Head football coach Kris Stephens is expecting an angry team to arrive at Belleville East to face his Lancers Friday.
The Alton Redbirds returned a solid core from a 5-4 team that finished on the bubble for an Illinois Class 7A playoff spot in 2014. But they'll visit East in Week 4 of this season still looking for their first win.
Stephens issued his 2-1 Lancers a warning before the season even started.
"There are not down weeks in the Southwestern Conference," said the first-year head coach. "Now a team comes in with its back against the wall, and that adds a whole new element to it. This is going to be a tough, tough game."
Alton coach Eric Dickerson, who also is in his first season at the helm, said his players know their only sure shot at the playoffs is to win out the rest of the season. But he won't confirm any feelings of desperation.
"We know what we’re up against, but the kids are not down and out by any means," Dickerson said. "It was the best week of practice we've had all year. It's just time to take that onto the field and hopefully the kids can prove something — and prove something to themselves — that will carry them through the end of the season."
FRIDAY'S GAME: Alton (0-3) at Belleville East (2-1), 7 p.m.
LAST MEETING: Alton defeated East, 17-14 on Oct. 3, 2014. The win boosted the Redbirds to 4-2 and bouyed their playoff hopes with three weeks left in the season. East dropped to 3-3.
LAST WEEK: Alton fell to East St. Louis, 56-0; Belleville East handed Granite City its first loss, 44-7.
Scouting the Redbirds
Offensively, Alton is bound and determined to keep the ball on the ground. Quarterback Keenan Stegall has put the ball in the air just 19 times, completing six of his passes for 71 yards.
Senior Asa Collins (13 rushes, 100 yards, 2 TD) leads a varied Redbird running game in which four other backs including Stegall have gotten carries.
"They'll run the ball early and they'll run it late — whenever and wherever they think they can get some yards," Stephens said. "They run the option differently than a lot of teams. They may run a fullback option with a power lead with a toss play in there. It's just a matter of making sure everybody is in check."
Junior Ke'Ontay Holmes leads Alton in tackles while Kiondray Samelton and Ronald Gilchrese are responsible for their only two forced fumbles.
But keeping the ball on the ground may be the Alton's best defense against the East offense.
"The best bet is to control the ball and control the clock" Dickerson said. "We want to keep that offense off the field."
Scouting the Lancers
Stephens' career as a head coach started with a disappointing 63-31 loss to Normal, which is ranked No. 5 in the Illinois 7A poll. But the Lancers battled back with a double-overtime win at Normal West before handing Granite City its first loss of the season last week.
"The kids really responded after that first week," Stephens said. "We came off the field and there was nothing negative, just an understanding that we had some things tighten up."
At more than 43 points per game, the Lancers have been hard to stop.
Senior Drew Millas has completed 67-of-115 passes for 747 yards and nine touchdowns against just one interception. The yardage ranks him No. 11 in the St. Louis region and second only to Althoff's Jordan Augustine in the metro-east.
Isaiah King (22 catches, 336 yards, 5 TDs) and Quantavius Alexander (17 catches, 164 yards, TD) are his favorite targets, though seven other Lancers have caught passes.
"The quarterback is deadly accurate and you can only hope to contain the two wide outs," Dickerson said. "That is a very good offense."
Moses Holman has filled in for running back Damone Witherspoon, who has been out with an injury since the first half of the Lancers' season opener.