KENNETT - A year ago, nobody in the area thought the Portageville Bulldogs had much of a chance against the Kennett Indians.
They were right as the Indians blasted Portageville 47-7.
It was the Bulldogs' worst loss of the season during a nightmarish 0-9 campaign.
But optimism is high for Portageville this year. The Bulldogs are 3-1, having won three straight, and they appear to have enough firepower to pose a challenge to the bigger, faster Indians this Friday night at 7:30.
Kennett (2-2) has played inconsistently this year, losing to Charleston (35-32) in Week 1 and Sikeston (38-20) last Friday, but they're playing well enough to defeat a strong Pocahontas (Ark.) squad.
Portageville head coach Jim McKay thinks the Indians will bring the biggest challenge his team has seen since a season-opening loss to Gosnell (Ark.).
"It's their homecoming and they've got outstanding speed -- that's the thing that we worry about more than anything else is speed," said McKay. "This will be by far our toughest game since Gosnell. Kennett always plays us tough. They run the ball well and their quarterback throws the ball well."
After last year's winless season, Portageville has been the biggest surprise of 2001, smashing Scott City 58-0, Chaffee 49-0 and Fulton County (Ky.) 43-2.
But McKay knows all three of those teams are down this year. Kennett is a team that the Bulldogs haven't defeated since 1996.
"They're a lot tougher than some of the teams we've been playing lately," said McKay. "I think our success in the game depends on if we can move the ball. If we can do that and control the ball and keep it out of their hands then we've got a chance. We've got big problems if we let them have the ball a lot."
With speed merchant Tyree Goolsby, Kennett can be explosive on offense. He has rushed for 480 yards on 48 carries. But he was bottled up last week against Sikeston, held to 48 yards on 13 carries.
But Goolsby isn't a one-man show. The quarterback-receiver combo of Nathan Baker and Dustin Pritchett is one of the best in the area.
Baker has thrown for 593 yards with six touchdowns. Pritchett has caught an area-best 26 passes for 321 yards and four TDs.
Travis Turner and Matt Thomas are also dangerous weapons with much speed.
"We've got to try to keep their speed hemmed up and not let them get outside," said McKay. "They have an awful lot of speed and we don't have a lot of speed. If we can contain it and keep them inside then we have a chance. If we let them get outside then we can't catch them."
Portageville isn't hurting for talent though.
The Bulldogs' Dantwan Chillers is among area leaders with 574 yards rushing on 64 attempts. He's also scored 10 TDs this season.
Kyle Ezell, Aaron Bidewell and freshman Antonio Scott have all rushed for more than 200 yards already this season.
Quarterback Lance Penn isn't called on to throw much, but he directs the offense efficiently.
"They're running wild," said Kennett head coach Roland Johnson. "They're beating up on everybody. They're a much improved team from last year. They just seem to be more enthusiastic about the game. I went over and watched them Saturday (versus Chaffee) and they were really fired up to play and it looks like they're well-coached. Coach McKay has got them going."
Johnson says Friday's game will come down to the war in the trenches, an area where Kennett has dominated in the past few years against the Bulldogs.
"We're going to have to knock them off the ball and beat them up front," said Johnson. "Especially on the defensive line. Whichever defensive line dominates the game will pretty well tell the story. We're going to have trouble if their line can keep us stopped and bottled up. But we're going to try to do some things to get our guys in position to do some damage. We're going to have to utilize our speed."
The Bulldogs will be heavy underdogs, but this looks like their best chance to defeat Kennett in the last few years. And with a strong Hayti team up for the Bulldogs next week, McKay knows that a win over the Indians would be a shot in the arm.
"Anytime you can beat good competition it makes you feel better and it kind of prepares you a little bit better for the next game you play," said McKay. "We have Kennett and Hayti back to back on the road and both are very good teams. So we'll have our hands full with both games but we'll take it one game at a time."
For Johnson and his Indians, they are just trying to avoid dropping under the .500 mark for the season.
"Coming off the big loss we just had (to Sikeston), our guys are going to be hungry," said Johnson. "You can't have two letdowns in a row and be successful. We're going to have to bounce back right here and stop the bleeding."