The Helias Crusaders are ready to face the challenge.
The De Smet Spartans (8-0), a unanimous selection at No. 1 in Class 6 in the Missouri Media Rankings, are loaded with Division I talent on both sides of the ball heading into tonight's game against the Crusaders (8-0, No. 7 in Class 4) in St. Louis.
"We're treating it just like any other week," Helias coach Chris Hentges said. "We think we have a good scouting report, we've met as coaches to talk about what we can do to be successful and how we can go out and execute the game plan to the best of our ability.
"But when you play a team like De Smet, you realize that might not be enough to combat their size, skill, speed, everything that looks to be an advantage for them. So you go in and play your heart out, you go in to play as hard as you can because that's all we know how to do."
The confidence of the Crusaders should be high after last Friday night's 27-20 home victory against the Rock Bridge Bruins.
"That was probably as much energy and excitement as the stadium has seen for a while," Hentges said.
The Crusaders led 27-10 after three quarters before holding off the Bruins with an inspired goal line stand in the final minute.
"It was a gutsy performance for our defense," Hentges said. "They stood tall and preserved the victory. I was happy with our effort and our grit."
That grit will be needed tonight. The Spartans feature a pair of talented quarterbacks, a trio of outstanding running backs and a wide receiver who's committed to Notre Dame.
That's a lot of talent to game plan against.
"Pick your poison," Hentges said. "You load the box to stop the powerful run game, they've got the speed to beat you deep. You try to play a safety over the top to give some help on their speedy receivers, they're going to run the ball right down their throat."The Spartans often use both of their quarterbacks in the same game. Michael Wheeler (6-foot-2, 180-pound sr.) is 49-of-73 through the air for 733 yards and 11 touchdowns with one interception. A.J. Fraser (6-5, 195 sr.) is 340-of-46 for 527 yards to go along with nine touchdowns and one interception.
Three Spartan running backs have run for more than 550 yards this season. Rico Barfield (6-0, 215 jr.) leads the attack with 81 carries for 638 yards (7.9 avg.) and 12 touchdowns. Taj Butts (5-11, 200, jr.) has 588 yards on 59 carries (10.0) and 10 touchdowns, while Darez Snider (5-9, 180 jr.) has 51 carries for 571 yards (10.6) and eight scores.
Jordan Johnson (6-2, 185 sr.) tops the Spartans in receiving with 350 yards (21.9 avg.) and seven touchdowns, Ra'shod Smith-Harvey (5-9, 160 jr.) leads with 24 catches. He has 305 receiving yards and four scores. Jakailin Johnson (6-0, 170 jr.) has totaled 247 yards on 13 catches, four for touchdowns.
The best way to slow the Spartans, who average 48.3 points per game, is to make sure to make a tackle when you get the opportunity.
"You can do everything right, but they are so strong and so fast, if you don't tackle well, the best game plan doesn't mean a thing," Hentges said.
The Crusaders have made the needed tackles more often than not this season.
"We expect to do that again (tonight)," Hentges said.
The talent of the Spartans isn't limited to their offense. De Smet is allowing just 9.1 points per game to its opponents.
It starts up front with an outstanding group of linemen.
"I don't think I've seen as talented a defensive line as this one since I've been at Helias," Hentges said. "To have that many defensive linemen as stout as they are is going to be a great challenge for our offensive line, not only against the run but against the pass.
"They are complete defensive linemen, they're great at stopping the run and they can get after the quarterback as well."
The Spartans don't blitz a lot.
"Because they don't have to," Hentges said. "If you can get pressure on the quarterback with your four guys up front, why blitz?"
Mekhi Wingo (6-1, 285 jr.) is a standout, totaling 12 tackles for loss and five sacks this season.
"He's as explosive a kid as I've seen in a while," Hentges said.
DeSmet has totaled 28 sacks this season to go along with 64 tackles for loss.
Carter Edwards (6-1, 225, jr.) leads the Spartans with 77 tackles from his linebacker spot. He also has two interceptions. Jakailin Jonnson has three of De Smet's 10 interceptions from his position in the secondary.
The Helias defense has been a stout unit as well this season, giving up just under 10 points per game while posting four shutouts.
The Crusader linebackers have been a backbone of the strong effort.
"It's been a solid group, the heartbeat of the defense," Hentges said.
In the last two weeks, the starting linebacker trio of Isaac Lopez, Ethan Holzhauser and Thomas Bruemmer have combined for 85 tackles in wins against Monroe City and Rock Bridge.
Holzhauser had 16 tackles against Rock Bridge and 20 against Monroe City from his middle linebacker spot. Holzhauser entered the starting lineup after Garrett Schnieders was injured during the game against Cardinal Ritter.
"Garrett was having a great senior season and Ethan has done a great job in his place," Hentges said.
Lopez has totaled 34 stops in the last two games and has a team-high 82 tackles this season.
"Isaac has been steady all year long, it seems like he's always in the right place," Hentges said.
Breummer has 46 tackles this season.
"Thomas has played very well," Hentges said.
The trio played key roles in the goal line stand against Rock Bridge. The seven-point final margin was the closest of the season for the Crusaders.
"You would like to think games like that one will pay dividends in the postseason, in district play and beyond," Hentges said. "Any coach in any sport will tell you wins like that really build character."
The Crusaders are looking at tonight's game as another test for the postseason.
"One way or another, we're going to get better," Hentges said. "It's going to be a great test and any time you match up with a team with this much talent, you hope you come out healthy and you hope you come out a tougher football team, a better football team for having that experience."
Game time is 7 p.m.
Notes: Helias will enter tonight's game holding down the No. 1 spot in the Class 4 District 5 standings with 52.49 points. Camdenton (8-0) is second with 51.13. Both the Crusaders and Lakers, who will host the Kickapoo Chiefs (4-4) tonight, will receive bonus points for playing Class 6 schools. Camdenton has defeated Kickapoo the last two seasons by a combined score of 84-14. The top four teams in the district will host the opening round games next Friday. De Smet has three shutouts this season, including a pair of 63-0 victories against Jefferson City and Cape Girardeau Central the last two weeks. De Smet opened the year with a 35-0 win against Hazelwood Central. De Smet has allowed just 73 points, 31 of which came in a one-point victory Oct. 4 against De Smet. This is the last of a four-game series between Helias and De Smet. The Crusaders won the first meeting 50-27, while the Spartans have 38-31 and 51-17 victories the last two years. The 17 points the Crusaders scored tied for the second-most the Spartans allowed in the regular season last year. Crusader backup quarterback Tyler Sandbothe returned to practice late this week after missing the Rock Bridge game. Carson Brauner may return tonight as a backup running back after a high ankle sprain.