Game of the Week -- Ellis looks for strong finish
By CONOR NICHOLL
ELLIS -- Veteran Ellis High School football coach Butch Hayes sat in his math classroom shortly after the Railroaders finished with a film session Monday afternoon. Hayes wore a frustrated and exasperated expression as he discussed the 2013 season. Ellis stands at 2-4, 1-0 in Class 2-1A, District 7, a similar position to the last three falls.
In 2010, Ellis opened 3-3, but finished 5-5 with a district title. Two years ago, the Railers started 2-4, but went 5-5 with a district crown.
Last fall, Ellis was 3-3 and finished 4-5 with an overtime Week 9 road loss to Oakley that kept them from its 10th straight playoff berth and seventh consecutive district title.
This season, though, Ellis has played three quarterbacks, lost speedy junior Jared Pfeifer to a foot injury, used multiple freshmen in key roles and has had trouble playing consistently.
"We know the potential is there, we just haven't played to that potential yet and we are running out of time and we have got to turn this thing around," Hayes said.
The next three weeks will very likely mark whether Ellis posts a strong season or has the worst record in Hayes' ten years on staff, the last seven as head coach. Ellis hasn't won fewer than four games since a 3-7 mark in 2003. Win all three and the Railers have another district title. Win two and it's back to the playoffs.
"We have put some good quarters together, some good plays together, we just haven't been consistent enough throughout the whole game to continue to put points on the board," Hayes said. "On defense, we haven't made plays as much as we have had in the past."
The stretch starts at 7 p.m. Friday at home against St. Francis (2-3, 0-2) followed by tough games against Oberlin (3-3, 1-0) and Oakley 5-1, 2-0 and ranked No. 4 in Class 2-1A.
"They seem to be fairly disciplined in what they do," St. Francis coach Kyle Buffington said. "I know just some of the film that I have seen, they maybe don't tackle in the open field quite as well or make the cut quite as soon as they can."
"They just look like a team that hasn't really put four quarters of their style of football together and they are still searching for that," he added. "As long as those kids are working hard, that can come at any time."
Last season, Ellis had a senior-laden team. Through the first six games of 2012, the Railers rushed for 194 yards a game, averaged 242 total yards, had 22 punts and finished minus-1 in turnover margin.
This year, it isn't much different against the same schedule. The Railers have averaged 178 rushing yards a game, 220 total yards a contest, had 27 punts and minus-3 in turnover margin.
The big difference, though, comes in making key plays. Last year, Ellis outscored its opponents 138-129 after the first six weeks. This season, opponents have the edge 212-77.
"Each week we take steps, we are just not taking big enough steps," Hayes said. "We are taking a play or two type of step. We need to take a game-type of step to where we put a full game together."
In five of the last six games, Ellis has either led or been tied at the end of the first quarter. For the season, the Railers hold a 34-30 edge in the first quarter. Versus Plainville in Week 2, Ellis led 8-0, but lost 45-8. Against Larned in Week 4, Ellis led 7-6, but lost 39-7.
"Our confidence, it just seems to fall," said senior running back Landon Younger, the team's leading rusher with 569 yards. "I don't know if that is coming into the game, some of our guys don't have confidence or they don't think they can win or whatever.
"Then, if they mess up, that's when it really hurts us, because they just kind of hang their heads and after that, other people start hanging their heads, and then (opponents) just start making plays on us left and right," he added.
Ellis' four most experienced players are Younger and senior linemen Skyler Tebo, Brody Douglas and Nick Gehring. Tebo has a team-high 46 tackles; it's rare for a defensive linemen to lead a team in stops. Gehring has 31 tackles and two sacks.
At times, Hayes has seen his seniors "do more than they need to." Hayes has watched linemen chip a defensive end, which allows the linebacker to make the play. Instead, the linemen should have gone straight to the linebacker.
Last week, Hayes said the team did well at doing their jobs. Ellis had some long drives, but then had another problem -- no points. Ellis had the ball inside Leoti-Wichita County's 10-yard line four times, but didn't score.
"We can't have mistakes," Hayes said. "We need to get positive yards every single time. We are not real good when we are second and long and we put ourselves into that position."
The Railers came away with a 13-6 victory against an Indian program that has lost 26 straight games to teams that are not Syracuse. Ellis had defeated Leoti 48-0, 44-0 and 34-14 the last three years.
"We are a game behind where we usually are," Younger said. "The Leoti game is where we really clicked as a team. I think that we have a chance to do the exact same thing that we have in the past."