It's no secret the Helias Crusaders have aspirations to make a long postseason run.
That's the reason they added Cardinal Ritter to the schedule last week to fill an opening in the final game of the regular season.
"Looking down the road, this game can only help us by getting the chance to see a team with this kind of speed for potential future games in the postseason," Helias coach Chris Hentges said as the Crusaders (8-0) and Lions (0-2) get set to meet tonight at Ray Hentges Stadium.
It's the third straight season Helias and Cardinal Ritter will meet. The Lions have won the two previous meetings, 61-35 in 2018 in St. Louis and 48-14 last season.
There's no way the Crusaders are taking any stock in the Lions being winless heading into the 7 p.m. contest.
"We know how badly they beat us the last two years, we're not looking at their record," Hentges said. "We're looking at their skill on tape. We know we will have to be 100 percent locked in, mistake-free, sound in our assignments in order to compete with this team."
The Lions had to forfeit last season's win against the Crusaders for using an ineligible player. Cardinal Ritter later fired its entire coaching staff regarding the incident.
"But a lot of their athletes stayed, it's a lot of the same kids we saw last year," Hentges said.
Cardinal Ritter, which had the start of its season delayed by health department restrictions in St. Louis, dropped its opener 38-14 to Francis Howell before falling 56-32 to Jackson last week. Francis Howell is No. 5 in this week's Class 6 Missouri Media Rankings, while Jackson holds down the No. 3 spot in Class 5.
Helias, No. 1 in Class 4, will be the third-ranked opponent for Cardinal Ritter.
"When you watch them on tape, you can see the speed and skill they have all over the field, even against the quality competition they've faced," Hentges said.
Luther Burden III is one of the Lions' elite players. The wide receiver, who has orally committed to Oklahoma, has 12 catches for 358 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Keavion Long, who has received more than 10 Division I offers, has totaled 156 yards and a touchdown on six catches as the other starting receiver.
"You can't double both of them," Hentges said. "It's going to put a lot of stress on our defense, they have more speed and skill at the receiver positions than we've seen all year."
Helias is allowing just 231 total yards per game this season, but 133 of that is coming through the air. The Crusaders have allowed 16 touchdowns this season, with 11 coming on passes. Nine of those have been on plays of 20 or more yards.
"They're elite speed is something that concerns us as a defense," Hentges said. "But we are who we are, we're not all of the sudden going to be able to run a 4.3 or grow four inches. We have good athletes that are capable and smart and we're going to have to use our strengths to do our best to contain them."
Cardinal Ritter quarterback TJ Atkins is 24-of-51 passing for 631 yards and six touchdowns to go along with one interception. And while those numbers are impressive, Hentges believes Atkins is more dangerous in the run game.
"They have more of an athlete who can hurt you with his legs," Hentges said. "He's a capable thrower, but he's an absolute weapon as a running quarterback. He wants to run it.
"If you overplay the running back, the quarterback can pull it out and we have nobody that can catch him."
Cardinal Ritter's rushing attack will be boosted tonight with the return of Bill Jackson, who was ineligible for the first two games of the season. The senior has committed to play at Tulsa.
"He'll have fresh legs and be ready to run," Hentges said. "We know he's a load to bring down."
It figures to be the stiffest defensive test for the Crusaders so far this season.
"There are all kinds of big plays on tape from their first two games," Hentges said. "They are not a team that will put together a lot of methodical, long drives. They want to score with their explosive ability and we have to do our best to eliminate that.
"We know we have to have a lot of respect for that speed and we have to play our defense that way. We can't miss tackles, we can't give up big plays."
Defensively, the Lions have changed to a four-man front and a talented secondary in man coverage.
"We figure we are going to have to run the ball against six or seven men in the box," Hentges said.
Helias is averaging more than 220 yards on the ground this season. Continuing that success could be important tonight, if for no other reason to keep the Cardinal Ritter offense on the sideline and limit its possessions.
Cardinal Ritter allowed 215 rushing yards against Francis Howell before giving up 310 on the ground against Jackson.
"Running the football is our No. 1 key to success, like it is most games," Hentges said.
Helias is the No. 1 seed in Class 4 District 6 and will have a first-round bye for the start of the postseason next week.
"We need the challenge, it prepares you for the playoffs much more than being open," Hentges said. "We couldn't have two straight open dates.
"We know what we're up against, but I believe we're up the challenge, we're excited about it."
Notes: Last year's meeting was tied at 7 after the first quarter before Cardinal Ritter scored 34 points in the final five minutes of the half to take control. "We just melted down," Hentges said. "We had a couple of miscues and things got away from us." The Crusaders are one of four ranked teams in District 6. Bolivar, Warrensburg and Harrisonville hold down spots 7-9, respectively. Helias will host a district semifinal contest Nov. 6.