JACKSON - For the last three years, Jackson football has been playing on a higher level than most teams in the area.
Part of the reason for that success was due to the transfer of Mario Whitney to Jackson in 1999.
With Whitney, who was arguably one of the fastest high school athletes in Missouri state history, the Indians went 30-4 the last three years.
Included in that total was the best finish by a Southeast Missouri team ever in Class 5A when the Indians came within one game of the championship.
Now that he has taken his talents to the University of Missouri, area observers have become skeptical of the Indians sans Whitney.
But not Sikeston head coach Charlie Vickery, whose team opens the season tomorrow night in Jackson at 7:30.
"They won before so you're going to assume they win after Whitney," said Vickery.
Even before Whitney ever arrived, the Indians had put together one outstanding season after another.
But Vickery isn't sad to see Whitney graduate either.
"Mario was such a speed demon that if he ever broke loose then he was gone," said Vickery. "He was the fastest kid in the area by far. But they've got some other good backs as well. They're going back to the style they were at before, pounding the ball at you. So I expect they're going to be very difficult to defend against."
The Indians return only four starters from last year's 12-1 team. And head coach Carl Gross knows his offense is going to have to adjust without a gamebreaker like Whitney in the lineup.
"Where we've had the speed advantage the last three years, (Sikeston) has the speed advantage this year," said Gross. "The last three years we've been able to do things a mile at a time. This year we're going back to the way it was in the early days where you have to do things an inch at a time. I think the playing field is much more even and it ought to be a heck of a football game."
Although all of the offensive line graduated, Sikeston returns the bulk of its offensive skill players from last year's 6-4 squad.
And that alone has Gross concerned.
"They've got tremendous athletes at all of their skill positions," said Gross. "The quarterback's back, they've got three or four receivers catching the football, they've got a couple of running backs that run the ball very hard. The quarterback makes good decisions. They really concern us offensively. It looks like to me they can score from any time any where."
Like last year, Sikeston may rotate two quarterbacks into the game. While senior Drew Lawrence took the majority of the snaps last season, junior Blake DeWitt has been penciled in as the starter this year.
Vickery says the two are still in a dead-heat for the position, but it was DeWitt's preseason performance that gave him a slight edge heading into the Jackson game.
"They're neck and neck -- I'm going to use them both," said Vickery. "We're in the same spot we were last year somewhat in that I've got two established quarterbacks that could play for a lot of teams. They're both playing defense, so they're going to need some rest there. I feel very comfortable with either one of them in there."
Sikeston also returns senior tailback Lavar Morgan, who rushed for 733 yards with eight touchdowns last year.
The Bulldogs appear to have in the skill department, but Jackson looks to be more experienced up front.
"Their line gets off the ball extremely well," said Vickery. "(In the jamboree) they threw the ball well and their play-action is extremely effective. I think we're going to have to try to create some piles up front and let our linebackers run."
Returning such players as Colby Lohman (6-3, 240) and Matt McComas (6-5, 241), the Indians appear to be set up front. In fact, the team is so strong on the line, that Gross moved Justin Rollet (6-3, 260) to fullback.
"Our strength is our line of scrimmage," said Gross. "You say we might have an edge on the line but I watched (Sikeston) on film in the jamboree and they looked pretty damn good to me. They held their own and it looks like to me they've got some pretty big kids. They're inexperienced on the line but we're that way at nine other positions. So you just hope they respond when you turn the Friday night lights on."
Jackson's new look offense will feature Stuart McIntosh are tailback. He rushed for 268 yards on 43 carries a year ago. Tyler Profilet will be the quarterback and junior Tyler McNeely, a 6-foot-4, 217-pounder will serve as the tight end.
"They're good kids -- they're smart kids," said Gross. "Stuart got the most varsity experience, but he's basically a first-year starter. But he's a good athlete and a good kid."
Jackson has won five of the last six from Sikeston, but the Bulldogs did defeat the Indians on their homefield in 1998, one year after the team went undefeated.
Sikeston is hoping history will repeat itself.
But it will have to be done in some tough weather as the forecast is calling for hot temperatures tomorrow night.
"From what I understand it's supposed to be a scorcher in Jackson on Friday night, so probably the team that melts last will be the one that wins it," said Gross.