PLAINVILLE — Stick with what works.
That’s what Smith Center High School football is known for. It’s been that way for decades.
So when the Redmen found something that worked Friday night in a Mid-Continent League matchup against Plainville, head coach Darren Sasse wasn’t about to change things up.
The Redmen, the No. 3 ranked team in Class 1A, stuck to the plan and left with a 21-10 victory to push their record to 3-1.
“I wasn’t going to try and outsmart myself,” Sasse said.
He just kept calling Hesston Maxwell’s number.
The senior fullback delivered. With the Redmen trailing 10-7 near the end of the third quarter, Maxwell carried the ball 13 times on a 22-play drive that chewed up nearly 13 minutes of game time. The Redmen also converted on four fourth-down attempts and eventually took a 14-10 lead. Maxwell ran it in from 1-yard after junior quarterback Trenton Colby found sophomore Griffin Kugler near the goal line on a fourth-and-5 call.
“When I was running the ball really good, they were just like ‘we gotta keep pounding, keep pounding, keep pounding it,’ ” said Maxwell, who finished the night with just 52 rushing yards. “It was still working. That opened the outside runs for us.”
Though he only had 52 yards on 18 carries, his 13-carry drive, 2 to 3 yards at a time, proved costly for Plainville, a team Maxwell believes they could see again (in the Class 1A playoffs).
“We’re both going to play good,” said Maxwell, a self-proclaimed “bulldozer” back. “Both good teams. I think we’ll meet up later.”
Friday’s contest seemed just a play or two from turning out in the Cardinals’ favor.
Plainville, after forcing a fumble on a punt return, had taken a 10-7 lead on a 5-yard run by junior quarterback Jordan Finnesy. All the momentum had shifted after Smith Center seemed to be in control with the ground game. But after taking the lead, the Cardinals couldn’t get a fourth-down stop on several occasions on the long drive.
“I thought we dropped opportunities that were there tonight,” Plainville coach Grant Stephenson said. “That’s a good ball club, but I thought we had opportunities to capitalize on.”
Even after the long drive, Plainville marched it right back.
Finnesy, who had 118 passing yards, drove the Cardinals down the field and had a third-and-4 deep in Smith Center territory. After scrambling on two straight attempts, Finnesy couldn’t find a play, and the Redmen forced a turnover on downs.
“That’s tough — to cover for that amount of time,” Sasse said of guarding against Finnesy, who completed 16 of 29 passes, most in scrambling fashion. “The time he can move around to keep pressure on is tough.”
After the Cardinals failed on fourth down, it took Smith Center only one play to take the wind completely out of Plainville’s sail. After Maxwell had pounded the middle on the previous drive, senior Ethan Peterson found a spot on the corner and went 65 yards down the visiting sideline, essentially ending the game with 3:17 to play.
“The just kept their composure,” Stephenson said of Smith Center’s late-game play. “Every time they went on fourth down, they got it. Those are just opportunities we have to stop them. We prepared for that stuff, but everything just went their way. They’re a good ball club.”
A week after getting throttled by Phillipsburg, the defending 2-1A champion Redmen came out with the goal of playing more traditional Smith Center football, and it showed.
“We gotta go back to our roots and just get after it and see what kind of team we are,” Sasse said, then taking time to name every single lineman that helped engineer the long scoring drive. “Just great to have those guys step up like that.”
Of course, it helped to step away from the ground game a little bit too. Case in point was the fourth-and-5 call, putting the ball in Colby’s hands, when he found Kugler, who almost got into the end zone.
“We practice a lot of that stuff. We don’t show a lot of it,” Sasse said. “We got the kids to believe even though we don’t run it, we keep repping, so when we do need that stuff, we can make a play like that.”
The Redmen finished with 221 rushing yards compared to Plainville’s 38. However, Plainville lost a big chunk of its yardage when Finnesy was scrambling late in the game.
Plainville will travel to 0-4 Belleville-Republic County on Friday. Smith Center will be at home to face Oakley (3-1).