With CMAC play getting in full swing for Jefferson City football, some conference opponents offer the Jays opportunities during the coming weeks.
The Jays' first three games, against teams that all beat them last season, were a tall task the team couldn't overcome. Coach Damon Wells has praised the continued improvement and competitiveness of his team, and that improvement nearly resulted in the team's first win in a 49-34 loss to Rock Bridge in Week 3.
With the schedule lightening up a little, the team could finally get in the win column tonight against Smith-Cotton. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. in Sedalia.
The Tigers will be the first team the Jays play this season with a losing record, and after two straight losses where they've been outscored 85-10 — including a 50-0 loss to Central Missouri Activities Conference foe Rock Bridge — this game offers the Jays a golden chance at a season-opening win.
"I think we're making great progress toward that," Wells said. "I've been blessed to be part of a lot of wins in my coaching career. And I don't think it matters how many wins you currently have. The upcoming game that week always seems like the biggest and most important one."
The Tigers return starting quarterback Lane Simmons as one of eight starters on offense and defense to come back after last season's 0-8 campaign. Smith-Cotton got its first win since Oct. 18, 2019, in Week 1 against Moberly.
"They have some big kids and their kids play hard. They for sure play hard and (Simmons) is an athlete," Wells said.
The Jays are coming off their best offensive performance of the season with 34 points in last week's loss to Rock Bridge. The rushing offense had a lot of organization and more consistency. The Jays ran for more than 300 yards against the Bruins and will look to continue that success against a defense that has struggled over the past two weeks.
"I don't think you can play fast if you're thinking too much," Wells said. "And it seemed like we got to the point where we've had enough repetition where they can start thinking less and play faster and more violently. And they did that."
The Jays will likely be without linebacker/fullback/long snapper Will Berendzen on Friday. Berendzen is a team captain and as a starter in all three phases, he has been on the field for nearly every snap so far this season. He went down with a leg injury in the second half against Rock Bridge and was on crutches after the game.
"He's still present," Wells said. "His presence is irreplaceable and luckily for us his presence continues."
That presence will likely be in a different role as a leader on the sidelines rather than as a player on the field. On the offensive side, Jacob Wilson has gotten some snaps at fullback this season, including a touchdown run in the team's season-opener against Chaminade. Kevion Pendelton returned from injury last week and played in Berendzen's spot for most of the fourth quarter and lead the team with 116 rushing yards on six carries. In two games, Pendelton has 10 carries for 177 yards and a score, showing production in a limited workload.
On defense, Pendelton will likely continue to start at safety while Wilson is a possibility to play more at linebacker with Ethan Garnett or Jackson Figo. Without Berendzen for the near future, there will be lots of openings for snaps for other players, but it'll also be a test for the Jays depth that hasn't had a lot of experience.
"That's why we practice," Wells said. "If I could predict the future, then this would be a lot more simple. We're going to give kids an opportunity to be successful and I trust that they will because we have a lot of boys that have done a lot of hard work."
On the defensive side of the ball, the replacements for Berendzen at linebacker will need to help the unit create more turnovers this week to be successful. The two Bruins turnovers both came on muffed punts in the first half, but the defense had a quiet night after forcing five turnovers in the first two weeks.
Those timely turnovers were what kept the Jays in games late against Chaminade and are what kept the Hannibal lead to two scores in the first half of that blowout.
This week, the offense showed continued development while the defense gave up the most points it has all season. While it failed to force turnovers the Bruins offense was scoring points and the Jays offense couldn't keep up.
Against an opponent that has struggled offensively, the team has a chance to get on track on that side of the ball.
"A high school football season is a perpetual opportunity for growth," Wells said. "So we hope to get better, and all phases every day as we go."
Wells has talked all season about winning games being the all-important metric he will be judged on. While the team came close last week and saw progress, this week's matchup will show if all of that building and internal progress over the beginning of the season can start to turn into a concrete result.
"When you experience a successful organization, there are a series of common habits and we've preached that to our kids," Wells said. " Absolutely (we've grown). I think everybody would agree that it takes time to build habits. Nobody talks about a streak of one in a row."