SMITH CENTER — A rematch of the Class 2-1A sub-state championship game lived up to its billing Friday night — at least on the scoreboard.
To the coaching staffs, though, for the Smith Center and Plainville High School football teams, the 16-7 win by the host Redmen to open the 2017 season was more about finding out how each can improve.
Especially if the Mid-Continent League foes are fortunate enough this season to meet up again in November in the Class 2-1A playoffs. After the teams combined for 17 penalties and seven turnovers, the teams agreed there is much work to be done.
“Find out what you’re good at, what you’re bad at, and what you need to get better at,” Smith Center coach Darren Sasse said following his team’s win.
Smith Center was good enough. Despite fumbling four times — losing three — in the first half, the Redmen were able to capitalize on some Plainville second-half miscues and hold off the Cardinals, who were solid defensively, but struggled to move the ball late with penalty after penalty.
“Not taking anything away from (Smith Center), but we made a lot of mistakes ourselves,” Plainville head coach Grant Stephenson said. “I still have a lot of confidence in our kids, but we have a lot to clean up before the next game.”
Wanting to strike first after suffering two losses to the Cardinals a year ago, including the sub-state championship game, Smith Center did put up the season’s first score. But it took nearly until the end of the first quarter in a tight defensive battle. Redmen senior Jesse Staples scored from 5 yards at the 2:57 mark of the first quarter. The opening score came well after Smith Center had fumbled on its second play from scrimmage to start the game after forcing Plainville to punt on the game’s first possession.
“That gave us fire,” Staples said of the end to last year’s campaign, a 14-0 loss to the Cardinals that sent Plainville to the 2-1A state title game. “Stuck in the back of our mind. We needed to come out and beat them right at the beginning.”
The lead lasted until the 7:52 mark of the second.
Smith Center senior Colton Hutchinson fumbled a big punt return and Plainville capitalized, but had to go for it on fourth down when Cardinal sophomore quarterback Jordan Finnesy found senior Noah Hansen on a seam to set up a goal-to-go situation. On third-and-goal, the Cardinals turned to senior Chase Cellmer, who scored from 4 to tie it.
Finnesy, who took over after the graduation of dual-threat Hayden Friend, was solid — despite a few errors, his coach said. He’ll only get better.
“Jordan’s a great athlete,” Stephenson said. “But there are some times when you can tell he’s just a sophomore. He’s not completely seasoned yet. He’ll just get better with reps and game situations.”
From there, each defense settled in to a tussle. For Plainville, it was bend but don’t break, while for Smith Center didn’t bend at all until late.
The Cardinals stopped the Redmen on fourth-and-3 inside the 10-yard line, then an interception by junior Tanner Copeland thwarted another potential scoring effort late in the first half. The Redmen also had a 41-yard touchdown run by Staples called back by penalty.
“All we got to do is if we have an error, we bounce back,” Staples said. “We come together even though we made a mistake.”
Staples had the play that gave the Redmen all the momentum. After a struggle through nearly all the third quarter that saw a turnover each for the teams, Staples broke loose for 49 yards to the house.
Then the mistakes started piling up on Plainville, which ended with 10 penalties for 90 yards, a bulk of them holding calls late.
“There was a series there where it just seemed like we were moving back, moving back,” Stephenson said. “Couldn’t catch a break.”
Cellmer fumbled at the Cardinals’ 17, then Smith Center failed on fourth down. But Plainville backed up to its own end zone and Smith Center senior Dalton Kuhn recorded a sack on Finnesy that essentially sealed the game.
The Cardinals did drive the ball late, but an incomplete pass by Finnesy on fourth-and-5 at the 10 ended it.
Sasse said it wasn’t necessarily anything his team did differently in the second half, but more the situation which kept Plainville from moving the ball.
“They were in such bad field position so often,” Sasse said, pointing out mistakes on both sides. “Once they got some field position on us, they started moving the ball and almost stuck it in.”
Finnesy, in his first start, completed 6 of 9 passes for 71 yards with one interception. He also collected 26 carries for 67 yards. Moving from the line to fullback for a few plays, senior Hayden Gillum had three touches for 19 yards, including one on the final drive that set Plainville up at the 10.
For the Redmen, Staples was hot, collecting 21 carries for 120 yards. Hutchinson completed two passes for 48 yards and rushed six times for 69 yards.
Kuhn, the Redmen highly touted lineman, finished with 8.5 tackles, a sack and three tackles for loss. Smith Center on Friday will play host to MCL foe Phillipsburg, while Plainville travels to Norton.