(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- When Mark Barousse left Poplar Bluff after a successful five-year run in 2001, Sikeston fans were probably not too sad to see him leave.
That's because in Barousse's time as head coach, his Mules never lost to Sikeston.
Before Barousse became head coach at Poplar Bluff in 1997 Sikeston had dominated the Mules for six years. But the Mules' fortunes were about to change as Barousse turned the program into a consistent winner and one of the area's top teams, leading them to their last two district titles in 1998 and 2000.
Barousse finished his tenure at Poplar Bluff with a 34-18 record, ranking him fifth in wins in the program's history.
Now, 10 years after leaving Poplar Bluff to coach in his hometown of Lafayette, La., Barousse is back to try to revive the Mules' struggling program once again.
Poplar Bluff has had winning seasons just twice in the past nine years and they are coming off a 1-9 campaign last season.
While the Mules are off to a 1-2 start this season, including a 50-6 loss to state-ranked Savannah on Saturday, Barousse is hoping his kids will be charged up for Friday's game against the long-time conference rival Bulldogs at SPS Stadium.
"It's a big game," Barousse said. "We're trying to tell the kids about the old rivalry. Poplar Bluff and Sikeston games are a big deal. It's an old rival. The old timers know it, but I don't know if these young kids do. We're trying to the get the kids to learn the history of the game."
The rivalry is one of the longest in the area. This year's contest will mark the 89th game between the two with Sikeston holding a 52-32-4 edge over the Mules, including the last four straight.
"We're hoping to find something out about ourselves," Barousse said. "I don't know which team is going to show up. We didn't play very well last week. Savannah has a good football team, but we didn't play very well. We're looking forward to Friday night. I think it will be a competitive ballgame."
Sikeston is coming into the game on the heels of an impressive 57-30 victory over state-ranked Dexter on Friday.
Gibbs is hoping it will propel his team for the rest of the season.
"Certainly one of the keys for us is taking the momentum we got from beating a really good football team, and kind of bowing our necks and getting it done when the chips were down early -- we're hoping that momentum carries over into our practices and on into the rest of our schedule," Gibbs said. "I think when you see a team that is as inexperienced as we are, those things come in small increments once in a while. Hopefully we took a big step last week."
One player taking a huge step last week against Dexter was senior running back James Watson, who etched his name in Sikeston's record books with 328 yards rushing, breaking Justin Robinson's mark of 318 yards that had never been approached for 12 years.
Watson also joined Robinson of being the only two Sikeston players to ever rush for 300 yards in a game.
Barousse knows that containing Watson (56 carries, 573 yards, 3 TD) and junior speedster Kyland Gross (25-223, 6 total TD) will be a key to the game.
"They have 3 (Gross) and 23 (Watson), two big play guys," Barousse said. "They do a good job getting into space, so we're going to have to do a good job getting to the football and tackling. (Watson) likes cutting it back. If you get to the football and don't let him get in space, then you've got a chance to tackle him."
The Mules, which have 18 seniors on the roster, are led on offense by senior quarterback Michael Griggs. He has thrown for 226 yards, completing 16 of 40 passes with four touchdowns and an interception. He's also rushed for 120 yards on the season.
Junior running back Austin Barousse leads the team in rushing with 182 yards on 38 carries and a score.
Senior Austin Goodrich (5 catches, 82 yards, 2 TD) and senior Alex Leonard (3-55, TD) have been Griggs' favorite targets so far this season.
"Offensively, it's not that they're real flashy, but they're very consistent in what they do," Gibbs said. "They're going to spread you out and run a lot of zone, counter and quarterback dart and those kind of things. They'll take their shots downfield every once in a while. It's balanced football as far as run-pass. They're going to run, but they're not afraid to throw the ball vertically downfield. I think as he gets his system going he'll be able to expand some things."
The Mules defense has shown flashes of being a solid unit, led by senior linebacker Luke Latorette (6 sacks). The Mules already have 12 sacks as a team through three games.
By comparison, Sikeston has just two sacks on the season, although all three of Sikeston's opponents so far have featured very fast and elusive quarterbacks.
"Bluff is extremely big on the line," Gibbs said. "They've got some really active linebackers. We're going to have to do a really good job up front."
With both Watson and Gross proving to be home run threats on offense and a defense that has been a bit wobbly, yet opportunistic with seven takeaways and two defensive scores, Gibbs thinks his team has shown marked improvement since a season-opening loss to Gateway Tech.
"I think we're a whole lot better than we were in Week 1," Gibbs said. "I think the biggest thing is that we're competing better and number two I think we're in better shape -- we've adjusted some things in practice and I think we've gotten ourselves in a little bit better shape. That can change week to week, but I certainly think we're a lot better football team now than we were Week 1. It wasn't that our kids weren't doing what we wanted them to do, it just wasn't being done at the pace that we wanted it done. I think now they're kind of catching on a little bit. We'll find out Friday."