Monarchs set to host La Crosse
By AUSTIN COLBERT
A year ago this week, Thomas More Prep-Marian junior quarterback Max Megaffin broke his collarbone in practice, just days before their game against La Crosse.
Had he remained healthy, Megaffin would have been the one to step into the fire after starting quarterback Shane Zimmerman went down with an injury in the second quarter. Instead, freshman Jared Vitztum was forced onto the field against a Leopard team that eventually made it to sub-state in Class 2-1A.
La Crosse won 50-0.
"You have to look to a freshman in Jared Vitztum, who in all rights shouldn't have to go in in that situation. It's a tough one for him. But he came in and did the best that he could for us," TMP football coach John Montgomery said. "However, at the time, La Crosse was really getting after us. They were playing a great football game and challenging us in ways we hadn't been challenged at that point in the season."
The Monarchs are hoping for a much different scenario on Friday when La Crosse (4-0) travels north to face TMP (1-3) at Lewis Field Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m.
TMP has faced quality opponents this season, notably perennial Class 4A playoff team Clay Center, currently 3-1, and Larned, who has surprised with a 4-0 start.
But none of those teams came with the same reputation that La Crosse has.
"Everyone knows that when La Crosse comes to town you better be ready," Megaffin said. "I think everyone is mostly intimidated when they come onto the field because they have the leopard on the side of the helmet and everyone knows that they are top tier every year.
"We just need to come out and not be afraid and bring the fire to them and see what happens."
TMP believes that its 1-3 record is misleading. Truth is the Monarchs are only a handful of plays from being 3-1 and have shown improvement each week.
The Monarchs played what Montgomery said was their most complete game of the season last week in a 29-25 loss at Ellsworth, a game TMP led 19-7 heading into the fourth quarter.
"TMP is a team that if you look at them record wise you think they are struggling," La Crosse coach Jon Webster said. "But I think they are doing a better job of understanding their offense and their defensive schemes. They are a stronger team than they were last year and I think coach Montgomery has them going in the right direction."
While TMP is showing continuous improvement, it is still struggling to win games. But this doesn't mean the team is lacking confidence, something it knows it will need if it plans to stay competitive against La Crosse, the No. 2 ranked team in 2-1A.
"Our confidence is having all 11 best out there," TMP junior running back Nick Schmidt said. "Coming out knowing that if we do our jobs, we are going to have a great chance at being successful. We can respond to adversity and we've been getting better at that."
And don't think TMP is here just to compete. Montgomery made it clear that winning is still the ultimate goal, regardless of the competition. The Monarchs know how good La Crosse is, and are looking forward to seeing how far they have come in the last year.
"I relish the opportunity to play quality programs, and La Crosse is certainly a quality program," Montgomery said. "People can sit and look on paper and say this team should win or that team should lose, but there is a reason they play the game. We feel that every time we take the field that if we've prepared in the right way we've got an opportunity to be successful."
Leopards moving on without Schmidt
The only good thing about junior Sheldon Schmidt's injury last week against Plainville was it happened early in the game, allowing the La Crosse defense time to figure out how to play without its star defensive end.
"Our guys on the defensive line did a really good job last week," Webster said. "He's such a special player that you can't replace him. You can't have someone try to be Sheldon Schmidt. You have to have guys step in there and be themselves and play the way they are capable."
Schmidt's season ended against Plainville -- a 40-8 win for the 4-0 Leopards -- after he tore his anterior cruciate ligament. This leaves a significant void on the defensive line for La Crosse, and has left Webster looking for guys to fill Schmidt's spot, one that produced 15 solo tackles and four sacks in three games.
Senior captain Shane Miller (7 solo tackles) and junior Cole Kershner (1 solo tackle) will be the primary players with that responsibility.
"More is going to be asked of (Kershner) and he's going to become an every-down player on both sides of the ball," Webster said. "Then we got a couple of freshmen that will get sprinkled in and get some looks. We are going to need a lot of guys to step up."
Despite being sidelined for the year with an injury, Schmidt isn't likely to be forgotten, and he is still expected to make a big impact on this team. With his leadership and his experience, Webster knows Schmidt will be there for the younger kids trying to fill in during his absence.
"He's emotional. He's going to be really, really involved in the plays," Webster said. "I think he is going to be able to show the young guys, our freshmen and sophomores, really what it means to be deeply involved in a game. We've talked about that a lot with our kids where they are involved mentally because you never know when it's going to be their turn. I think Sheldon can help teach those things."