Althoff High football coach Ken Turner is counting on his senior leadership group to provide focus and intensity to help keep the Crusaders alive in the Class 2A state football playoffs.
"They understand that each win is special," said Turner, whose 7-3 squad will travel to Athens (8-2) for a 2 p.m. second-round game Saturday. "This is as focused a group of kids that I've had. They understand what's in front of them and the opportunities that they have. They want to win and keep it going."
For added motivation, the Crusaders know that a victory would guarantee them a home game next weekend in the quarterfinals. They have played their first two postseason games on the road.
This week they are in Athens, a town just north of Springfield that has been playing varsity football for only seven years. However, the Warriors have qualified for the playoffs four times and are coming off the school's second playoff win, a 20-13 victory at Beardstown last week.
"The early years were definitely a struggle," Athens coach Ryan Knox said. "I think it made us better as coaches going through the 0-0 season and 1-8 season."
Athens wants to run the ball and has been extremely effective this season with speedy tailback Seth Perkins and brawny fullback James Selinger.
The pair have combined for 2,948 yards and 39 touchdowns. Perkins had 194 yards and two TDs last week against Beardstown.
"It will be important for us to sustain some long drives and keep the ball out of Althoff's hands," said Knox, whose team has scored at least 41 points six times in 10 games. " We really place an importance on executing blocks and carrying out assignments up front."
Turner's squad was able to force Chester out of its running game last week and hopes to do the same thing against a larger, more physical Athens team.
"You know where the ball's going and you know who's getting it, so we've got to stop the run," Turner said. "They've got nice size on the defensive line and nice size in their linebackers. They're not a small ballclub, so we've got to dig deep in the trenches and win that battle."
Knox said his team has seen no with Althoff's combination of size, speed and ability to run and throw on offense.
"They're very balanced and big up front with some skill kids on the outside," Knox said. "It will definitely be a tough challenge for us. We don't see size like that very often, so we're going to have to play our best."
Among the Althoff defensive players catching Knox's attention in person and on film was 6-foot-4, 240-pound linebacker Erik Furmanek.
"The Furmanek kid is special," he said. "We're going to have to make sure we've got a hat on him at all times."
Saturday's game: Althoff (7-3) at Athens (8-2), 2 p.m.; game will be streamed live on www.ihsa.tv/althoff
Last week: Althoff defeated Chester 42-24, Athens defeated Beardstown 20-13.
Althoff players to watch: WR Garland Henley (28 catches, 589 yards, 8 TDs; 76 carries for 325 yards rushing, 4 TDs); QB Eric Mertens (117 for 217, 1,790 yards, 17 TDs, 15 int.); RB Dennis Jackson (146 carries, 641 yards, 8 TDs); WR Nick Hawthorne (26 catches, 358 yards, 5 TDs); LB-OL Erik Furmanek (128 tackles, 3 int.); DL Merrick Jackson (55 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 int.); LB Zach Donaldson (81 tackles, 4 int.)
Athens players to watch: RB Seth Perkins (200 carries, 1,921 yards, 21 TDs); RB James Selinger (133 carries, 1,027 yards 18 TDs); QB Clay Bounds (44-for-83, 631 yards, 5 TDs, 5 int.); WR-DB Joseph Epperson (11 catches, 209 yards, 2 TDs; 3 int. on defense).
Notes: Althoff receiver Luke Frazier (19 catches, 267 yards) returns this week after being out four weeks with a leg injury....The Crusaders have not won a second-round playoff game since 2004, a 38-12 5A win over Cahokia....Athens athletic director Tim Isringhausen played for Hardin Calhoun's back-to-back state football championship teams in 1992 and 1993....Selinger returned last week after missing two games with an ankle injury....Athens was one of five Sangamo Conference teams to make the playoffs. The Warriors' only two losses came against league heavyweights Williamsville (10-0) and Pleasant Plains (9-1)
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.