Physicality, balance a key for both Raiders and Stars

Herald File Photo by Nic Antaya
The Southridge Raiders will make their second straight semistate appearance as they face undefeated Western Boone this Saturday at 2 p.m. with a goal of another state championship on their mind. Both the Raiders and Stars will look to use their balanced offensive and defensive attacks as well as their physicality to try and send themselves to the state title game.

By JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

It’s déjà vu all over again for the Southridge football team, as the Raiders find themselves gearing up for another trip to semistate after defeating the Paoli Rams 42-35 last week in regional.

After getting through that gunfight, Southridge coach Scott Buening and the boys are hyped up to still be playing and competing this late into the season.

“We’re very excited anytime you can get to this point,” he said. “(Regional) turned into a shootout, and the guys really hung in there and made the plays when they needed to. Winning a sectional is hard enough, and when you do I feel like you need to take advantage of it.”

But in order for the Raiders (10-3) to take full advantage and seize the chance to defend their 2A state title the team will have another tall task ahead of them as they ready themselves for a game against another undefeated foe in the form of the Western Boone Stars (13-0).

The Stars have been running like a well-oiled machine this season and, outside of a one-score win over Tri-West on Sept. 7, have steamrolled their opponents with an average score differential of about 30 points per game.

“They’re a pretty unusual 2A team,” said Beuening. “First, they’re two-platoon for the most part where they have a set of guys who play offense and a set of guys who play defense. There’s a couple guys who crossover, but not many. You hardly ever see that in 2A football. They have a big offensive and defensive line, they average about 250 across the board on their offensive line. The thing that sticks out with them is how balanced they are.”

Western Boone averages about 42 points per game and are blessed with the services of a number of dynamic athletes who have been able to execute the various game plans at a very high degree in order to make it to this point. But Stars coach Justin Pelley (who played college football with Buening at Hanover College) said the team’s biggest strength is the willingness of the players to sacrifice for each other and step in wherever the end is in order for the collective to achieve success.

“The word selfless has really presented itself on our team this year, which is not common for high school boys, or any of us in general,” he said. “The buy-in from the kids is key (as is) the bonding and trust during the summer. This group has been remarkable in accepting their roles and understanding it’s the best for the team.”

However, it doesn’t hurt to have talent like junior pigslinger Spencer Wright (1,825 yds & 24 TDs passing, 400 yds & 7 TDs rushing) and a stable of backs which include senior Kruze Washington (891 yds, 13 TDs), junior Brett Wethington (736 yds, 10 TDs), and senior Dillon Brown (348 yds, 8 TDs). The pass catching corps includes senior Joe Hendrix (734 yds, 9 TDs), junior Lucas Kernodle (274 yds, 6 TDs) and senior Logan Benson (422 yds, 5 TDs).

“We can play in a game a lot of different ways,” said Pelley. “When we need to run the ball, we can run the ball. When we need to throw it, we can throw it.”

Pelley enjoys having all of those players at his disposal for a number of reasons. First, they make the Stars flexible in working out their strategies and approaches from game to game.

They also allow for the team to make adjustments during their games so they can counter any of their opponents attempts to make them one-dimensional. And because the ball can be easily spread around amongst the aforementioned playmakers plus the skill guys in their reserves, game planning for them is the closest thing to a waking nightmare as you can never be sure where the ball is going.

“Offensively they have the ability to do a lot of things,” said Buening. “Their quarterback broke their single-season (passing) record as a sophomore last year. They have a stable of backs and receivers who they use equally. Whatever you do, they have the ability to counter that with their scheme.”

Buening thinks the major thing that Southridge’s defense will need to do is be balanced themselves and deal with what they see according to keys and assignments, rather than trying to anticipate and gamble on play and leave themselves open to the counter.

The players have to stay focused on winning their one-on-one battles in the early going, especially in the tackle box, in order to create those long down-and-distance situations that lend themselves to more aggressive pressures and packages later in a series. But as always, it will all start upfront.

“As balanced as they are, we have to be balanced defensively as well,” he said. “We really need a good game out of our D-line and linebacking corps. They make it tough to cheat their scheme. They are balanced in their willingness and ability to run and throw the ball, so defensively they force you to do the same thing. You have to play disciplined and play well within the confines of your defense.”

Offensively, the Raiders are likely going to keep on dancing with their traditional partner: work to establish the running game early, and be opportunistic when it comes to passing the ball if they feel they can take advantage of a matchup somewhere on the field. The routine may not be radical, but it will do just fine for Southridge as long as it remains effective.

“We want to establish the integrity of our offense and what it’s designed to do,” said Buening. “The outside run, the inside run, the misdirection, the play action, and the passing game. Over the last two years we’ve gotten much better at taking this system and developing a toolbox that you can go to based on how a defense is playing you.

For their part, Pelley wants to use Western Boone’s speed on defense to swarm the field and deliver pressure to the offense of Southridge to create confusion in the backfield.

They aren’t content to sit back and let the offense dictate the pace of the game, they would much rather force the issue.

“We have to play fast, that’s the strength of our defense,” he said. “And when we get going and start getting after the quarterback, that’s the strength of our defense. They’re not just sitting back waiting, we’re aggressive.”

However, both coaches think that extra factors which may see small at first glance will be elevated in terms of its importance to the outcome of the game. For Pelley, he wants his team to minimize the penalties.

“You’re going to have holding penalties,” said Pelley. “But you have to limit false starts and stuff like that.”

For Buening, whoever has better field position to start drives will be king.

“That was big key in Friday’s regional game, we had good field position most of the night,” he said. “That certainly makes things a lot more comfortable as a play caller on offense, and attacking (the opponent) on defense.

But with that being said, the game still needs to be played (and won) on the field, and Buening is not short on confidence when it comes to guys like Tucker Schank, Colson Montgomery, and Logan Seger stepping up to the task of playing football when the stakes are high.

“A lot of our guys have been in this position before,” he said. “Last year a lot of these guys were in those spots and played games like this. You have to learn to have that mental toughness and battle through things. A lot of these guys have been in big moments and big games, that’s not one thing I’ve been overly concerned about. They’re comfortable under those lights.”




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