When the Smith Center Redmen welcome the Norton Bluejays to Hubbard Stadium on Friday for a Mid-Continent League matchup, it will be for a chance to work toward writing history of their own.
Smith Center (3-0) is trying for their first 4-0 start since 2009, when their 79-game winning streak and hopes of a sixth straight state title ended in a championship game loss in Hays. For the 3-0 Bluejays, these strong starts are becoming more of the norm as they try to build on a 10-1 season that ended all too early in the first round of the playoffs.
When it comes to the MCL, this matchup is as high-caliber as they come and Darren Sasse, third-year head coach of the Redmen, said his players are well aware of this game’s implications on their season.
“We talk about every game being important and every week being important but I think they know that it’s a 3A team and it’s an undefeated team after three games now,” Sasse said. “They’re one of the teams that beat us too so I think that’s a little motivation for them, too.”
Senior running back Cale Rogers has witnessed the Redmen’s preparation first hand and senses excitement from his teammates for Friday night’s matchup.
“This is an important game and there’s a lot of people who want to win this game,” Rogers said. “It’s gonna be a fun one so we’re getting ready for it, homecoming night and it’s gonna be an exciting game.”
After a 46-28 win to open the season against Plainville, the Redmen did not allow Oakley or TMP-Marian to get on the scoreboard. Smith Center has prepared to try to shut down one asset of the game in the first three weeks but know Norton is another type of animal when it comes to offense.
“I think we’ve seen teams that can do one of those (run or pass) well. Plainville and Oakley could run really well and TMP has been throwing a little bit better,” Sasse said. “But this well be our first test where we’re seeing a team that can do both at a high level.”
That was not the case for the Bluejays in Week 3, as Oakley held steady with them all the way to a scoreless halftime. Until sophomore Tevin Petrie took the opening kickoff of the second half to the house for an 87-yard score, the Bluejays allowed the Plainsmen, who fell to Smith Center by a score of 35-0, to hang around. Just one week prior, Norton went on the road and ground out a grueling 7-6 victory at Phillipsburg.
“On Friday, I think we didn’t play as good as we are,” said Jace Ruder, Norton’s sophomore quarterback. “The first half was real sloppy for everybody, we weren’t fired up. It just wasn’t quite there. … In the second half, we came out fired up. Tevin Petrie took back that kick return which was huge to get us some momentum. From there on, I think we really stepped up our game, we wanted it more than the first half and we started executing.”
Ruder has thrown for 467 yards and six touchdowns to just one interception, while senior running back Jordan Dole has paved the way on the ground for the Bluejays, along with Ruder. Senior running back Gavin Lively had been the Bluejays’ leading yard gainer before going down with a dislocated kneecap and torn MPFL in Week 2 at Phillipsburg, possibly sidelining him for the remainder of the season.
But with a loss comes a gain in motivation with the likelihood of one of their leaders returning for a playoff run.
“We’re using that as motivation to put in the back of our minds, ‘Let’s do it for Gavin,’ ” Ruder said. “If we play well and we make it deeper into the postseason, or just the postseason period, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll be back to play with us … so he can play a little more his senior year, show colleges what he’s got and to help our team out.”
The size of Norton, a 3A school, is a bit overwhelming for the 2-1A Redmen, Sasse said, as guys such as James Berry, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior, and Jacob Green, a 6-1, 225-pound junior, control the line of scrimmage for the Bluejays. Ruder said using the size to their advantage is a big part of the game plan for Friday.
“I know Smith Center, they don’t have a whole lot of size, but they run to the ball and they play real hard,” Ruder said. “We’re gonna use our size as an advantage, for sure, on everything. … We’re just hoping to use our strength and size and heart, too.
“This week at practice we’ve been going hard. We’ve been there, we’re really focused, we’re just ready to play Friday night.”
To counteract, the likes of Kaden Meitler, Chase Ryan, Thayne Benoit, and Rogers have lead the ever-elusive wishbone for the Redmen offense. However, Sasse said it’s his defense that has impressed him the most thus far and it will give Smith Center a chance to make the size a non-factor.
“We try to stick in our base defense and play people. We might have to give them a couple different looks this week if we can stand up to their size,” Sasse said. “I’ve been really happy with the defense. We’ve been scoring points, too, but a lot of them have come in the second half, so it’s made the first half go a little easier because we’re not letting them score.”
With Friday night ringing in homecoming at Hubbard Stadium and both MCL teams with big eyes on playoff runs in 2015, the excitement is higher than ever for another undefeated matchup of two of the state’s best teams.
“I think Smith Center is our biggest rival,” Ruder said. “It’s always to go out there and play against them just because the rivalry that’s been created throughout the years and the crowd’s always really good, really excited.
“I think Friday night’s just gonna be a huge game.”