Chiefs one step away from Promised Land
ALMA -- 54-12.
The number has hung in the air, in the memories, of Santa Fe football players for a year. It represents the licking put on the Chiefs a year ago by Princeton in the MSHSAA Class 1 semifinals, which kept them from returning to the Show-Me Bowl for the first time since winning state in 2000.
It has also served as a driving force this season. Seventh-ranked I-70 Conference champion Santa Fe will have a chance to atone for the loss Saturday.
"It's the one we've been looking for since Nov. 22 of last year," asserted Chiefs head coach Jarrod Borland. "The kids have worked all summer and season toward the goal of winning this game."
They'll have to do it against No. 4 East Buchanan (12-0), which won the title in the tough KCI Conference. The Bulldogs had to shake a disappointment, too: Their 5-5 record in '03.
"We have a good group of seniors that are very focused and do a good job of leading," veteran head coach Ron Musser said of East Buchanan's turnaround. "That's rubbed off on the other kids."
It's shown up on the gridiron, the 'Dogs smashing through opponents all season -- by a cumulative 462-106 margin. That East Buchanan would score a lot of points didn't shock anyone, coming into the season with a bunch of speedsters. But even Musser considered the defense "a pleasant surprise."
"Most of our athletes play linebacker and in the secondary," he explained. "It allows us to mix up our coverage and get stopped whatever we need to stop."
In Santa Fe, the Bulldogs will face an opponent which also possesses offensive balance -- either running the ball behind a big offensive line or senior Zach Brown throwing to capable wideouts like seniors Clay Michael and Cody Smith or his backs.
"They've got so many stinking formations," Musser declared. "We thought we had a lot of formations, but they put people all over the place. Our kids couldn't remember all the plays they run."
In that way, the Chiefs' Wing-T is much like Lawson's, which scored twice the average allowed by the 'Dogs during their 21-17 victory.
"Our key is ball control," Borland said. "East Buchanan can score quickly, so we want to keep them from getting touches."
The Bulldogs' weapons include fleet senior tailback Adam Barber and a pair of lanky receivers: All-state 6-foot-5 senior Andrew Mead and 6-4 senior Mark Burtson. The Chiefs hope their height will help.
"I think we match up with them as well as anybody," Borland observed. "They've got tall receivers and we've got tall cornerbacks, taller than any they've seen this year."
Santa Fe has shut down feature backs the last two games, Gallatin's Jason McGee rushed for 62 yards on 22 carries and Drexel's Andy Otto only gaining 26 yards on 23 attempts. Yet, neither team had East Buchanan's passing attack.
"We're blessed with some great skill people," Musser said. "We can mix up the run and the pass."
That certainly has Borland concerned, although he believes the Chiefs have one decided advantage in three-time all-state senior lineman Kurtis Gregory -- along with mates like seniors Tony Fitzwater and Jarod Moenkhoff and sophomore B.J. Ford -- in the pits.
"I think our defensive line is better than our offensive line," Borland claimed. "I think we can control the line of scrimmage. If we forced [Barber] inside, I think we can be successful."
Gregory and company have caught Musser's attention. The Bulldogs also have some size up front, but is it as active and skilled as Santa Fe's?
"We're improving on both sides of the line," he said. "If your kids up front don't block, [talent] is not going to make much difference."
Princeton didn't have much problem controlling the Chiefs in the trenches a year ago. Borland thinks the anxiety of playing in the biggest game of his players' careers was more of a factor then than it will be now.
"They were a little nervous about it, a little tense," he recalled. "This time, they're more relaxed -- but not to the point of being unfocused."
The Santa Fe upperclassmen were in junior high the last time these two teams met, the Chiefs smashing East Buchanan in the 2000 quarterfinals, 44-15, en route to their state championship. Can Santa Fe repeat that performance in its quest to get back to St. Louis for the fourth time since '96?
"They are confident we have the ability to win," Borland remarked. "That's a lot of the battle: Believing you can win."