(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
SIKESTON -- As the Sikeston Bulldog football program rose as an area power in 2009, the Jackson Indians fell.
Arguably Southeast Missouri's premier program the previous two decades, Jackson enjoyed sustained success under former coach Carl Gross, reaching two Class 4A championship games, a 5A semifinal appearance, and nine playoff appearances in a 15-year stretch.
But since a surprising run to the Class 5 semifinals in 2008 under first-year coach Van Hitt in which the team finished 8-6, the Indians fell on hard times, posting three straight losing seasons with a combined record of 6-24, even narrowly avoiding a winless campaign in 2009 by defeating Cape Central in the last game of the season.
Enter new coach Brent Eckley, who came to Jackson with an impressive resume from his previous coaching stop at Union where the Wildcats racked up a lot of points and a lot of playoff appearances.
Seemingly overnight, Eckley has Jackson turned around.
The Indians carry a 5-0 record into Sikeston Public Schools Stadium tomorrow at 7 p.m. to take on the undefeated Bulldogs on homecoming night.
It's Jackson's best start since 2007 when the team finished 11-1 in Gross' final year. The state pollsters are taking notice as well with the Indians receiving votes in the Class 5 poll, currently placing them 12th.
Sikeston, ranked fourth in Class 4, is 5-0 for the third time in four years.
At stake tomorrow night is a conference title for both teams -- Jackson can clinch the title outright while Sikeston can clinch at least a share -- but also a favorable seed in both teams' respective district.
"It's a big game because it's for a share of the conference championship," Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs said. "It's a big game because we're still in the district hunt trying to get that No. 1 seed. You add the fact that we're both 5-0 and there's going to be a big crowd, it does add a little bit of excitement to it and a little bit of bigness, if you will."
Besides this season's ramifications, this is a statement game for both teams. Sikeston wants to prove it is still the area's premier program while Jackson is wanting to reclaim its status as the area powerhouse.
"I don't know if there's any more meaning for one school or one community over the other," Gibbs said. "Sure this is a big game on our schedule and sure this is a big game for both the communities in Sikeston and Jackson, but, for us, we're going to take it one game at a time and try to get better each week. I know people get tired of hearing about that but that's kind of how we go with it. Now are the kids excited about the opportunity to play a 5-0 team? You bet. Are the kids excited about playing in front of a huge crowd? You bet."
As Eckley did at Union, the Indians are putting up huge offensive numbers, scoring 195 points through five games, already eclipsing last season's point total for the entire season.
Last week, the Indians defeated arch rival Cape Central 29-26 in a down-to-the-wire thriller, setting up this week's battle of the unbeatens.
Junior quarterback Ty Selsor triggers the offense, throwing for 981 yards and completing 58-of-92 (63 percent) of his passes. He has nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. He's also rushed for 262 yards and four touchdowns.
Junior Colten Proffer has been impressive running the ball, rushing for 581 yards, averaging 8.4 yards per carry with seven touchdowns.
Junior Garrett Miller follows up with 178 yards on just 14 carries with a score.
Senior speedster Brannon Wright has been Selsor's top target through the air, catching 26 passes for 522 yards and five scores.
Proffer has caught 15 passes for 221 yards and a pair of scores out of the backfield.
"Obviously they're scoring a lot of points," Gibbs said. "They'll fool you a little bit. Everybody thinks they're spreading you out and they're throwing it everywhere. They do throw it and they throw it well, but also they really hurt you with the run game. I think they ran the ball 46 or 47 times last week. We've certainly got our work cut out for us."
The Indians' defense has been impressive as well, giving up 90 points on the season while recording 18 sacks and 14 takeaways.
"They do a really nice job of flying around to the football on defense," Gibbs said. "They like to bring some pressure at times and they do a good job of gang tackling. They really come down hard on defense. They're much improved on defense."
Long taken a backseat to the headline grabbing high-scoring offense the past few years, Sikeston's defense has been the story of the season so far for the Bulldogs.
The team has allowed just 34 points all season, with 14 of those coming off turnovers by the offense.
The Bulldogs have forced 16 turnovers, including 11 in the last two weeks while completely shutting down its opponents' rushing attack -- Poplar Bluff's 97 rushing last week is the high-water mark so far against Sikeston's defense.
Through five games, the team has given up just 285 yards rushing, limiting opponents to just 1.6 yards per carry.
However, with inexperience everywhere, the offense has faced its struggles on both the line and the skill positions.
Senior quarterback Kyland Gross, while new to the position, has been a bright spot, leading the area with 672 yards rushing with eight touchdowns. He's thrown for 372 yards, completing 23-of-56 passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Junior Chris Word follows up with 254 yards rushing with five touchdowns.
Gibbs is hoping his team can clean up the mistakes -- most notably fumbling the ball 17 times this year, losing eight of them -- but also putting together some offensive drives so his defense isn't on the field for long stretches.
"We've got some ideas of what we want to do and where we want to attack and how we want to attack," Gibbs said. "A lot of that is how we block and execute. We had a little bit of problem with blocking last week and we had a little bit of a problem with execution as far as handling the ball properly and those kind of things. We've worked hard to try to clean those things up and hopefully it will pay off this week."
Sikeston has defeated Jackson three straight times, out-scoring the Indians 111-27 in those contests, including 35-9 last season.
Tomorrow's game will mark the 97th in the the long history between the two schools. Sikeston leads the all-time series 55-35-6.
"We're going to have to play really, really well to be in the ballgame and have a chance to win," Gibbs said. "A lot of things are on the line. We'll just have to see how all that works out."