NEW MADRID - When the Cape Central Tigers and the New Madrid County Central Eagles began playing in 1998, many thought wins would be tough to come by for the small school Eagles.
However, the exact opposite happened.
Cape Central defeated NMCC that first year 35-20, but the Eagles have won the last three, one of which was convincing.
Now, with Cape Central ranked No. 5 in the state in Class 4, and NMCC, apparently reeling after last week's season-opening 37-0 loss to Jonesboro (Ark.), Tiger fans are thinking this is the year for payback.
"It's a big one for us because they've owned us the last three years, but most of our games have been pretty close," said Cape Central head coach Lawrence Brookins. "It's time to kind of reclaim a little bit of respectability against those guys."
It is no secret that the Eagles are in somewhat of a transition, if not, rebuilding phase this year. After reaching the Class 3A state championship game a year ago, the Eagles graduated nearly every contributor from the team.
The inexperience showed in Week 1 against Jonesboro, which handed out the Eagles' most lopsided defeat since falling 45-0 to Poplar Bluff in 1991.
The Tigers opened the season with a 33-25 win against St. Charles West, which kept the team ranked No. 1 in the Southeast Regional Poll.
"It's very easy to see why they're the top-rated team in Southeast Missouri," said NMCC head coach Steve Rogers. "They've got a fine offense, great skill people starting with the quarterback. Their line looks good, their defense is fast and they fly to the football, they've got an excellent place-kicker. They don't show us any weaknesses on film."
The Tigers' offense begins with 6-foot-2, 205-pound junior signal-caller Mitch Craft, who last week threw for 149 yards, completing 8-of-16 passes including a touchdown toss.
The speedy Craft also ran for 79 yards on 11 carries.
Throw in senior tailback Monroe Hicks, who had 182 all-purpose yards last week with two rushing touchdowns, and bruising fullback Jeremiah Dukes (7 carries, 54 yards, TD), and the Tigers look potent on offense.
But probably the team's biggest strength is a defense which has been one of Southeast Missouri's best the past two seasons.
Hicks is a returning first team all-state defensive back. The rest of the linebacker and secondary corps is loaded with speed.
It's the balance the Tigers have on both sides of the ball that has made the team the defending two-time Class 4, District 1 champions.
NMCC was looking to be a pass-happy team in 2002 with a traditional drop-back quarterback and several talented receivers.
But junior Chris Nance, who was groomed for the position a year ago, went down in the preseason with a separated shoulder, threatening his season.
Rogers went with sophomore Sherman Newsome last week. But this week he's going with the bigger, more experienced Remond Willis, who played offensive guard last year.
"We feel like (Willis) gives us the best chance of being in the ballgame and possibly winning," said Rogers. "He's a big, strong kid. He's 5-11, 210 and benches over 300 pounds. He was a second-team all-conference guard last year so he's a tough kid. We feel like if they pressure us like they have in the past that he can hold up in the pocket a little better than an inexperienced sophomore."
Willis played tailback last week and was one of the few bright spots for the Eagles, rushing for 103 yards on 15 carries. He did play some quarterback, completing 1-of-2 passes for four yards.
Newsome completed 1-of-5 passes for 14 yards with an interception.
With the inexperience the Eagles have at the quarterback position, Brookins said he won't hesitate to make things tough on them.
"Any advantage we can get, whether it be putting the young quarterback in some positions he doesn't feel comfortable with, or anything, we'll try to do," said Brookins. "But they've got a lot of weapons. We've got to be great tacklers because those kids are such wigglers. Arm tackles won't bring those type of athletes down. They won't look as bad this week as they may have looked to some people last week against Jonesboro."
If NMCC does figure out how to score, the Eagles still have work to do on defense. Poor tackling and several missed assignments led to long runs by Jonesboro.
Rogers is hoping to get that area shored up this week.
"We took a pretty good whipping last weekend," said Rogers. "We didn't block particularly well and we didn't tackle very well at all. We just had some silly mistakes and we fumbled the ball three times. We've got to take better care of the football against Cape because we can't give them any extra opportunities. They're tough enough as it is without helping them out."
NMCC hasn't lost in back-to-back games since 1998 when they fell to Sikeston and Kennett. They haven't lost consecutive home games since 1996, losing to Charleston and Springfield Catholic that year.
"It would be a big win for us," said Rogers. "A fine Jonesboro team came in here and we made several costly mistakes and had several penalties. We hope to correct a lot of those errors. If we can play mistake-free football and play like we're capable of, we feel like we can be in the ballgame with them."
Brookins thinks NMCC is a much better team than the one that showed up against Jonesboro. And one of the things that worries him is the unknown factor.
Is Jonesboro that good? How long will it take NMCC to get the kinks worked out?
"I think they were caught a little off guard against Jonesboro," said Brookins. "Maybe they were a little better squad than they might've anticipated."
But the main question running through his mind is, which Cape Central team will show up Friday night?
"Week in and week out, I don't worry so much about the other team," said Brookins. "You respect them, you study them and you try to prepare for them. But the team I'm most afraid of is the Cape Central Tigers. Because so often times we beat ourselves."