Week 1 posted rather similar results for the Norton and Phillipsburg high school football teams. The Bluejays opened the season with five rushing touchdowns in a 54-14 rout of Ellis. The Panthers rushed for five touchdowns of their own in a 35-0 thrashing of Thomas More Prep-Marian.
With both teams’ hot starts and recent track record, it’s apparent the annual matchup, taking place at 7 p.m. Friday in Phillipsburg, has turned into a Mid Continent League rivalry. The Bluejays’ 10-0 start last season was halted in the first round of the Class 3A playoffs by Scott City, while the Panthers appeared in the 2-1A sub-state championship — a first in school history — where they lost to Ell-Saline by a single point.
The only other blemish on the Panthers’ record in 2014: a 34-7 loss to Norton. Panthers head coach JB Covington believed his team grew up following last season’s loss, but this is a “high-priority game” for Phillipsburg in 2015.
“They’re one of those teams that’s gonna find your weaknesses, they’re gonna exploit the weaknesses. I thought last year, that really benefited us later on in the year. They came out and showed us where some of the things we needed to work on were. It’s a big rivalry year in and year out. This is a tough, hard-nosed game by both teams, and both we really want to win.”
And the Panthers are going to have to try to win with new faces playing in their first big game. Phillipsburg introduced a two-QB system of sophomore Kirk Coomes and freshman Trey Sides in Week 1. Senior tailback Brock Means was solid as a backup last year to Stuart Lennemann, one of the fastest athletes in the state, and gained more of the workload to start the season, including pushing in the Panthers’ first touchdown of the season.
Along with a strong defensive front and exceptional team speed, Norton head coach Lucas Melvin sees many things to be impressed with on Phillipsburg’s highlight reel.
“A lot of things impress me about Phillipsburg,” Melvin said. “Their defense is aggressive, and they fly to the ball. Up front they’re large, very big kids. (Means) runs the ball extremely hard.
“They’ve got good team speed. They’re just a quality team all the way around,” Melvin said.
But one of those defensemen will be out for one of Phillipsburg’s biggest games of the season. Senior lineman Kian Stegmaier, who stands 6 feet, 260 pounds, is out for the second consecutive game and is expected to return in four to five weeks.
And going against the machine that is Norton requires all hands on deck. The Bluejays recorded 498 yards of offense against Ellis, 314 of which came from senior running back Gavin Lively. With an additional 50 yards on special teams, Lively collected 364 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns via the run game plus more in the passing game.
Lively credited the strong play in Week 1 to the confidence they carried throughout the summer having known the talent and potential present in the locker room.
“Every team kinda has some first-game jitters, but I didn’t really feel any with our team,” Lively said. “I mean, we were as prepared as we needed to be and went out and got it done. We did everything we needed to do. Everyone had a job and they all did their own job and that’s just how we get things done.”
The Bluejays also welcomed the return of highly touted sophomore quarterback Jace Ruder, who went down in Week 4 of the 2014 season with a season-ending collarbone injury. Ruder threw for 216 yards and three touchdowns while completing 7 of 13 attempts.
Ruder also rushed for two touchdowns on 50 yards while sharing the ball with five different receivers on the night and made the Bluejays’ offense more fluid.
“It makes everything a lot easier having him back,” Lively said. “He can throw the ball on the dot and can run really well, too. Then we can but Jordan in the backfield where he was probably where he belongs most, where he’s best at. I think Jace feels great about being able to get back on the field and out there with his teammates.”
With the offensive onslaught and powerful defense, Covington knows the team he is welcoming into Phillipsburg is one with talent. Covington even believes no team in 3A or 4A could match up with the skill players Norton can line up and that the state is overlooking the Bluejays.
After what Lively called one of the toughest and most intense weeks of practice at Norton Melvin can tell his team is ready to take the field Friday night for a rivalry game in Phillipsburg.
“This game had the same kind of feel last year, so I think (our players) kinda know the team as far as that goes,” Melvin said. “Of course we were a good team last year and they were a very good team last year, too.
“They’re excited and they know how big of a game it is. They’re ready to go.”