One year after an epic struggle in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A playoffs, the Althoff Crusaders and Rochester Rockets are back for more.
The Crusaders (11-0) and Rockets (10-1) will collide at 7 p.m. Saturday at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville, with a berth in the semifinals up for grabs. Althoff won 46-42 last season, snapping the Rockets’ 27-game postseason winning streak and ending their run of five straight state championships.
“They’re going to come down here as a mad football team, ready to play,” said Crusaders coach Ken Turner, whose team finished second last year. “Our guys want to get to the semifinals. Our season didn’t end how we wanted it to end last year. We feel like the only way we can correct it is to get to the next step. We have to win Saturday to get to the next step, and it’s a pretty good football team we’re playing.”
Turner remembered how people considered Althoff the underdog last season.
“I don’t know if any people thought we were good enough to beat those guys,” he said. “Our kids felt like we could play with those guys. But it was like, ‘Stunner!’ We didn’t look at it that way. We looked at it like, ‘If we want to be the program we feel like we are, we have to beat guys like this.’
“Our kids were ready to play last year. Now (the Rockets) are hungry to beat us because we stopped their streak last year.”
A crowd of at least 3,000 is expected.
Rochester coach Derek Leonard predicted last year that the Rockets and Crusaders would meet in the playoffs again this season.
“I knew how many (players) we had back and I knew how many they had back,” he said. “I had a feeling both teams would meet again, and we have.”
Leonard said Althoff is one of the most talented teams in the state, regardless of class.
“Outside of my dad’s team two years ago, this might be the most talented team I’ve seen in 12 years,” said Leonard, whose father, Ken, is the longtime coach at Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, the only team to defeat Rochester this season.
“Just athletes everywhere,” Derek Leonard said of Althoff. “O-line, D-line, running back, quarterback, all the secondary, the linebackers. They obviously don’t have a weak spot. I don’t think they have the depth they did last year. They’re playing more guys both ways. That’s the only thing. But now everybody’s a year older, everyone’s a year faster, bigger, stronger. They’re just so talented it’s scary.”
Is there any way it won’t be a high-scoring shootout? Rochester averages 52.4 points a game, while the Crusaders average 49.4 points. Both teams can score from anywhere on the field.
“There’s a lot of weapons on both sides,” Turner said. “A lot of really good receivers, both teams have good quarterbacks and both teams run the football well. It has the capability of being a high-scoring game. But I think we would like to do well on defense and I’m quite sure they would like to do well on defense also.
“Last year, starting off it was like a feeling-out process. Then the scoring started.”
And never ended until the final horn sounded.
Leonard isn’t totally banking on a similar type of game.
“You would think (it would be),” he said. “But you know, it’s weird. It’s kind of like the Griffin game this year. That’s what everyone thought, and it was kind of a defensive battle (33-28). Every time you think it’s going to be a shootout, the defense plays well. If you think it’s going to be a defensive (battle), teams score. It will be interesting (facing them) a second time.”
Althoff is led by senior quarterback Trey Mosley, senior running back Jaylon Bester and a quartet of receivers in seniors C.J. Coldon, Jordan Goodwin and Edwyn Brown, and junior Melvin Brock. Bester rushed for 196 yards and scored three touchdowns in the game against Rochester last year.
Defensively, Althoff relies on senior linebackers Bryson Strong, Christian Willis, Chris Branson and Austin Carey. The Crusaders yield an average of just over 17 points a game.
Rochester uses two quarterbacks, junior Nic Baker and senior Josh Grant. Senior Alec Ostermeier is the leading running back, while seniors Avante’ Cox and 6-foot-6 Collin Stallworth are game-breaking receivers. Cox had 10 receptions for 253 yards and three touchdowns in the game against Althoff in 2015.
“They have success catching the football,” Turner said. “We want to be able to make tackles instantly. Last year, I remember No. 5 (Cox) breaking a lot of tackles and having a lot of big plays. So we want to make it difficult for them to catch the football. Then if they do catch the football, we want to be able to make plays and tackle them afterwards.”
Leonard said the Rockets must account for Bester on every play. Bester is 21 yards short of eclipsing the 2,000-yard mark for the season.
“I think deep down, they want to run the football and they want to get the ball to that Bester kid,” Leonard said. “But all the receivers (can hurt you). They have no weak spots. You can’t double-team anybody. You’ve just got to play sound football, make tackles and don’t miss assignments.”
Turner agreed. The Crusaders want to get the ball to Bester as often as possible, but if for some reason he isn’t producing, Althoff will take to the air.
“We run the football,” Turner said. “That’s how I want to be as an offensive team. You’ve got to focus on Bester, but then again, if you focus on Bester, we feel like we’ve got the capability of getting the ball to our big-play wide receivers.”
Turner had a special message for his kids Thursday night.
“I talked to the kids (and said): ‘Games like this should be the reason you came to this school. You want to play in this type of environment and this type of game,’” Turner said. “As a program, we want to always be in these type of games.”
Leonard perhaps said it best.
“They’re just so talented, we’re very talented,” he said. “It’s a shame somebody has to lose.”
Rochester vs. Althoff
Kickoff: 7 p.m. Friday at Lindenwood Stadium in Belleville
Last Week: Althoff defeated No. 9 Taylorville 61-25. Rochester beat No. 4 Mount Zion 63-21.
Next Week: The winner advances to the semifinals against No. 7 Canton or No. 11 Mater Dei.