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SPOTLIGHT
Game of the Week: Cardinals, Leopards -- Round 3

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Game of the Week: Cardinals, Leopards -- Round 3

Published on -9/20/2012, 10:10 AM

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By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

Thinking back to last year's Class 2-1A sub-state championship game, La Crosse High School football coach Jon Webster said two things really stood out -- costly mistakes and penalties.

Two in particular by the Plainville Cardinals helped La Crosse capture a 13-6 victory and earn the school's first trip to a state championship game where the Leopards eventually fell to Centralia.

Plainville was driving deep into La Crosse territory and had two costly penalties that backed its offense up, essentially killing any momentum the Cardinals had gained.

Friday night, when two of Class 2-1A's best hook up in a regular-season battle, it could come down to something similar. Game time is 7 p.m. for Plainville's homecoming contest.

"It's going to come down to whichever team makes the least amount of mistakes, both turnovers and penalties," Webster said. "And then whichever team can handle the situation. The ball is going to bounce against us at some point and the ball's going to bounce against Plainville at some point, and who can handle that will say a lot about the outcome of this game."

That was the theme last year for the Leopards in two meetings with the upstart Cardinals. La Crosse captured a 14-8 win in district play, and the 13-6 win in the sub-state game.

"This is a game to get us ready for our district and it's a tough one," said Plainville coach Joe Simon. "Hopefully, this will show us where we're at before another tough game next week.

"We wanted this one to be prepared for our district," he added, "and, we got it -- here it is."

Simon hasn't had to do a great deal of work to get his Cardinals amped up for this one. Suffering just the two losses to La Crosse in 2011, the Cardinals opened 2012 with a 48-18 setback to an improved Phillipsburg squad on the road. Since, the Cardinals have won two straight, including a thrilling 22-14 win against Norton last week.

"We talk about continuing to improve and continuing our momentum from the last two weeks, so it would big for us to go into districts with this win Friday."

La Crosse, ranked No. 1 in Class 2-1A in the statewide media poll, has had a little different start to the season, moving to a 3-0 last week with a 39-7 win against Minneapolis. The hot start includes a 16-6 win to open the season in Ellis, and a 34-12 victory against Class 3A playoff-hopeful Hoisington.

"We're excited about this game -- another opportunity for us to get out on the field and play a really good football team," Webster said. "Our kids want to go out there and show how hard we've worked over the past year, and it's always good to be challenged, especially early in the season.

"This one will give us an opportunity to see where we are at."

It's no secret, especially to one another, what each team will try to do. Plainville has built its success on a strong run game with senior fullback Harrison Gilliland (368 yards, 3 TDs), senior Trevor Axelson (275 yards, 6 TDs) ,and senior Dalton Werner (134 yards, 2 TDS). La Crosse counters with highly-touted senior fullback Kip Keeley (165 rushing, 154 receiving, 4 total TDS) and senior tailback Levi Morss (420 rushing, 3 TDs).

Those are just the big weapons both teams possess, offensively, and each squad features a first-year quarterback -- Plainville with junior Hadley Gillum and La Crosse with sophomore Jack Garcia, the third Garcia to start under center for the Leopards in the last eight years.

"I've been impressed with (Garcia) and how well he has progressed this year," Simon said. "He kind of struggled against Ellis and the last two weeks, he's really come on and made some big throws for them."

Gillum has seen similar success for the Cardinals since throwing two costly interceptions in Plainville's season-opening loss. In last week's win against Norton, Gillum engineered a game-winning drive and completed two long pass plays to set up eventual touchdowns in the game. He finished 4 of 6.

Garcia has thrown five TDs -- two last week to Keeley in the win. While the matchup will have no bearing on either team's chances at making a run into the postseason, it can serve as a springboard as the two get ready for district play beginning next week. The two have developed a friendly rivalry through the past few seasons, helped along by the friendship of their two head coaches.

"It's good for us to have to get emotionally prepared for a big game heading into districts," Webster said. "It'll be very telling not only where we're at physically, but also mentally."

If it's anything like last season's nail-biters, the mental aspect could become a factor -- with a La Crosse team that has made a habit of picking off passes with five already this season and 34 last year, and a Plainville team that is looking to avenge last year's season-ender.

"Neither team should need much encouragement to get fired up for this one," Simon said.

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