One of the challenges for the Central Cougars this season has been trying to avoid the hype surrounding the program.
Since the summer, opposing coaches throughout the region tabbed the Cougars as a team to watch because of an all-senior and mega-experienced offensive line and numerous returning starters on both sides of the ball. They were 12th last week in the Class 3A state ranking and are second in the Belleville News-Democrat Small-School Rankings behind Althoff.
Through four games, the Cougars are 4-0 and headed to the annual Milk Bowl showdown with Breese area rival Mater Dei with a high degree of confidence.
“We need to perform the way people have been talking us,” said Central running back and outside linebacker Collin Thomas, who has a team-high 566 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns while averaging 10.5 yards per carry. “It does make it tough. You cannot just sit there there and act like you’re good. You have to actually go out and perform and work your butt off to make yourself be good.
“When we start slacking off and thinking we’re really good, that’s when we need to stop talking about it and playing football.”
Thomas makes a good point. Central was 4-0 last season heading into the Milk Bowl game, then lost 34-14 to the Knights and dropped five of its final six games on the way to a 5-5 finish.
“We’ve known this group was talented for a couple years, but we haven’t really shown it yet,” said Central coach Brian Short, whose team is coming off a 58-18 dismantling of Carlyle on Saturday. “These seniors were 4-5 as sophomores and 5-5 as juniors. I’m not really that excited about it right now because we were 4-0 last year and we ended up being 5-5.
“We’ve still got a lot to prove this year. We know what we’ve got coming up on our schedule, there’s a lot of good teams that will be tough to beat.”
The list included state-ranked Mater Dei (2-2), Columbia (4-0) and Red Bud (4-0) along with 3-1 Herrin.
“I know a lot of people are excited, but I’m a firm believer in taking this one game at a time,” short said.
One gigantic edge Central has on the rest of the conference is a potentially dominant offensive line. Led by senior four-year starter Domonic Weary (6-foot-285 pounds) at left tackle, the group includes two-year starters Tyler Gorsich (6-1, 255) at left guard and Tanner Huegen (5-6 230) at center along with right guard Branden Hooker (5-8, 255) and right tackle Joe Ratermann (6-3, 230).
“It’s a big line and that makes it a lot easier, knowing they can get the job done,” Thomas said. “I know they’re big enough and strong enough to make me look good and make it a lot easier on me.”
Short said the line has a lot of pride and worked as hard as any group he’s had in the offseason.
“We thought coming in that this could be the best group we’ve had from a size factor,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve ever been this big before across the board.”
Also helping the effectiveness of the Central running game is alternating possessions with Thomas and Ben Rakers (465 yards, seven TDs, 9.5-yard average) in the backfield. Quarterback Hunter Toeben (39-of-65 passing, 537 yards, five TDs, two interceptions) and receivers Dalton Wise (11 catches, 101 yards, one TD) and Bailey Stewart (seven catches, 151 yards, one TD) add to the overall offensive weaponry
“Collin’s more of a downhill, aggressive-type runner and Ben’s more of a shifty, scatback type guy,” Short said. “It’s worked out really well so far. It’s nice to be as balanced as what we’ve been.”
That balance extends to a defense led by lineman Brice Haselhorst (seven sacks, 32 tackles) and linebackers Tyler Malone, Lucas Koopmann and Thomas.
Milk Bowl on tap
The Milk Bowl returns to Central this year and home field advantage is one of the few advantages the Cougars will have. They trail the Milk Bowl series 28-4 and have beaten Mater Dei only twice (not counting playoffs) since 1989, with Central winning in 2003 and 2013.
Overall, Mater Dei is 31-8 against Central and the Knights have played a tougher schedule, at least to this point.
“This one’s big for me,” said Thomas, whose brother Caleb Thomas was on the last Central team to hoist the white milk can trophy that goes to the winners. “I feel like right now it’s my time to shine so I’ve got to pick up my game.”
Belleville East finds the win column
After three weeks of frustration, including a 63-49 defeat to Granite City the week before, the Belleville East Lancers were happy to celebrate their first victory on Friday night. Battling bad weather and the Alton Redbirds, the Lancers won 19-6.
“There’s always that sense of release when you get the first one, whether it’s Week 1 or Week 4,” East coach Kris Stephens said. “The weather and the rain have been crazy this year,so we were sitting around down here wondering whether we were going to play or not.”
The game got played, but heavy rain played a definite factor as it did for most area teams Friday night.
An early 94-yard TD run by Roderick Morgan, who finished with 101 yards on 12 carries, helped set the tone for East. Of 43 offensive plays, the Lancers ran the ball 35 times.
One of those was a 51-yard TD run by Freddie Waller while quarterback Kienen Waller had 90 yards on 16 carries.
“The weather and everything else kind of forced us into that game,” Stephens said. “The offensive line really blocked well and we were able to pop a couple of big ones. The field was a muddy mess by the end, nobody was doing anything so it was good that we got those early ones.”
Former Highland Bulldogs all-state offensive lineman and state champion wrestler Tanner Farmer (6-4, 295) is the starting right guard for the 3-0 Nebraska Cornhuskers. Farmer also wrestled at Nebraska last season.
Nebraska beat 22nd-ranked Oregon 35-32 on Saturday, overcoming a 13-point deficit in the second quarter while rushing for 230 yards and two TDs.
Missouri freshman kicker Tucker McCann, an O’Fallon High graduate, hit both his field goal attempts (33 and 46 yards) Saturday in a 28-27 home loss to Georgia. McCann was also 3-for-3 on extra points.
Former O’Fallon High punter Austin Barnes, now a junior at Eastern Michigan, ranks eighth in the country among all major college punters with a 46.8-yard average on 12 punts this season.
In 2015, Barnes tied the Eastern Michigan single-season record for punting average (43.6 yards).