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2-1A playoffs -- Familiar foes meet up in first round

By NICK McQUEEN

nmcqueen@dailynews.net

On paper, Friday's Class 2-1A playoff opener between the La Crosse and Plainville High School football teams might seem like an easy pick.

But even though La Crosse, unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in 2-1A in the statewide media poll, is considered the favorite, Plainville coach Joe Simon knows his team is playing better football.

And, although the Cardinals have suffered through some nicks, bruises and bumps, the Cardinals will put it all out there in the sixth meeting in the last four years between the two programs.

Game time is 7 p.m. in La Crosse.

"We're playing a lot of younger kids, and they're growing as players -- getting better each week,"  said Simon, who has the Cardinals in the playoffs for the third time in five seasons after his club started 1-3 this year.

The two teams met in Week 4 of the regular season and La Crosse owned the matchup defensively and wound up with a 40-8 victory.

"We're both so familiar with each other we could probably line up without any practice to play this game," La Crosse fifth-year head coach Jon Webster said. "We know what each other wants to do."

But Webster said this Cardinal team is much different from the team that started 1-3. But winning four of its last five didn't come without its hardships in Plainville. The Cardinals are without five players due to season-ending injuries or illness, and have four game-time decisions for Friday night.

"I've never dealt with this many injuries,"  Simon said.

Those out are senior lineman John Arnold (knee), senior running back/linebacker Cody Werner (concussion), junior receiver/safety Travis Leikem (concussion), junior tight end Nick Wilkerson (mono) and senior lineman Neil Harris (knee). As well, senior lineman Austin Warhman, senior fullback Adam Gehring, sophomore lineman Gabe Wilkens and freshman running back Hayden Friend are game-time decisisons. On the plus side, the Cardinals will have senior fullback Dylan Weisner back after he missed several weeks to illness.

"Plainville is playing a lot better football than they were the last time we played them," Webster said. "The kids are probably understanding the system a little better."

In the first meeting, Simon said the Cardinals were missing two guards who suffered injuries that week in practice. This time around, the players have practiced the positions they will actually be playing. Last time, the Cardinals had just 7 rushing yards, but have the ability to move the ball better this time around, especially if Friend is a go. He averaged right around 76 yards per game and has put up 150 rushing yards or more three times.

"Partly beacuse we've gotten him some holes and some space, getting him out there where he can use his speed and his elusiveness," Simon said. "He is banged up a little bit (but practiced Wednesday), and we're hoping he'll be able to go Friday."

Senior quarterback Hadley Gillum has completed 30 of 61 passes for 420 yards and rushed 82 times for 262 yards. He leads the team with 12 total TDs.

On the other end, La Crosse is about as healthy as it is going to be, aside from losing junior defensive end Sheldon Schmidt to a season-ending knee injury in the last game these two teams met.

The Leopard offense stands fourth in scoring (405 points) in Class 2-1A, fueled by the play of junior quarterback Jack Garcia. Garcia has completed 64 of 115 passes for 1,535 yards and 23 touchdowns to seven different receivers. Among his favorites, senior Taylor Yohe, junior Andrew Jay and senior Marshall Jay have all recorded at least three TD catches. And, the Leopards' run game has racked up 1,881 yards and 32 TDs, led by senior Lucas Moeder's 723 rushing yards and 11 scores.

"Hopefully we can stop the run game a little better," Simon said. "Plus we've just to got to move the ball much better than we did last time -- sustain some blocks and get the run game going."

La Crosse is making its 10th straight playoff appearance and the Leopards have not lost in the first round since 2009 when they finished 7-3.

But the Leopards aren't looking past a Plainville team they beat just six weeks ago. In a couple games this season, La Crosse has trailed in games that on paper it shouldn't have been.

"We really felt we weren't getting the credit we probably deserved (early on) and that maybe motivated us a little bit, but then we kind of fell into the hype of 'you guys are really good,' and got a little overconfident," Webster said. "Our kids finally figured out it has to be more than just turning on a switch at 7 o'clock on Friday night. It takes a week in order to prepare for the teams we'll see."