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story.lead_photo.caption Helias assistant coaches Conner White (center) and Jeff Pickering and shows players video of a play on the sideline during last Friday night's game against De Smet at Ray Hentges Stadium. Photo by Jenna Kieser / California Democrat.

When Chris Hentges took over as head football coach at Helias last spring, he met with the seniors to-be to find out their goals for the 2018 season.

To a man, they answered:

Beat Hannibal.

Win a district championship.

The group had been a part of five losses to Hannibal in the past three seasons. That goal was achieved Week 1, when Helias defeated Hannibal 35-34.

The bid for the second goal begins tonight when Helias (3-6) hits the road to start Class 4 District 5 play at Union (7-2).

"We accomplished that first one," Hentges said. "And while we did have some rough patches during the regular season, that second goal is still out there in front of us.

"The only thing that matter is what we do in the next three weeks, starting against Union."

Helias and Union enter the postseason on different trajectories. The Crusaders have dropped six of their last seven games, while the Wildcats will bring a seven-game winning streak into tonight's contest.

Not that any of that matters. One bad night and you're season could be done.

"Whether you're 9-0 or 0-9, everybody knows if you don't play well, your season could be over," Hentges said. "The fates the same for everybody if you lose.

"There's a sense of urgency among the seniors, they don't want this to be the last week of football."

Helias played one of the most difficult schedules for any Class 4 team in the state this season. Six of its opponents were in the final Missouri Media Rankings this week and Helias' nine foes finished with a combined record of 57-26.

"What you do in districts really matters and I think our schedule has prepared us to make a district run," Hentges said. "We're going to be a tough out if we can play like we are capable."

The Crusaders are using the beginning of districts as a fresh start.

"We've been energetic and focused and ready to go," Hentges said. "I think the seniors know with a loss, they're done."

If they want to win tonight, the Crusaders will have to slow a potent Wildcat spread offense that throws the ball 80 percent of the time.

"Union presents a unique challenge," Hentges said.

Helias used a lot of 7-on-7 drills in practice this week to prepare for Union's pass game, led by quarterback Derek Hulsey.

Hulsey is 153-of-266 passing this season for 2,2221 yards and 17 touchdowns to go along with 17 interceptions.

"Any time you throw the ball that much, you're going to have interceptions," Hentges said. "That's just the nature of that kind of offense."

Peyton Burke leads the Wildcats with 44 catches for 884 yards (20.1 avg.) and nine touchdowns. Eli Klenke is next with 35 receptions for 420 yards (12.0) and four cores, while Joey Sullivan has totaled 342 yards on 29 catches (11.8) and three touchdowns.

"They have 4- or 5-wides and it's throw and catch, throw and catch," Hentges said. "They have athletes on the edge that work together to get open."

The Wildcats don't take that many shots down the field with their passing game,

"They want to get the ball to their athletes and let them go get yards," Hentges said.

Matt Bray, who has 18 catches for 197 yards, paces the Union run game with 569 yards (5.2 avg.) and 12 touchdowns.

"You can't sell out to their passing game," Hentges said. "They are capable of running the ball as well."

It's an offense the Wildcats have been running for more than 10 years.

"They do a good job of reading coverages," Hentges said. "They have shown the ability to make quick adjustments to what the defense is showing them.

"It's going to be a challenge for us to defend everything they are going to throw at us. They have a bunch of stuff in their playbook."

Defensively, the Wildcats operate mostly out of a 4-4 front.

"They are physical up front, their linebackers really can get to the ball and their secondary has some good guys back there," Hentges said. "It's a versatile defense."

With eight men in the box, the Wildcats often have one more player than an offense can block.

"They can bring pressure from a lot of different areas," Hentges said. "They really try to put stress on our passing game."

Helias is the No. 5 seed in the district.

"We have nothing to lose, let's play loose, have fun, play hard and let the chips fall where they may," Hentges said.

Game time is 7 p.m.

III

The Helias-Union winner will face the winner of tonight's game between top-seeded Camdenton (8-1) and eighth-seeded Pacific (1-8). With a win, Helias would play at Camdenton or host Pacific next Friday night. Helias and Union last played in a two-game regular season series in 2008-09. Union, with Jordan Webb at quarterback, defeated Helias 48-3 in 2008 at Adkins Stadium. Webb went on to play at Kansas. That was Helias' lone loss that season until the Class 4 state championship game against Webb City (41-34). In 2009, the Crusaders defeated the Wildcats 34-7 at Union on their way back to the title game. Zach Woehr should be back after sitting out last week for Helias, while Zach Covington's status will be a game-time decision for the Crusaders. Union has outscored its opponents 244-77 in its seven-game winning streak to capture the Four Rivers Conference title. The Wildcats opened the season with losses at Farmington (23-12) and at Borgia (44-26). Helias lost 41-13 at home to Borgia in Week 5.

Related Media: Helias Crusaders Football Podcast [Union preview, Oct. 26, 2018]

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