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Photo Credit: Chris Duderstadt

It isn’t a huge surprise for the St. Thomas Aquinas and Lawrence High football teams to be 4-0 heading into Friday’s battle of the unbeatens at STA, but in a season with so many twists and turns, their respective accomplishments in the first half of the season are that much more impressive.

When this game got put on the schedule, it was hard not to think immediately about how amazing it will be for fans to watch Aquinas’ Tank Young and Lawrence High’s Devin Neal add to their long highlight reels.

After Young racked up 483 yards and six touchdowns in the Saints’ win over Bishop Miege and St. James, he was sidelined for Aquinas’ victory over Raytown. Young returned to the gridiron for Aquinas’ thrilling comeback win over Shawnee Mission Northwest on Friday. He was held in check by the Cougars for the first three quarters but found pay dirt twice in the fourth and still finished with 118 yards on 26 carries.

Neal has been equally sensational behind the Chesty Lions’ stout offensive line. In LHS’ Week 1 win over Shawnee Heights, Neal made the most of his eight touches with six carries for 138 yards, two catches for 51 yards and three touchdowns. The Kansas commit had 100-plus yards from scrimmage and scored two more times in Week 2 against Washburn Rural before exploding for 239 total yards and three touchdowns in a victory over Olathe West.

You may remember reading a similar column from PrepsKC’s Mike Lavieri previewing a highly anticipated matchup between Lawrence High and Mill Valley, which unfortunately didn’t happen due to positive COVID-19 case on the LHS squad. Lawrence High returned to action for a tough test against Bishop Carroll on Saturday, and Neal helped set the tone. Neal had 117 yards and a touchdown in just three quarters before being unavailable in the fourth due to an injury.

While I’m hoping Neal will be ready for Friday’s showdown with the Saints, Lawrence High and Aquinas are much more than their standout running backs. The Lions showed they have another beast in their backfield on Saturday, as Graham Hough had three touchdowns—one of which came on special teams after recovering a blocked punt.

Young also isn’t the only player in the Saints backfield who is built like a tank. Sophomore Sean Carroll has a touchdown in each of the past two weeks and has averaged just over 100 yards on the ground in those contests. And speaking of special teams, it was the difference maker for the Saints in their win over the Cougars. Payton Ptasnik’s fumble recovery on the opening kickoff set up Carroll’s touchdown and Dajni Brooks’ punt return for a touchdown with 1:45 remaining capped the Saints’ streak of 28 unanswered points after trailing 28-7 at the half.

While the Saints and Lions can do a lot of damage with their rushing attacks, they’ve shown that you can’t sleep on their passing games either. Jackson Dooley finished just shy of 300 passing yards against Washburn Rural and his top target, John Green, corralled seven catches for 119 yards and a score. Dooley spread the ball around on Saturday by completing passes to six different receivers.

Like Dooley, Aquinas quarterback Blake Anderson came into this season with a full year of varsity experience under his belt. After guiding the Saints to three straight wins to start his senior season, Anderson was unable to suit up for Friday’s tilt with SM Northwest. In his first varsity start, sophomore Max Ford had a quiet first half before making some crucial completions in the Saints’ comeback. The biggest one came on a 76-yard touchdown strike to Evan Kammerer early in the third quarter. Ford also showed his poise the fourth with two completions to Xavier Horn to set up Young’s game-tying touchdown with less than three minutes left.

There’s no doubt that the Saints and Lions are loaded with talent on the offensive side of the ball, but let’s not overlook what they’ve done on defense so far this season either. Aquinas had a tough time slowing down SM Northwest quarterback Ty Black and his dynamic receiving corps in the first half, but few teams have had the success like Brooks and the rest of the Saints secondary had in containing the Cougars offense in the second.

The Lions only allowed seven points per game prior to their 37-28 win over Bishop Carroll. The LHS defense also buckled down when it needed to against Golden Eagles. After Carroll cut Lawrence High’s lead to 30-28 midway through the third quarter, the Lions kept Carroll off the board the rest of the way.

The showdown between Aquinas and SM Northwest last week showed just how exciting a premier Eastern Kansas League vs. Sunflower League matchup can be. Let’s hope for a good week of practice and good health for everyone in the STA and LHS programs so fans can be treated with another great game on Friday.