What was supposed to be a night of celebration for Althoff ended in disappointment two weeks ago when the Centralia Orphans spoiled the unveiling of the Crusaders’ new George Martz Field with a 21-14 win.
That loss, which snapped Althoff’s 22-game regular-season winning streak, was one that turned out to be a true wake-up call for senior Justin Strong and his teammates.
“It was one of those games where we thought we were ready, but in reality, maybe we weren’t as focused as we needed to be,” Strong said. “I think it made us realize that we were beatable. I mean, last year we knew we were beatable, but we just had so much strength.
“I don’t know exactly what happened. We made some mistakes. But it made us realize that we had to work that much harder.”
Last week against the Marion Wildcats, the 6-foot-2, 190-pound Strong showed off his versatility as Althoff stayed in the thick of the South Seven Conference race with a 32-28 win.
A two-way starter at running back and defensive back, Strong finished the game with a career-high 206 yards on the ground and a pair of touchdowns, while catching two passes for 20 yards. On defense, he contributed seven tackles, but it was on special teams where Strong had the most spectacular play of the night: a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
“I just got the ball, cut it out and it opened up for me,” Strong said, smiling. “I just made it happen.”
That type of performance was one coach Ken Turner has seen from another Althoff player named Strong for the last five years. Strong’s older brother, Bryson Strong, is a redshirt freshman linebacker at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Justin Strong, who will join his brother with the Salukis’ program next season, is making the most of his senior year, according to Turner.
“They’re tight, (Bryson) and Justin. They take care of each other. But I think Justin is really making the most out his senior season,” Turner said. “This is his year to shine, and he’s really been outstanding in every aspect of the game. On offense, he can run the football, he can catch the football coming out of the backfield, and I’m sure he could throw the football, too, if we asked him.
“On defense, he’s a playmaker, and on special teams, like he showed the other night, he can make plays as well. He really is a heck of a talent.”
Teaming with Richard Cosey in the Crusaders’ backfield, Strong has rushed for 536 yards, averaging 12.8 yards per carry. Strong is also second on the team in receiving with 15 catches and 134 yards, and he has 20 tackles on a deep defensive unit.
When asked about his versatility, Strong attempted to play it down.
“It’s just something I’ve always done throughout my career, from the time I was little. I’ve always played on both sides of the football, and so anymore, it’s not a big deal to me,” Strong said. “I don’t really have a favorite spot on the field. Whatever position I’m playing is what I like best at the time. I love running the football, but I also love the contact on defense.”
Strong, who will play defensive back at the college level, has also turned into a leader for the Crusaders this season. After playing on Althoff teams that have reached the Class 4A state title game and state quarterfinals the past two years, the Crusaders have enjoyed another solid season in 2017.
“It’s been a little different this year. We’ve all known each other and played football together for a long time. I just think we’ve had to work a little harder this season for our success,” Strong said. “We’ve played well all season, and the way we came back and beat Marion last week showed we can come back from adversity.
“We’ve got the talent to make another long playoff run. We’ve just got stay focused, keep working hard and improving each week.”
As for his future as a Saluki, Strong is looking forward to the challenge.
“I feel like I’ve gotten better as a player the last couple of years by working out with top level athletes and with different coaches. But I know I’ve got to get bigger and faster,” Strong said. “I’m looking forward to being on the same football team with my brother again. (SIU) Carbondale is a great school, and it’s close to home.”