Back where they started

By Ryan Wallace PrepsKC staff writer
Posted: November 20, 2015 - 8:26 AM

Not long after shaking hands following Mill Valley’s upset victory over St. Thomas Aquinas on Sept. 4, the feeling set in. A hunch within both locker rooms that this would not be the last time these powerhouse programs would meet in 2015.

“Our goal is to stay looking at one game at a time, but you could sense it,” Mill Valley head coach Joel Applebee said. “There was always some buzz around possibly seeing them again in this type of situation and how eager our guys were for another chance to play them because Aquinas is a great team.”

“I think we figured we’d have to play them twice,” agreed Aquinas coach Randy Dreiling. “We kind of had that feeling going into the season but definitely after that first week. They’re a really good team.”

Tonight, that very theory comes to fruition as the two meet with a state championship berth on the line.

A lot has changed since that first contest, mainly on the side of the 9-2 Saints. Playing without a pair of offensive staples and working in new faces at new spots on defense, the reigning 5A runners-up were a work in progress out of the gate. With the return of their bullish ball carrier James Cosentino and massive right tackle Tom Killilea, the team has regained its usual rhythm on offense while the defense, spearheaded by youngsters such as Jared Flood, have showcased a relentless pursuit to the ball.

“They’ve improved a ton, and we knew they would,” Applebee said Tuesday. “Honestly, I think we want their best just as much as they probably want our best.”

Best against best, few opponents have been able to compete for four quarters with the Jaguars this year. Outscoring opponents 477-135 in all, thanks to the combined efforts of the dynamic Christian Jegen and Logan Koch, the state’s No. 1 ranked team has rolled to an 11-1 record, undefeated against Sunflower State competition. Then again, the semifinals is relatively new territory for this seasoned squad, making the highly anticipated rematch that much more intriguing.

“We might have a slight advantage in experience, but they’re a good team,” St. Thomas Aquinas senior quarterback Karter Odermann said following a mid-week film session. “I don’t think we relish being an underdog or anything like that because we don’t read into it that much.”

Old hat for a leader with the resume of Dreiling, the head coach with seven state championships under his belt echoed the sentiments of his captain by alluding to the fact that deep runs in the playoffs are what Aquinas is all about.

“I think it’s harder the first time you get to this point because once you get there, you know what it’s like and players want and need to get back,” began Dreiling. “This is reality to them now because we’ve been here. This was the expectation all along.”

“St. Thomas Aquinas is a different place,” he continued. “Everyone wins here. So, there’s no doubt there’s a buzz with us and our players and their parents, but it’s almost business as usual, and I kind of like it that way.”

In Shawnee, the mood sounds a little different among the more than 1,500 students roaming the halls of Mill Valley.

“We’re excited; the school is very excited,” senior linebacker Cole Morris said. “The road trip to Pittsburg last week was definitely different and changed things up a bit, but we passed that test, and now our hard work has put us in a position to play at home again, and I think hosting will help because of our crowd.”

Expected to be one of the fiercest battles this week, regardless of classification, the endless storylines and drama building for this long awaited game have area fans salivating. While neither coach would surrender to the surging hype, neither was willing to undervalue the importance of Friday either.

“This is the most important game of the season and, really, even more so than the state championship game,” stated Dreiling. “This is the game you have to win because if you don’t, you can’t even say you had a shot at a championship because you were never there to begin with.”

“There’s no need for any storylines or anything extra because we know what’s on the line,” added Applebee. “We’re lucky to have a group of driven seniors who stay focused on the task at hand, and I believe our schedule has benefited us in that way. We’ve been through enough as it is that we don’t really have anything to lose. Sure, they’ve been here before, but our kids our hungry.”

What will the game come down to in the end? According to both sides, exactly what the fans are hoping for: physicality.

“To me, it’s all about playing physical,” said Morris, the Jaguars second leading tackler. “Not that they can’t handle it, but more on us. That’s what we strive for and that’s what’s gotten us to this point.”

“Our defense has the opportunity to set the tone and open things up for our offense to do what they like, but we have to play with physicality and stick to our assignments.”

Manhandled at the point of attack in the first go-round, this time Aquinas says they’re prepared for war.

“We have that idea, and we’re fired up,” Odermann said when asked if he believed this could be the most intense game of the season. “I think we’re all just really looking forward to Friday.”

“I can’t imagine either team will back down,” Dreiling said. “This is going to be a physical game whether you want it or not and, you know, sometimes you can have a physical team who wins just because the other team gives up. This won’t be that game. Nobody’s going in afraid. Nobody’s going to quit.”

So buckle up, folks, because if you thought Sept. 4 was electric, voltage levels for Friday night at Mill Valley could exceed dangerous levels with the state title nearly within reach.