CAPE GIRARDEAU - Heading into the season, the Cape Central Tigers were considered the overwhelming preseason favorite in Class 4A, District 1.
A stellar showing in the jamboree didn't sway anyone's opinion, but a disappointing 3-4 start this year has left some doubters with the Tigers.
Last year's Cape Central team also started 3-4 on the year, but they went on to win the district, advancing all the way to the quarterfinals.
So Sikeston head coach Charlie Vickery knows his team can't take the Tigers lightly when they meet at 7 p.m. on Thursday in the district opener at Houck Stadium.
"They're a very talented team, but I think it's a matter that they've played some really good people," said Vickery.
"Jackson is undefeated, Bluff's lost one game. They've played a very tough schedule so I don't think you can look at their record by any means. They're very similar to some of the teams we've been facing. They've got a lot of skill people, they run well and they can throw the ball. We're going to have our hands full again."
With the exception of a 33-0 loss to Jackson, the Tigers have played every team on their schedule tough, but haven't been able to get it done late in games.
But like last year, Cape Central was able to pull off a much-needed win the week before districts, defeating Ritenour on Saturday 17-6 in a monsoon.
"We were happy to get a win under our belts after three weeks of not winning," said Cape Central head coach Lawrence Brookins. "We've had a lot of frustrations. Much of that has been our fault. I don't think it's necessarily that the other teams are that much better than us, but for some reason we have just struggled. Hopefully this last game against Ritenour will be like last year, a springboard into a solid finish to the season."
The Tigers have experimented with a sophomore quarterback this year in Mitch Craft with mixed results.
At times, Craft plays exceptionally well (275 yards passing against Graves County), and other times, he has struggled (1-14 passing for 18 yards against Jackson).
Overall, he has thrown for 714 yards, completing 56-of-97 passes with four interceptions and three touchdowns.
Running backs Monroe Hicks and Marcus Klund are his favorite targets out of the backfield, combining to catch 35 passes for 498 yards.
They have also combined to rush 148 times for 679 yards with six TDs.
"Offensively, they're very balanced," said Vickery. "They can throw the ball and they can run the ball. They're a pretty well rounded team."
But Cape's strength is probably its defense. Led by Hicks and Klund in the secondary, the Tigers also feature Jeremiah Dukes at linebacker and standout defensive lineman Chris Smith, a 6-2, 315-pounder, and Justin Wells (6-0, 250).
"They've got some very good linemen, their linebackers run extremely well and they're talented in the secondary," said Vickery. "They're big up front, especially with their two defensive tackles -- I think they create a lot of problems, we're going to have to control them a little bit."
That task will be even greater for the Bulldogs without their best offensive lineman, Kevin Keller, who suffered a knee injury against Roosevelt and will miss Thursday's game.
Of course, Sikeston has plenty of size to fill his void, but not his dominating blocking.
"I think at this point in the season you've got to expect to be banged up a little bit," said Vickery. "Obviously you'd like to be 100 percent, but we're playing football. You can't dwell upon that, you've just got to go in there and be ready to play and I think we will be."
Sikeston, not considered a district favorite entering the season, has turned heads with a 5-2 record, defeating area power New Madrid County Central and barely losing to Poplar Bluff 8-6.
The Bulldogs are led offensively by tailback Lavar Morgan, who has rushed for 537 yards on 110 carries. Quarterback Drew Lawrence has thrown for 417 yards, completing 29-of-55 passes with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Wide receivers Andrew Lambert and Larry Newman both have more than 100 yards receiving.
But like Cape Central, Sikeston's strength lies with the defense.
"We have a monumental challenge ahead of us as far as offensive, on trying to protect our young quarterback," said Brookins.
Myron Hardin and Justin Lowes anchor the defensive line while Kyle Duncan and the sophomore trio of Blake DeWitt, Nathan Eaves and Jacob Priday man the linebacking corps.
Lambert has six interceptions as a cornerback while defensive backs Michael Colon and Tori Rose each have one.
Lambert is also an outstanding kicker, knocking 5-of-6 successfully through the uprights. He is also a perfect 16-of-16 on extra points. Cape Central's Chris Jones is also a good kicker, hitting 11-of-12 extra points and 4-of-9 field goals.
As if the district opener didn't have enough at stake, this is still Cape Central versus Sikeston -- one of the top rivalries in Southeast Missouri.
"Most of our kids are Cape born and bread and most of Sikeston's kids are born and bread," said Brookins. "Just by logistics there's some natural rivalry between us and Sikeston."
Plus, it's a SEMO North matchup. Even though neither can win the conference, this game will decide who takes last place.
The two teams have met 84 times, tying seven. Sikeston leads the overall series 42-35. Vickery is 12-12 against the Tigers.
"It's a huge game, it's a conference game," said Vickery. "Cape and Sikeston have been playing for a long time. They're usually real good games. If you can't get up for this game then you can't get up for any game. You've got to win the first one if you want to move on. I think we're pretty similar in a lot of ways. And when that's the case, the team that has the fewest turnovers and has the best special teams is going to win the game."