(Photo by David Jenkins, Staff)
CAPE GIRARDEAU -- With a conference title already clinched, the Sikeston Bulldogs still have some unfinished business.
With its victory over Jackson last week, the Bulldogs clinched a share of the SEMO Conference North title -- its third in the last four years.
But they still need a victory at Cape Central tonight at 7 p.m. to win the championship outright.
Tonight will be Sikeston's first-ever trip to Cape Central's two-year old Tiger Stadium after the team played for decades at Southeast Missouri State University's Houck Stadium.
Also at stake is a favorable seed in the new playoff format this year in which all teams start Week 10 in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bulldogs (6-0) are currently sitting on top of the district standings while Cape Central (2-4) is fourth.
With a victory tonight, Sikeston will all but assure themselves of the top seed in the district.
Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs is hoping his team will be mentally prepared for a Cape Central team that has lost some tough games this season.
"The thing about Cape, you look at their record and you kind of fall asleep a little bit, but you also got to remember who they've gotten beat by," Gibbs said. "They've gotten beat by four really good football teams."
While Sikeston is enjoying its third 6-0 start in the last four years and are ranked fourth in Class 4, the Tigers have played a difficult schedule, losing to powerful John Burroughs (43-14), a strong Ft. Zumwalt East squad (21-7) and then back-to-back heartbreakers the past two weeks in the final minute to Jackson (29-26) and Farmington (39-36).
Despite the team's struggles, the Tigers offer up plenty of challenges for the Bulldogs according to Gibbs.
"They're a very talented bunch and they've lost some close games late," Gibbs said. "I don't think they're going to have their dauber down. I think they're going to be sky-high and ready to play the Sikeston Bulldogs and try to keep them from winning a conference championship."
The Bulldogs have been led all season by senior quarterback Kyland Gross, who has proven to be a dynamic weapon for the team's offense, rushing for 805 yards with 10 touchdowns while averaging nearly 10 yards per carry. He's also thrown for 407 yards, completing 28-of-64 passes (44 percent) with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Junior running back Chris Word had the best game of his career last week, rushing for 199 yards against Jackson to up his season total to 453 yards to go with his seven touchdowns.
Sikeston's offense averages 27 points per game.
"They've had a good run for the past several years," second-year Cape Central coach Nathan Norman said of the Bulldogs. "They're a very well-coached football team. I don't know if there is one thing you can pinpoint to stop them. With Gross, I think you have to try to slow him down. You give Mr. Gross a little crease and it's six points. It's always a tough challenge when we play Sikeston and a Gibbs-coached football team, so we've got our work cut out for us, definitely."
The Tigers' top defenders are its inside linebacker tandem of Jared Thomas and Jacob Margetta, outside linebacker Jacob Boerboom and nose guard Chris Bryant.
Cape Central's defense gives up 25.5 points per game.
The Tigers' offense is averaging 24.3 points per contest in what Gibbs says is a revamped scheme from last season.
"It's actually a lot different offense," Gibbs said. "It's kind of a power running team, but they kind of lull you to sleep on play-action passes and try to hit the big one down the sideline. We can't fall asleep in the secondary and we're going to have to be really tough and really physical up front with our interior people and then our linebackers are going to have to read and meet blocks head on."
Triggering the offense for the Tigers is junior quarterback Dennis Vinson, who has completed 27-of-62 passes (44 percent) for 531 yards with three touchdowns and just one interception.
His top targets are seniors Garan Evans (14 catches, 345 yards, 3 TDs) and Kyle Thompson. Boerboom, a tight end, is also a threat.
Senior running backs Chris Martin (77 carries, 627 yards, 7 touchdowns) and Jacob Campbell (71-510, 7 TDs) lead the ground attack. Junior Mikey Jones follows up with 117 yards on 27 carries with a score.
Martin sprained his ankle in last week's game against Farmington and he will be a game-time decision.
The Tigers have the athleticism and speed to match the Bulldogs, but Norman hopes his team can meet the challenge against a Sikeston defense that has been nothing less than stellar so far this season, giving up just 8.5 points per game.
"They're good on offense but they're very good on defense," Norman said of the Bulldogs. "Our game-plan will be to try to move the ball on them and eat up the clock and keep the ball out of Kyland Gross' hands and Mr. Word's hands. We will try to establish the run first. We will have to do a better job of passing the football and do a better job of pass blocking so we can open up the run game a little bit."
Even though his team is out of the conference race, Norman is using this year's new playoff format to keep his team focused on every game.
"Each game is a district seeding game," Norman said. "That is an easy tool for us to use to motivate them. They realize that even though we've lost a couple games here in a row, if we finish strong and do well, the sky's the limit really. We're playing for a good seed in the district right now."
Sikeston has defeated Cape Central five straight times and six of the last seven dating back to 2006. Tonight's game will mark the 96th meeting between the two rivals. Sikeston leads the all-time series with the Tigers 49-40-7.
"We talk about trying to get better every week and we feel like we have gotten better every week," Gibbs said. "We feel like we played our best game to date against Jackson the other night. I think the big key is you have to come out and be mentally sharp in practice and let that momentum that we've built within our schedule carry into practice, and then the momentum you build in practice carries over into the next game. That's just kind of the way we've done things and hopefully we'll go up there with the right frame of mind and the right attitude and be ready to go. If we're not ready to go, we're not going to like the results."