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Bulldogs' surprise season heads for a battle against the defending champions

Sunday, November 4, 2012

PORTAGEVILLE -- They will be the first one's to admit it -- with a humble grin to accompany their confession -- they didn't expect this.

With a new coach and a historic plummet into the cellar of southeast Missouri football shadowing their program, the 2012 season could have easily transpired into another disappointing one.

And no one would have expected anything more.

With a group spearheaded by seniors and a first-year head coach who has as much fun as his players do during a light workout, the Portageville Bulldogs have made a meteoric rise in Class 1 football in just the course of a year

They'll have a chance to prove their worth Monday when the two-time defending champion and perennial power Valle Catholic Warriors roll into Portageville for a district championship and a trip to the state quarterfinals.

"Coming into the season we had a feeling it would be different, but to be completely honest, we never expected it to be like this," senior offensive lineman Nate Bessinger said. "Now, we're looking at a serious chance at going to state."

This opportunity is a most welcomed one, seeing as what Portageville football has went through the last six years.

The Bulldogs suffered through three-straight winless seasons starting in 2006. Since this group of seniors were freshman, they've stumbled through seasons of 4-6, 3-7 and 2-8 their junior year just a season ago.

Throughout the last six seasons, Portageville football has collected a record of 9-49.

The Bulldogs have already tied their combined win total during those previous six years by holding a record of 9-1 going into Monday.

"For so long, these kids have been looking for something to be proud of," Portageville head coach Jeff Bullock said. "This community is so proud of these kids and I'm proud of this community because they're so supportive of everything we do."

In his first year at Portageville, Bullock and his batch of assistant coaches -- Ashley Swims, Gerald Pickering and Ramon Willis -- have made one of the biggest and quickest turnarounds for a football program.

Bullock, who had been out of coaching for the last 13 years before taking over at Portageville, relies on setting an example out of his seniors to get the most out of his entire team.

"He's very hard on the seniors because the seniors are supposed to be the leaders of the team," running back Dion Foster said. "We're supposed to set the tone for everyone else on the team."

He made his nine seniors a promise in January that in trying to turn Portageville around, they would not rebuild at their expense. Bullock was going to do everything he could to ensure a great senior year for them.

They've repaid Bullock in full.

The bulk of their success can be shouldered by an offense that features four running backs; each more capable than the next to carry the football.

Although their strength lies in their numbers, senior Daniel Allen has took it upon himself to be the face of the Bulldogs and their core of tail backs. Which they like to call, 'The Four D's' -- Daniel Allen, Dominique Walker, Dion Foster and Denzell Simmons. All of whose names starts with the letter 'D'.

"We've got power backs, speed backs, anything you want," said Walker. "Everybody looks to us every day. We can't give less than 110 percent while we're out here."

Allen spearheads the group as their all-around runner.

Simmons is the downhill runner who is drawn to contact.

"I don't really care about scoring," Simmons said. "I just worry about what I should give the team. If I don't do my job, I know I have three other guys that will."

Foster is the shifty one and Walker is the speedy one, who also returns punts and kickoffs.

"We have two really strong running backs where arm tackles won't work," Foster said, referring to Simmons and Allen. "Then we have me and Dominique who like to get outside. We can all see the holes and break big runs."

"Valle has Tyler Fallert, Malden has (Romello) McCoy and Caruthersville has (Darrell) Monroe," added Bessinger. "We have four good running backs and all of them are just as capable as the other to put yards up."

Their brand of football is a sight from the past with multiple backs behind center and letting their 'Four D's' do the rest. Portageville has totaled over 2,800 rushing yards so far.

"The four of them are so unique," Bullock said added his stable of running backs. "At different times this year, guys have been banged up and we haven't really missed a beat."

Portageville averages 31.1 points per game while giving up 14.

In only one game, the 'Four D's' were ineffective.

The Bulldogs were going for an undefeated regular season when cross-county rival New Madrid County Central spoiled the celebration in a blowout, 46-0.

Given that their only loss was a lopsided one to NMCC, who was defeated handsomely by Valle 40-0, not many people outside of Portageville would give the Bulldogs much of a shot to knock off the defending champs.

"If you can put it into perspective, they played New Madrid and the outcome of our game against them was just the way it is," Bessinger said. "How one team plays another isn't a comparison. Every team has their night and, obviously, we didn't have ours against New Madrid."

Although comparing games and outcomes against common opponents doesn't hold much merit, the Bulldogs aren't getting ahead of themselves when it comes to facing a dangerous team like Valle.

"They'll be a tough team to play against," Simmons said. "They have a good quarterback, running back and are just a good team. They're the defending champions. If we just come in here, work like we do, it will be a good game."

Valle holds the record for the most state championships (11) in any class. They average 42.7 points per game and boast a 9-2 record. Their two losses were suffered by in-town rival Ste. Genevieve and Herculaneum.

"They're a really good team," Foster said. "I think we might have a chance to beat them if we can slow down their running game and stop big plays."

Despite being the district's top seed, the Bulldogs are the underdogs to most. They're not heading into Monday night with any notions of bullying the most successful football program in the state.

"Coach always tells us that if we believe, good things will come," Walker added. "We've listened to him and done what he told us to do. It's a blessing to have gotten to this point here."

They're simply ready for their chance to prove they belong.

"I want to win every game, but at the end of the day, I want to see us play our best effort," Bullock said. "If Valle comes down here and we beat them, that's great. But, I'm also content with if our best falls short, I can live with it."

And for nine seniors, who have been through the adversity of losing seasons as well as the highs of winning, they don't have much to lose.

"For us seniors, it's our last year," said Foster. "We're just trying to give it our all and do our best."

After all, no one expected this.