(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- The Sikeston-Charleston football rivalry is steeped in tradition unlike most high school opponents in the area.
After 126 games, longstanding milestones are bound to be broken from time to time.
The two teams met on Thanksgiving Day every single year for 50 straight years until it was controversially moved in 1960.
From that point on the game regularly bounced around the schedule in different weeks until finding a home in Week 2 in 1980.
The game remained in the second week of the high school season for 32 years until now.
Tomorrow night at 7:00 at Sikeston Public Schools Stadium, Sikeston and Charleston will open the season against each other for the first time in 96 years -- last kicking off the season against each other in 1916.
But with all the pageantry that goes into the game and the community interest that is still hanging on to the rivalry's golden years, there is still a football game to be played between two teams that aren't as interested in history as much as they are the here and now.
Sikeston is coming off an 8-3 season, getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Charleston is coming off a resurgent season in which they went 5-6 before falling in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bulldogs are hoping to stay among the area's elite programs. Charleston is striving to get there.
Both teams enter the game with plenty of question marks.
"Just like any team at the beginning of the year, we've still got some things in a state of flux," Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs said, now in his sixth year at the helm of the Bulldogs with a record of 41-18.
Sikeston lost 1,600-yard rusher James Watson, all-state defensive back Keldon Warfield and a host of linemen that plowed the way for the Bulldogs' high-scoring offense.
After last week's jamboree scrimmage in Hillsboro, Gibbs still feels uneasy about his line play, but is optimistic in other areas.
"We've got questions up front on both sides of the ball," Gibbs said. "We've settled in pretty good at our skill positions and kind of know where we're at in that regard. We do have some injuries which is going to be a factor. Overall this first game you want to see effort and see where you are and see if you can play four quarters. We've got a lot of guys going both ways so that could be a factor. Effort's a big thing that we want to see. If we see good effort, we'll get better every week and ultimately that's what we want to do."
Kyland Gross is tabbed as the quarterback this season. The speedy 5-10 senior saw limited time under center in the "wild dog" formation last year, but now will tasked with operating the offense full-time.
He only attempted three passes all season, but he rushed for 653 yards and had 303 yards receiving, scoring a total of 13 touchdowns on the year.
Gross was a one-man wrecking crew in last year's game against the Bluejays, rushing for 100 yards on five carries with two touchdowns and a 66-yard interception return for a score at the halftime buzzer to spur the Bulldogs to a 43-14 victory.
Lining up at fullback is junior Chris Word, the second-leading returning rusher with 257 yards and seven total touchdowns a year ago. Seniors Nick Nichols and Jeterrence Harris are expected to see some carries out of the slot position as well as juniors Clay Porter, Pat Gross and Reese Porter.
Third-year Charleston coach Brett Blackman knows that slowing down Gross, no matter where he lines up, will be a priority along with the rest of the team that seemingly has good speed all over the field. Three-quarters of Sikeston's 4 x 200 meter state champion relay team (Gross, Nichols and Spenser Clark) will be on the field at key positions tomorrow night.
"I think the Kyland Gross kid is an excellent quarterback and we're going to have to contain him as well as their overall speed," Blackman said. "That's a big, big test for us."
Other than Gross, senior Markeith Bratcher is the top returning receiver with nine catches for 223 yards last year. Clark, who had three TD receptions last year, Jacob Stinnett, Aundrea Golden and Reese Porter are also most likely to be targeted as receivers.
While Sikeston will spread the field in an effort to give its speed room to maneuver, Charleston is the polar opposite.
The Bluejays line up toe-to-toe and will attempt to methodically pound the ball right at the teeth of the defense in a double-wing offense.
"We have to try to do what we do well, and that's running the double tight, double wing, running it straight at you and try to bounce one and work our play-action pass game into that mix," Blackman said.
Senior Mike Hull will take over signal-calling duties from departed standout Jamaul Gray.
The Bluejays will also have speed and power at the fullback (Deiontrail Winston and Demetric Owens) and wingback (Robert Bogan, Demontrail Clark, Rontavious Clark, Darrion Henderson) positions.
Darrion Carter will line up at tight end and will be the top target on the receiving end.
"They're a talented group," Gibbs said of the Bluejays. "They have some kids on the outside that can run defensively. They have some ball carriers that can make some plays in the open field. We're going to have to be sharp defensively, not let them drive the ball at us and we certainly can't let them get the edge."
Sikeston's defense, which was a team strength a year ago with nine defensive touchdowns, will be without the services of standout linebacker Matt Green due to an ankle injury, depleting an already thin defense weak on depth.
The Bulldogs still have playmakers on the defensive side that look to pick up the load, including leading returning tackler Blake Flannigan.
"I think they're ready to play a football game and they're ready to play a good opponent and certainly that's what we're expecting Friday night," Gibbs said. "For us, all our games are big. Certainly for our community, we understand the rivalry and the importance of the ballgame. Hopefully we'll get a lot of support, not only from the people here in Sikeston, but in Charleston too. We're looking forward to the game and looking forward to getting our season started and seeing where we are with things."
Sikeston has dominated the all-time series with the Bluejays, leading 88-34-4 while winning the last five games by an average score of 46-8.
"There's no doubt they have a history of thumping us pretty good, but we've worked all winter and all summer and have tried to put ourselves in a position that we can go out and compete and be successful in this game," Blackman said. "The big thing for us is that if something bad happens, we've got to bounce back the next play. We can't let it roll into one, two or three big plays in a row and we're fighting for our lives to get back in the ballgame."