New Madrid County Central (1-6) and Perryville (2-5) meet in their Class 3, District 1 opener on Friday night at New Madrid.
The contest takes on special significance considering the winner has an excellent opportunity to win at least two of its three district games. Other district opponents are favored Dexter (4-3) and hapless Kennett (1-6).
Should Dexter slip, and, granted, that's a big "if," the NMCC/Perryville winner could put itself in position to be a postseason surprise.
First things first, however. Winning on Friday night is foremost on both teams' minds.
It's likely to be an uphill battle for NMCC. The Eagles, inexperienced and riddled with injuries throughout much of the season, have been outscored 280-85, indicating there are issues on both sides of the ball.
Injury and ineffectiveness at some positions have forced NMCC coach Arlen Pixley to go with several green underclassmen on both the offensive and defensive units.
"The score was not really what we were looking for, as a coaching staff," said Pixley, after a 45-7 loss to Ste. Genevieve on Friday. "We played with great effort for four quarters and we played almost every one of our freshmen. We have four freshmen playing on defense, and we also rotated three freshmen on offense. Those guys have been playing hard."
But NMCC is getting healthier and possesses skill players capable of doing some damage.
Quarterback Jordan Kimball, in his first year as a starter, has thrown for more than 400 yards and three touchdowns, including a 39 yarder to his favorite target, Eugene Cooper, for NMCC's only score last week. Kimball has also rushed for two touchdowns.
Cooper, a big-play receiver with one of the area's leading per-catch averages at 24.0, tops the Eagle receiving corps with 350 yards and three touchdowns. All-state sprinter Jeffery McFarland, also hampered by injury, is a threat to go all the way whenever he touches the ball.
Another recent returnee from the injured list is tailback Terrance Smith, who, along with backfield mate Printice Willis, were counted on to carry the bulk of the rushing load. Willis, who missed two and a half games with injuries, has four rushing touchdowns. Smith returned last week after a four-week absence.
Fullback Antonio McIntosh has been the Eagles' most reliable and healthy ballcarrier to date with a team-leading 320 yards.
Versatile Sherman Newsome, who's seen time at quarterback and receiver, is also a playmaker with game-breaking skills.
The inexperience on defense, which has translated into shaky tackling and missed assignments, has cost the Eagles big-time. For NMCC to have a shot at winning, they must come together as a team, limit mistakes and play with emotion.
On the other sideline, the Perryville Pirates are only 2-5, but have been in most of their ballgames. They've lost one game by a single point, another by two and haven't been blown out in any. Their points for and points against numbers are close at 124-146.
Featuring a fairly balanced offensive attack, the Pirates' bread-and-butter, however, is the ground game led by senior tailback Matt Unterreiner. Unterreiner tops Perryville's rushing and scoring statistics with 881 yards (6.1 average) and seven touchdowns. He ran for 211 with three scores against Fredericktown on Friday.
Senior signal caller Cory Buerck has accounted for eight Pirate scores -- five rushing and three passing. Receivers Kirk Luckey (18 catches-229 yards) and Philip Buerck (11-177) are the leading receivers.
As for common opponents, both Perryville and New Madrid have each faced Fredericktown and Ste. Genevieve. Perryville lost to Ste. Genevieve 28-14 and beat Fredericktown 22-7, while New Madrid's lone entry in the win column is a 28-23 comeback over Fredericktown on a last-second Hail Mary. As previously mentioned, Ste. Genevieve dominated the Eagles, 45-7.
Pride, along with a search for redemption for the less than stellar season records thus far, should be motivating factors for both squads.