The Helias Crusaders have picked up a bit of atonement this season with wins against Vianney and Borgia after falling to those two last season.
Their next chance for some redemption comes tonight when the Crusaders travel to Monroe City to take on the Panthers in a clash of 5-1 teams. Monroe City jumped out to a 28-0 lead against Helias last year at Ray Hentges Stadium, then held on for a 34-28 victory.
"That was a difficult loss for us," Helias coach Chris Hentges said. "But it's a new group of kids and it's about us going up there and playing our best.
"We want to play well and improve."
Monroe City presents a unique challenge for its opponents as the Panthers operate out of the run-based wing-T offense.
"I think even if you saw it every week it would be difficult to stop because of the way they run it," Hentges said.
The Panthers dominated the Crusaders last season, picking up 433 yards on the ground in the game.
Keenan Batsell led the way for the Panthers, running 41 times for 276 yards. The senior (5-foot-10, 200 pounds) has run for 911 yards (7.0 avg.) and 13 touchdowns this season.
"Everything goes through him," Hentges said. "They will pound it, pound it, and pound it. He's hard to bring down."
Batsell is the best of both worlds as a running back — a physical runner with breakaway speed.
"He can take any play the distance and that's always a concern for a defense," Hentges said.But he's not the only running threat for the Panthers. Antwaun Battle, a senior, had rushed for 382 yards (8.5 avg.), while junior Aaron Plumb has picked up 259 yards (6.6 avg.) this season. Both have run for four touchdowns.
The wing-T is an offense that uses misdirection in the backfield as a weapon.
"We have to read our keys, be fundamentally sound," Hentges said. "Last year, we were getting pushed a little bit and tried to run around blocks. We can't do that.
"It's about technique, we have to be solid to slow down their run game. It's going to be a challenge for us. We feel like we have a good game plan against it, but it's a matter of executing it. We're going to have to play well."
But the Crusaders can't completely sell-out on stopping the run.
"They run, run, run, run and try to lull you to sleep," Hentges said. "Then they try to hit you with a big play-action pass. The corners and safeties have to be strong with their assignments."
Monroe City sophomore quarterback Kyle Hays is just 24-of-40 passing this season. But the Panthers are averaging better than 25 yards per reception.
"He's doing well," Hentges said. "He's accurate when he throws it. What they do in the pass game, he does it well."
Three Panthers — Plumb (141 yards), Battle (138) and Logan Buhlig (106) — have six catches each to lead the team. Battle has two touchdown runs, while Plumb has one.
The Panthers are averaging 31 points per game. Monroe City does not kick the ball often, always goes for a 2-point conversion and isn't afraid to run a play on fourth down. The Panthers have punted just eight times in six games.
"If they have the formula they use working for them, it can be very tough to beat them," Hentges said.
That was the formula that worked last year as Monroe City jumped out to a 28-0 lead in the first half against Helias.
"We gave them too many possessions," Hentges said. "We have to get some stops and get their offense off the field."
Monroe City, which switches between 3- and 4-man fronts on defense, is giving up a little more than 21 points to its opponents.
The Crusader offense has been clicking for much of the season, averaging 35 points per contest.
Helias quarterback Jake Weaver has been especially crisp the past two games, completing 25-of-33 passes for 453 yards and seven touchdowns in basically five quarters of action.
"Jake has given us the ability to throw deep, he's been very effective in the pass game," Hentges said.
The Helias offensive line entered the season as a bit of a question mark due to inexperience. But the group has matured through the first six games.
"They are really protecting our quarterbacks," Hentges said.
The Helias run game should be back at full strength tonight with the return of Alex Clement, who left the Cardinal Ritter game three weeks ago with a shoulder injury.
Brody Mays, who missed time with a leg injury, returned last week and ran 13 times for 103 yards and a touchdown in just the first half in a 38-0 victory against Father Tolton in Columbia.
Ryan Klahr and Carson Brauner, both sophomores, got unexpected varsity time at running back with the injuries. Both showed they can be top backs in the future in their limited time.
"We've got four running backs now that I'm confident can run our offense," Hentges said.
The Crusaders, who have not turned the ball over in the last two games, is also benefiting from a lack of penalties called against them. Helias has been flagged just 26 times for 232 yards, while opponents have been penalized 57 times for 431 yards.
"We are far less penalized than our opponents and that's helped us keep our drives alive on offense and gotten the opponent off the field," Hentges said.
The Crusaders have been dominant in the second half of games this season, outscoring opponents 67-14.
"We've been able to come out in the second half and execute the changes we want to make," Hentges said.
Hentges believes his team will be in for a tough challenge tonight in Helias' first-ever football game at Monroe City.
"I gained so much respect for them for the way they handled us up front last year," he said. "It's a successful, proud program and we're expecting a tough ballgame."
Game time is 7 p.m.
Notes: Helias is looking to finish a three-game sweep of games on the road. "We've always been a pretty good road team," Hentges said. "We've handled our business. When you leave your home, it often turns into just being about the team and the task at hand." Monroe City will bring a five-game winning streak into the game. "They have been dominating lately," Hentges said. After falling 35-6 at Centralia to open the season, Monroe City has wins against Brookfield (30-14), Highland (46-26), Macon (46-41), West Hancock, Ill. (22-0) and South Shelby (38-12) for Homecoming last Friday night. Helias moved up two spots to No. 7 this week in the Missouri Media Rankings. Monroe City is receiving votes in Class 2. The Crusaders will wrap up the home portion of their regular-season schedule next Friday night when they host the Rock Bridge Bruins. Helias plays at De Smet, ranked No. 1 in Class 6, in Week 9.