The sky was rapidly darkening as Rock Bridge coaches took turns speaking to the team after practice on Wednesday, a sign that the season was progressing further into fall.
The increase in urgency was obvious as players ran through drills. The Bruins, preparing to host Helias Friday night, know that the game carries major significance not just in the standings, but for the team’s postseason scenarios.
“This is a playoff game,” Vanatta said. “It’s going to set us up either in a good position or it could really move us into a tough position.”
The coaches and players have discussed various scenarios based on how the Bruins finish and how other teams in the state finish, but Vanatta insisted that those aren’t the main concern heading into Friday.
“We can’t worry about where all the brackets line up,” Vanatta said. “A lot is going to happen in the next two weeks. Hopefully we can just take care of our business.”
The approach of the postseason might be just what Helias needs to light a fire under them. Since the calendar turned to September, the Crusaders have fallen on hard times, losing four of their last five.
In three of those games, Helias surrendered more than 40 points, the worst of which came in a 61-35 week five drubbing at the hands of undefeated Cardinal Ritter.
“I’ll say records mean nothing,” Vanatta said. “They’re gonna come out fired up, and it’s up to us to make sure that we force them to make mistakes.”
The Crusaders‘ defensive unit is certainly prone to defensive mistakes, allowing over 36 points per game as a unit. Last week against Monroe City, Helias tied the game at 28 late in the fourth quarter and kicked off with 1:45 left.
It proved just enough time for Monroe City to drive 80 yards. Running back Zach Osborn plowed into the end zone from four yards out as time expired, giving the class 2 Panthers an upset win over their class 4 foe.
The Bruins have won their last eight games against area teams, and Helias is the only team standing between Rock Bridge and a perfect record against teams from Mid-Missouri. A win would successfully complete the Bruins‘ “Run 573” campaign that has served as a major source of motivation during the season.
With motivation also comes potentially unwanted attention. Vanatta described to his players how Helias has used the Bruins boasting as “locker room talk,” and Rock Bridge can expect the Crusaders to throw everything at them.
Senior guard Mason Boussad said there’s a certain level of excitement in playing games against area opponents, but he emphasized that the Bruins can’t let anything on the field get into their heads.
“I think we need to focus on what we do and just play our game, and everything will turn out fine,” he said.
The Bruins are undoubtedly more talented than Helias, but players and coaches are adamant that that means nothing if they let the underdog Crusaders hang around. Rock Bridge had no problem burying the underdog last week against Smith-Cotton, racing out to a 28 point halftime lead en route to a 49-0 win.
The Crusaders have a potent two-back rushing attack led by Zach Covington and Blake Veltrop that could force Rock Bridge to adjust. It will take a career night from those two to overcome the monster that has been Rock Bridge’s offense in the last three weeks. If Helias doesn’t find a way to slow Nate Peat and the Bruins rushing attack, it could be a long night for the 11 players behind the ball.
Despite all of the offensive production, the defensive effort was the most impressive aspect of the Smith-Cotton win last week. Rock Bridge held the Tigers to under 100 yards for the entire game. The defense has only surrendered 21 points over the past three weeks combined, recording two shutouts, or “goose eggs” as defensive players and coaches love to call them.
“Our defense takes prides in getting after it and coming out hot,” senior defensive back Javell Sanders said. “Starting out fast and finishing faster is our big key for this week.”
Supervising editor is Seth Bodine.