CHARLESTON -- Two SEMO Conference unbeatens tangle in a much-
anticipated marquee matchup on Friday night.
Charleston meets South Division rival Caruthersville in an early-season preview of a potential down-the-road playoff clash. Should both teams win their respective districts, as expected, they would do battle in the sectional round for the right to advance in the state playoffs.
"This is a game that can help us gauge where we're at as far as playoff potential," said Caruthersville's first-year head coach Brad Gerling.
Many similarities exist between the two programs, both rated in the top echelon of Southeast Missouri-area football squads.
Both are defending Class 2 district champions. Both are stocked with quality athletes. And both come with lofty expectations.
Caruthersville is coming off a 12-1 campaign in 2004 in which they advanced to the state semifinals before losing to eventual state champion Blair Oaks. Charleston, which went 8-3, was bounced from the playoffs by the Tigers in the sectional game.
Each team, with 2-0 records thus far, also own wins over identical opponents, Sikeston and Kennett.
Caruthersville holds a slight edge in comparative stats. The Tigers are averaging 42.5 points per game while allowing 15. The Bluejays have averaged 22.5 ppg; yielding 13.5.
First-year Charleston head coach Alfred Marshall, while acknowledging that Caruthersville is a fine team, said, "On any given Friday, anybody's beatable. I believe, in my heart, we've got a shot at 'em."
To have that shot, Charleston, very simply, must control the clock with a strong run game, keep the defense honest with a passing threat and find a way, on the defensive side, to somehow slow the Tigers' prolific multiple offense.
On the ground, the Bluejays, led by junior tailback Joseph Watts with 309 yards, have rushed for 515 in its first two games (257.5 per game).
Watts, a darting cutback-style runner, can challenge the edge and make defenders miss. He has two rushing touchdowns.
Senior quarterback Josh Marshall, who has thrown sparingly thus far (12 of 26 for 253 yards, one touchdown), possesses a strong arm and, when forced out of the pocket or on a designed rollout, can put added pressure on the defense. He has run for two scores.
Charleston has a trio of dangerous receivers in Jamarcus Williams, Justin Clark and Bobby Clark.
Williams, at 6-4, 213, is long and fast with good hands. He has six catches for 124 yards and a touchdown.
Bobby Clark, also an all-state defensive back, has two catches for 24 yards. A threat anywhere on the field and anytime he touches the football, Clark (5-7, 172) has a touchdown off an interception return.
Justin Clark, another tall receiver at 6-2, 180, has four grabs for 105 yards. Caruthersville, under the guidance of Gerling, who replaced David Gilmore, has made a smooth transition with the coaching change. Gerling served as offensive coordinator last season and is in his sixth season on the Caruthersville staff.
Even though the Tigers have opened the season strong, Gerling feels his team has a ways to go to reach late-season, or even midseason, form.
"We've got a lot of things to correct, just like everybody around the state," he said. "There isn't a team yet that's ready to play in a state championship game and that goes for us, as well. If we get things corrected, we've got a shot at going a long way."
Against Charleston, whom the Tigers have handled convincingly in their past four meetings, Gerling said the keys will be, on the defensive side, to contain the Bluejay's athletes; then, on offense, execute the basics.
"It's really a matter of us doing what we do correctly, getting blocks, hitting holes and completing passes," Gerling said. "It seems simple, but that's basically what our gameplan is all about, week in and week out. If we can get that job done, then we're usually going to be pretty successful."
Caruthersville's no-huddle, spread offense has wreaked havoc on opposing defenses in recent years and this season should be no exception.
"I've watched the offense they run and it's special," said Alfred Marshall. "They've got all kinds of trick plays, counters and misdirection (plays)."
Said Gerling, "In high school football, if you don't adapt your scheme, on both sides of the ball, to the personnel you have, you're not going to be very successful. With the type of skill players we've had the last two years, we've found the right formula on offense to put a lot of players in positions where they can make plays."
One of the premier playmakers for the Tigers is 6-foot, 195-pound junior tailback Kendrickus Reed. Reed has exceeded 200-plus rushing yards in both games and leads the state in scoring with nine touchdowns.
Said Marshall, "Our No. 1 priority will be to stop Reed; stop what the other team does best and try to make them beat you another way."
However, the Tigers can also throw the football.
Triggering the offense is 6-3, 175-pound senior quarterback Keith Creekmore, a two-year starter and acknowledged on-field leader. Creekmore posted huge passing numbers last season.
Anchoring the offensive line is 6-2, 280-pound junior center and returning starter Ted VanAusdall.
Football aside, VanAusdall is a remarkable story.
Diagnosed with a brain tumor last spring, he underwent radiation and surgery to gain a clean bill of health and return to the gridiron.
"He's been able to battle through that and come out of it," said Gerling. "He used it (returning to football) as motivation as he was going through radiation treatments through the spring and summer. He's not missed a beat from where he left off last year."
Mikey Lack, a 6-1, 185-pound senior, and Aaron Borders, a 6-1, 195-pound junior, have been stellar at linebacker for the Tigers' defense.
Caruthersville moved into the top 10 of the Missouri high school poll this week at the No. 8 spot.
Said Gerling, "More than anything, it's motivation for the kids. If we're climbing up in the polls, that's great and I'm glad people recognize us around the state, but, when it comes down to it, it's what we do on the field that's important."