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Game of the Week -- Smith Center incorporates new look in win

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

SMITH CENTER -- Smith Center High School senior running back Grant Lambert collected four rushing touchdowns and had a 40-yard interception return for another score.

Senior lineman Jordan Shockley recorded two sacks, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry. Senior quarterback Kody Molzahn took a vicious hit and was bleeding most of the game, but still threw for 64 yards and recovered a fumble on defense.

Smith Center ran their traditional smashmouth offense, but effectively incorporated a new pistol formation. After the game, the team gathered for its usual Redmen Circle with players, coaches and parents in the locker room. Overall, it was an ideal debut for head coach Darren Sasse in a 34-13 home win against Mid-Continent League rival Norton on Friday night at Hubbard Stadium.

"This is just the beginning," Molzahn said. "I think we are going to have a great season and this is the beginning of great things."

Sasse, the longtime junior high coach, took over for legendary coach Roger Barta in the offseason after Barta retired following 323 wins and eight state titles in 35 years.

"It's a lot like Barta," Shockley said. "It's pretty much the same thing. He kept us focused, kept us with a high motor wanting to play the game as hard as we could." Sasse coached the offensive line and was offensive coordinator for a team that recorded 295 yards, including a game-high 142 yards on 19 carries from Lambert.

"To me, it's more about them and I just happen to get to be a part of it this year," Sasse said.

Joe Drape, The New York Times reporter who chronicled the 2008 Redmen season in his best-selling book "Our Boys," brought his wife, Mary, and son, Jack, back to Smith Center for the game. Jack served as one of the ball boys and Joe Drape and Barta congratulated the team postgame.

Assistant coach Dennis Hutchinson, who coached at Smith Center 37 years and also retired last fall, was present, too.

"It just makes us feel like we are in a real special program," Shockley said. "They actually care enough to come back and watch us and give us motivation and support and everything we need to have a good season."

The usual large Redmen contingent watched Smith Center run the pistol frequently, a look that was popularized by former University of Nevada Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault. For years, Smith Center has always taken the snap under center. With the pistol, the quarterback is a couple yards deep - but not as deep as shotgun. Sasse learned the offense from Barta's son, Brooks, the longtime successful coach at Holton. Sasse put in the formation the first day of summer camp and said the team fumbled "probably 15, 20 times" before they significantly improved.

"I don't if it's the answer to everything, but we like what we are seeing," Sasse said. "Talking with Coach Brooks Barta, he thought that it gave your fullback the ball quicker, let him read maybe a little bit more, let the quarterback see a little bit more. It's kind of sped things up," Sasse admitted he didn't get much sleep last night prior to his first game as head coach for any high school team. But he thought back to Barta's words of "Enjoy the journey."

"I have really tried to enjoy today and the game and just continue to enjoy working with these young men," Sasse said.

Smith Center had eight returning starters on both sides of the ball from a 6-4 season, while Norton had two offensive and three defensive starters returning from a 7-3 squad that won the MCL.

"We had a feeling that we were going to have a lot of good experience and play pretty hard," Shockley said. "It paid off for us."

On the game's opening possession, Smith Center took an 8-0 lead on a 13-yard run by Lambert with 5 minutes, 52 seconds left in the first quarter to cap a 13-play, 86-yard drive.

On Smith Center's next possession, Molzahn drew Norton offsides on fourth-and-1 from the Redmen 29-yard line. Later in the drive, Molzahn lost his helmet after a third down play.

By rule, he had to come out for a play. However, backup junior quarterback L.T. Meitler executed a perfect fake and Lambert scored from 20 yards out on 4th-and-2.

"This is how I wanted to start the year off, and I couldn't have done it without the boys up front," Lambert said. "They did a great job tonight."

Smith Center pushed the lead to 22-0 by halftime when Lambert scored from nine yards with 5:27 left before intermission.

"We were a little flat," Norton coach Lucas Melvin said. "That's something we will try to fix also. Hopefully some seniors will step up and try to become better leaders."

The Redmen actually scored earlier in the drive on a 39-yard pass from Molzahn to junior Clint Rogers, but Smith Center was called for illegal procedure. On the next snap, Smith Center ran the same play. This time, Rogers hauled in a 35-yard catch. Lambert scored on the next play.

"I don't if they were expecting it," Sasse said. "The way they were covering it, we thought we were OK with that. There were two other routes that could have been open if they did jump that one."

Norton closed the game to 22-6 after three quarters on a two-yard run from junior quarterback Kendall Miller, but Smith Center scored twice in the fourth quarter on a 10-yard run from Lambert and Lambert's pick-six. Norton committed five turnovers and alternated signal-callers with Miller and sophomore Jordan Dole.

"I am not opposed to playing both of them, but I think it would help our offense if we could settle on one," Melvin said.

After the game, Melvin delivered a fiery talk to his team on one end of the field. Smith Center wore smiles on the other end, including Sasse, who quietly watched the celebration with his coaching staff near midfield.

"Really happy for those guys," Sasse said.