The Crimson Bears football team (2-4 overall, 2-2 Railbelt) has two games left in its regular season, but its playoffs started at Adair-Kennedy Memorial Field on Monday afternoon.
After dropping four games in a row, including two conference matchups, head coach Bill Chalmers and company have been practicing at full throttle over the past week. The new, helmet-cracking pace is a big change from earlier in the year when the team was worried about injuring its best players.
"We found out (worrying about injuries) doesn't work," Chalmers said. "We've had some really hard-hitting practices this week to try to toughen the kids up. It worked - everybody's healthy for the Lathrop game."
JDHS has not only made the playoffs in every season since 2003, they have made it to the state semifinals in each of those years, even advancing to the state championship three times. Tonight's Senior Night matchup against Lathrop High School (0-4 Railbelt) is critical for the current squad to ensure that the playoff streak does not end in 2008.
A total of 19 seniors could contribute in their final home game tonight, including 16 players, two managers and a cheerleader. Each senior will be acknowledged and will take the field with his or her parents prior to the game's 7 p.m. kickoff.
"A lot of these kids went undefeated last year and have taken their roles as leaders since the season began, but seven of them haven't played football in six or seven years," offensive coordinator Rich Sjoroos said. "Those guys are just becoming seniors now. They started out kind of like juniors, but they found out what that role means."
The Crimson Bears's offense was shut out at home against North Pole last Friday for the first time since 2003. As a result of that and similarly low-scoring early-season efforts, senior Dakotah Smith will be taking over the quarterback position tonight. The move frees up previous starter and last season's team MVP, senior Alex Fagerstrom, to bounce between the backfield and the wide receiver slots.
"We're looking at moving (Fagerstrom) to more of a running back role. He's such a big playmaker that we want to get the ball in his hands and see what happens," Sjoroos said. "It's nice having flexibility with those two guys. They can both run and throw pretty well, and Alex is also a weapon catching the ball."
The JDHS defense has been inconsistent so far this season, but Chalmers hopes that the physical practices will help shore up the same schemes that have been so effective in the past.
"(Defensive coordinator) Eddie Brakes has a whole book of different defenses," Chalmers said. "We'll work on some harder this week, but we'll still have the whole range of schemes and pretty much the same personnel."
The good news is that Lathrop has scored just 12 points over four games, including last Friday's 38-6 loss at West Valley that was suspended with more than 10 minutes left to play after brawls broke out in the stands and parking lot. The fighting was limited to off the field, however, and the incident is not expected to impact the Lathrop roster.
"They've got good running backs and they're quicker than we are," Chalmers said. "We'll be OK if we contain those backs. I expect us to pick up some good momentum in this game."