The Rock Bridge Bruins opened the season in the top 10 in Class 6 in the Missouri Media Rankings.
But a 0-4 start knocked them off nearly everyone's radar. Nearly everyone.
"That's so misleading because their first four opponents were so darned good," Helias coach Chris Hentges said as the Crusaders (6-1, No. 7 in Class 4) prepare to host the Bruins (3-4) tonight at Ray Hentges Stadium.
"Rock Bridge is Rock Bridge. We saw them in the summer in 7-on-7, when know how talented Rock Bridge is. I'm not sure anybody in the state had a tougher first four weeks than Rock Bridge had."
The Bruins opened the season against Rockhurst, De Smet, Battle and Lee's Summit West and were outscored 122-45 in that stretch.
"I think their offensive struggles were due a lot to the quality of opponent they were playing," Hentges said.
But the Bruins have rebounded to win their last three games — against Hickman, Jefferson City and Sedalia Smith-Cotton — by a combined score of 128-57.
"We knew they would find their stride and get better and they have," Hentges said. "We have the ultimate respect for Rock Bridge, we always have, they're a great football program with a lot of great athletes.
"It's going to be a big, big challenge for us."The offensive surge by the Bruins has been led by the running game.
Bryce Jackson (5-foot-9, 195-pound jr.) has picked up 441 yards on 71 carries (6.3 avg.) and six touchdowns in the three victories. Miles Cheatum (6-0, 210, sr.) has 245 yards rushing on just 16 carries (15.3 avg.) and four scores in the last three weeks.
"They've got a two-headed monster," Hentges said. "It's hard for us to simulate their speed and athleticism in practice, we did the best we could. We know it will be important to contain those two running backs."
Senior quarterback Grant Hajicek is a combined 26-of-41 passing in the winning streak for 399 yards and six touchdowns.
"You can see he is getting more comfortable getting the ball down the field," Hentges said. "Their offense is a lot like ours, they are going to try to take what you give them. But they are most potent when they give the ball to one of their two backs."
The Helias defense is coming off a game where it had to play good run defense. Last Friday night, Monroe City ran the ball 73 times for 387 yards in its wing-T offense.
"The defensive coaches had to grade a lot of film," Hentges said with a laugh. "Physically, we were a little beat up Saturday morning because of their style of play. It grinds on you."
Trailing 16-14 at the half, the Crusaders scored touchdowns on five straight possessions while forcing four straight stops on defense to pull away for a 49-24 victory.
"We're always proud when we have a good third and fourth quarter because that tells me we're making the proper adjustments at halftime and the kids are absorbing what we're trying to do," Hentges said. "That's the mark of a good coaching staff and smart kids who can go out and execute a game plan with some adjustments made."
Zach Wolken, in his first varsity start at quarterback in place of the injured Jake Weaver, was 9-of-15 through the air for 136 yards and two touchdowns while running for 17 more yards and a score.
"I thought Zach played well for his first start," Hentges said. "He made some early mistakes, but he made the adjustments when we came back to those exact same plays.
"He's a smart kid who knows our offense and he can run everything on our offense."
It was Helias' first game in about a month with the running back tandem of Alex Clement and Brody Mays at full strength. That took some of the pressure off Wolken, Hentges said.
Clement led the way with 133 yards and two touchdowns on 10 carries, while Mays ran it six times for 34 yards and two scores.
"When Alex gets out to the edge, he can take it to the house," Hentges said. "Brody is more physical, he can drag tacklers along, he runs really hard.
"It's nice to have that 1-2 punch in the backfield."
Caleb Justice scored his first two touchdowns as a receiver for the Crusaders last Friday, finishing with three catches for 77 yards.
"Caleb is a talented receiver, we need to get him some more touches offensively," Hentges said. "He's a big 6-3 receiver that runs really well and can catch the ball."
Defensively, the Bruins are led by a pair of Missouri recruits in linebacker Will Norris (6-1, 230) and lineman Jalen Logan-Redding (6-5, 215).
Helias has lost three straight to the Bruins after winning three in a row in the series.
"We feel like we match up better with them than maybe we have in the past few years," Hentges said. "But we're still going to have to play awfully well."
Helias' final home game of the regular season is scheduled for a 7 p.m. kickoff.
Notes: Helias' one loss was a 48-14 decision to Cardinal Ritter in late September. Cardinal Ritter has been in the news this week with allegations it has used an ineligible player during the first seven weeks of the season, including against Helias. While saying Helias is aware of the situation, Hentges did not want to otherwise comment. If Cardinal Ritter is forced to forfeit the game, Helias would receive additional district points. The Crusaders are currently third in the standings, just .26 points behind Lebanon. This will be Helias' first home game in four weeks. "It will be nice to be at home, but I don't mind being the road," Hentges said. "I don't mind the bus rides, you can develop camaraderie on trips." The Crusaders will be short on offensive reserves at skill positions tonight. Backup quarterback Tyler Sandbothe will be out after being hurt in a JV game earlier this week. Running back Ryan Klahr is out 6-8 weeks after suffering a knee injury late in the win against Monroe City. ... Helias will end the regular season next Friday against De Smet, the No. 1 team in Class 6, in St. Louis.