts, a 38-0 win over Pembroke Hill and a 35-0 win over St. Pius X.
”Those guys do a great job of plugging gaps and bringing it up for their linebackers and their skill guys,” Boyer said. “They just play physical and they play downhill and they have good speed on the back end of it. They usually keep everything in front of them.”
Center often shows a three-man front, though will occasionally play a four-man front. The philosophy for the Yellowjackets defense has been for every man to do his job.
“I’ve seen a lot of mistakes happen when someone is trying to do something else,” DeLong said. “You’re supposed to have pitch on the option and you try to get in on the quarterback or you’re supposed to be a deep pass player and you’re down sniffing around the line of scrimmage. When you try to do someone else’s job, good teams will take advantage of that, and we’re facing a good team on Friday.
Smith-Cotton’s offense counters with the three-pronged rushing threat of Noah Aziere, Carlton Homan and Caleb Reed behind a strong offensive line.
“This is definitely the biggest and most physical team we’ve faced all year,” DeLong said. “The line is huge and they rotate kids in there and keep them fresh.”
Plus, that S-C offensive line is confident.
“They know now that we are one of the best O-lines in the league,” Marsh said. “We can stay out there with any D-line if we want to.”
When Center has the ball
Center features a rushing attack of Norvell Trent and Rachaad White. White was sidelined part of the season with an injury, allowing Trent time to develop. Now with White back in the lineup, DeLong said “it feels like we have two starting running backs.”
The Yellowjackets scored 55 points against Lincoln College Prep, 50 against Warrensburg, 49 against University Academy and 40 against Clinton. Nevada limited Center the most this season, a game Center won 31-7.
That offense will face a Smith-Cotton defense which allows 15.6 points per game. DeLong is expecting Ricky Warren and the S-C defensive line to cause problems for sophomore quarterback Amaun Ryan.
“Those kids coming off the edge will pressure him,” DeLong said.
Marsh said the key will be for Smith-Cotton to be aggressive up front.
”This year we came together,” said S-C defensive lineman John Carney. “I feel we’ve come together more than in all the seasons I’ve played here. We came together as a family.”
For both teams, wins would help seeding for district play.
Smith-Cotton is No. 1 in Class 5, District 6 standings, leading Carthage by 2.5 points. Taking one of the top two seeds means the Tigers would get a first-round bye for the postseason before a home game in the district semifinal.
Meanwhile Center is No. 2 in Class 4, District 6, trailing 8-0 Harrisonville by less than a point. There are no bye weeks in Center’s eight-team district, so the Yellowjackets are playing next week no matter what. Their opponent could be a WCC rival with Warrensburg, No. 6 in the district, and Nevada, No. 7.
Eric Ingles can be reached at 660-826-1000, ext. 1483 or on Twitter @Eric_Ingles