Crusaders set to contend with three-time champ Rochester

News-DemocratNovember 16, 2013 

Being underdogs against a Springfield-area power in the playoffs is nothing new to the Althoff Crusaders, who face three-time defending state champion Rochester in the Class 4A quarterfinals Saturday.

Saturday's game: Althoff (7-4) at Rochester (10-1), 4 p.m. (; WCVS-FM 96.7).

Even though both teams were 11-0 when Althoff met Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin in the 2002 Class 5A quarterfinals, Griffin was the decided favorite.

But Althoff traded touchdowns with the Cyclones and won the game 35-31 on a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brian Hampton to Matt Lauber with 25 seconds remaining.

"There weren't very many people giving us a chance to win it," said Lauber, now an assistant coach for the Crusaders who had eight catches for 180 yards that day. "We didn't have the big names and didn't have the big schools coming to look at us. But we fought to the end."

Althoff coach Ken Turner was an assistant coach for Glenn Schott on the 2002 squad.

"That was a strong-minded football team," Turner said. "I remember the magnitude of the win, how packed it was, two legendary coaches were going at it."

Big hill to climb: It will take a similar all-out effort to knock off Rochester. The Rockets have a 17-game playoff winning streak and have lost only four times on the field since 2009.

In a 56-28 second-round win at Mater Dei last week, Rochester running back Drake Berberet had 192 yards rushing and three TDs. Mater Dei quarterback Sam Toennies was under siege, held to minus-44 yards rushing in the first half.

"Winning breeds success and they've been very successful over the last few years," Turner said. "We need to work on our game plan, whether it's Rochester or anyone else. It's really us trying to combat the scheme that they're bringing and with that scheme, they bring a huge amount of confidence.

"It's a well-oiled machine right now and they're confident in what they're doing."

Rochester coach Derek Leonard knows about Althoff's proud football past, which includes three state titles and a second-place finish last year in 2A.

"Althoff has that tradition, too," he said. "It's a lot older and longer (than ours) and it's a proud tradition, too."

What to watch for: Rochester has a dominant offensive line and running attack led by Berberet, yet quarterback Robbie Kelley has thrown for more than 2,000 yards.

Althoff wants to spread the ball to its playmakers and relies on record-setting senior quarterback Eric Mertens.

"Their quarterback's got a good arm, he can make every throw," said Leonard, the son of Griffin's Hall of Fame coach Ken Leonard. "You just can't let him sit back there and find people, so we've got to get pressure on him. Yards after the catch will be big, too.

"If you let them run and get out in the open and give the quarterback time, it will be a long game."

Rochester's quick climb: Rochester did not collect its first football playoff victory until 2001. The Rockets have won the last three 4A state titles while becoming a model program everyone else in 4A is trying to catch or emulate.

"Sometimes people don't appreciate it or sit back and take it for what it is," Leonard said. "They kind of start assuming that it's just going to happen. I know how long my dad had to wait just to get to a state championship game, all the breaks and what it takes just to win one state championship.

"I know how hard this is and how hard it is to win a quarterfinal game, and to win a semifinal game and to win a state championship. It's not easy."

Althoff players to watch: QB Eric Mertens (187-of-322, 2,745 yards, 32 TDs, 12 Ints.); WR-DB Keenen Young (68 catches, 954 yards, 9 TDs; 44 tackles, 2 Ints.); RB Malik Easley (105 carries, 508 yards, 6 TDs; 17 catches, 221 yards, 3 TDs); RB-WR Dennis Jackson (89 carries, 440 yards, 2 TDs; 24 catches, 351 yards, 5 TDs); LB Aaron Medina (139 tackles, 1 sack); LB Bret Silvestri (106 tackles, 5 sacks, 2 Ints.)

Rochester players to watch: RB Drake Berberet (173 carries, 1,242 yards, 28 TDs; 27 catches, 338 yards, 4 TDs); DE Matt Swaine (48 tackles, 15.5 sacks); QB Robbie Kelley (161-of-245, 2,235 yards, 21 TDs, 4 Ints.); WR Drew Hill (49 catches, 713 yards, 6 TDs); WR Jeremy Bivens (30 catches, 581 yards, 4 TDs); LB Dylan Handlin (84 tackles, 8 sacks)

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, or on Twitter @NormSanders

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