CALIFORNIA, Mo. — Certain games on the schedule get circled before the season begins.
For California, historically, one of those games is Blair Oaks. This year is no different.
Even though the Pintos (2-5 overall, 2-3 Tri-County Conference) and the Falcons (7-0, 5-0) are in the middle of vastly different seasons, today's 7 p.m. contest will still bring the intensity one expects from a rivalry game.
In recent years, California's meetings with Blair Oaks have often served as de facto conference championships. That's not the case this year.
Blair Oaks can wrap up a conference title with a win tonight, and the Pintos are more than happy to play the role of spoiler.
"Blair Oaks is always a big rivalry for us," California coach Marty Albertson said. "Luckily we have the game at home. I think the kids will be excited to play, so that's a good thing. Hopefully we'll have a big crowd here too."
If the Pintos are to hand the Falcons their first loss of the season, they'll need to find a way to slow down Jake Van Ronzelen. The senior running back leads the area with 914 rushing yards and is averaging a staggering 9.9 yards-per-carry.
"We know he's a very good running back," Albertson said. "They have some really good receivers on the outside too. You have to key on (Van Ronzelen) a bit. They run the zone read really well and he runs the quick traps inside really well.
"He's such a good athlete that you can't shut him down competely, but hopefully we can slow him down a little bit."
The Falcons, currently ranked No. 2 in Class 3, also boast an explosive passing attack led by quarterback Nolan Hair. The sophomore has thrown for 1,351 yards and 17 touchdowns this season.
Hair's top three targets are Cody Alexander, Ben Thomas and Brayden Pritchett — all of whom have 25 catches and more than 300 receiving yards this season.
California's defense has been stingy overall in Tri-County play, but struggled last week in its first true test. In their 48-25 loss at Southern Boone, the Pintos allowed 355 yards of offense, most of which came in a second half where the Eagles scored five touchdowns.
Giving up big plays has been an issue for California all year, and Southern Boone did its best to exploit that. Three of the Eagles' touchdowns were on plays of 40-plus yards. They also scored on a pair of kick returns of 80 and 95 yards, respectively.
"We just have to stay disciplined in our assignments," Albertson said. "We had guys, later on in the game, that kind of left their man for somebody else. We have to stay with our assignments and let everybody else take care of their assignments."
When California has the ball tonight, the biggest task will be limiting the turnovers. The Pintos had four giveaways last week — three of which came in the fourth quarter — to kill what chance of a comeback they might have had against Southern Boone.
One thing California will need to do is clean up its read-option. It's a staple play for the Pintos, and it's often been their best and worst play at times this season.
At its best, the read-option allows quarterback Jacob Wolken the freedom to run. The junior is second in the area with 671 rushing yards. At it's worst, the play has led to some fumbles on the pitch for California, a mistake that cannot happen against Blair Oaks if the Pintos want to stay in the game.
"We may not try to pitch it as much as we have in the past," Albertson said. "We have to run it some, because it's there and we make good yards when we execute it. The kids just have to get better at concentrating and catching the ball before they run."
With all the success Blair Oaks has had in the last year-and-a-half alone, it's easy to forget that California beat the Falcons twice in 2014.
Last season, Blair Oaks rolled through California 42-15 on its way to the state semifinal. With the Falcons having similar expectations this year, the Pintos would love nothing more than to put that first blemish in their loss column.
"Blair Oaks is a very good football team, so we can't make mistakes," Albertson said. "We have to play our hardest and hopefully that will be good enough. Hopefully the ball bounces our way.
"That's why you play the games. They're undefeated and we have two wins. Hopefully our kids look at it as an opportunity."