(Photo by Chris Pobst, Staff)
SIKESTON -- Friday's regular season finale against the Cardinal Ritter Lions may not grab many headlines around the area, but for the Sikeston Bulldogs, this game carries a lot of weight.
For one, it's a chance for the Bulldogs to secure, for certain, the top seed in the Class 4, District 1 bracket. Sikeston, with an 8-0 record and 48.26 district points, holds a commanding lead over second place Hillsboro, which comes into Friday's action with a 6-2 record and 39.61 points.
Secondly, it is a chance for the Bulldogs to clinch its third undefeated regular season in the last four years.
For the second straight week, Sikeston will be taking on a St. Louis area school. Cardinal Ritter will be making its first-ever trip to Sikeston Public Schools Stadium tomorrow for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
First and foremost, Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs hopes his team can stay sharp with district play starting up next week.
"We want to try to finish up with an undefeated season and try to maintain that No. 1 seed in the district," Gibbs said. "I'm not real sure how all the points work to be real honest about it, but the big thing is take care of ourselves, get some people healthy and get a little bit more consistent on the offensive side of the ball. I felt like last week we played really well on defense. Special teams have been solid all year."
Sikeston's offense has had its ups and downs. Last week against Jennings, the offense struggled for most of the game, turning the ball over four times and racking up numerous penalties, before catching fire in the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs, now ranked No. 2 in Class 4, will need a better performance this week against a traditionally strong Lions squad.
Ritter, a Class 3 private school in the city, comes into the game with a 4-4 record against a very difficult schedule.
The Lions owe all four losses to strong teams, three of which are the top teams in their respective districts (St. Dominic, O'Fallon Christian and Maplewood) and a stout Class 6 Ritenour squad.
Just four years ago, the Lions were playing for a state championship in the Show Me Bowl, finishing with a 12-2 mark. They had playoff runs the next two years, finishing 9-2 in 2009 and 9-3 in 2010 before finishing just 5-5 last season.
Gibbs says this year's Lions team, which is stocked full with talent, are a potential playoff team as well despite the team's misleading record.
"Cardinal Ritter has a lot of team speed," Gibbs said. "They're a good, solid program. They're really slick on offense. A lot of misdirection and motion. They've got two really good receivers. They throw the ball and they run the ball. Defensively they're going to give us a lot of different looks with an odd-man front and an even-man front. We need to be assignment sharp and play good defense again."
The Lions feature an explosive offense that averages 32.6 points per game, having topped 50 points twice and 40 points once.
Ritter sophomore quarterback Dominic Nelson has thrown for 1,060 yards, completing 53 percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Kyle Harbour, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound junior, is Nelson's top receiving target, catching 28 passes for 609 yards and seven touchdowns.
Junior Darryl Smith follows up with 15 catches for 237 with three touchdowns while 6-1 sophomore John Henderson has seven catches for 113 yards and two scores.
On the ground, junior running back Terry Hudspeth leads the team with 481 yards on 71 carries with five touchdowns. Henderson follows up with 425 yards and five touchdowns. Junior Jeffrey Jones adds 350 yards with six touchdowns.
"It's really what we call an Ace," Gibbs said of Ritter's offense. "It's double-wide, double-wing. They do a lot of motion with the kids in the backfield. They'll run some gun, they'll run under center. They have motions and traps and things like that. They do a lot of different things."
While the offense is the team's strength, Ritter's defense has allowed 198 points (24.8 per game) this season, with 171 of those points coming in its four losses.
The Lions have, however, been opportunistic, recording 16 interceptions on the season led by Smith's four picks. The team has also recovered six fumbles on the year.
Sikeston's offense averages 28.4 points per game, but have hurt themselves with 19 turnovers, 15 of which are fumbles.
"We're still searching for that consistency on offense," Gibbs said. "Hopefully we'll get to that point where every week we are consistent and we can move the ball like we need to."
Senior quarterback Kyland Gross has been the Bulldogs' most consistent, and most spectacular, performer this season.
He is one of the area's leaders with 1,208 yards rushing, eclipsing the 1,000-yard mark with a career-high 236 yards last week. He became the 17th Bulldog ever to top 1,000 yards in a season.
Gross has thrown for 502 yards, completing 38 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
Returning this week to join Gross in the backfield is junior running back Chris Word, who was held out of last Saturday's game against Jennings as a precaution with an ankle injury.
"Chris will be back this week," Gibbs said. "Right now everybody is healthy as we speak. He'll make a difference if he is healthy, and right now all indications are that he will. We'll be glad to have him back."
Word has 643 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns this season despite missing two games. Before being held out last week, he had 199 and 190 yards rushing in back-to-back games.
Sikeston's defense has carried the team this season, allowing just 86 points (10.8 per game) all year.
The Bulldogs have forced 23 turnovers on the year and have allowed just 678 yards rushing (84.8 per game).
Senior inside linebacker Blake Flannigan leads the team with 96 tackles, 18 of those for losses. Senior defensive end Nick Nichols follows up with 70 tackles, 26 for losses along with a team-leading six sacks.
With seemingly everything wrapped up this season, including conference and most likely a district top seed, Gibbs said the team has anticipated tomorrow's game as one of the biggest of the season, with hopes of duplicating what the 2009 and 2010 Sikeston teams accomplished.
"We've approached it in that we want to have an undefeated regular season," Gibbs said. "Not many people get a chance to do that and we're sitting here with a chance to be undefeated for the third time in four years. To me that's big. It's big for the kids. You can talk all you want about who you've played or who you've not played, and you can talk about injuries or consistency, but the bottom line is we're going into the last game of the year with a chance to have an undefeated regular season. It's big for our program. We talk about momentum all the time and you certainly want to go into the district playoffs with momentum on your side."