2-1A playoffs -- Smith Center looks for a little payback
By AUSTIN COLBERT
Following the Smith Center High School football team's 61-0 win over Republic County to wrap up the regular season last week, not one but two coaches were said to have quoted legendary Redmen leader Roger Barta. And it likely won't be the last time this happens.
"I think this week a few of us have probably said a few more things," said current Smith Center coach Darren Sasse. "The stuff that he has reminded the team of, maybe we've used his stuff a little bit more."
The last time Barta -- who has 323 wins and eight state championships in 35 years at Smith Center -- walked the sideline was in the Redmen's 26-16 season-ending loss to Sterling last November in the first round of the Class 2-1A state playoffs.
Smith Center (7-2), which is led by a deep senior class, will have a chance to redeem Barta at 7 p.m. Friday when Sterling (4-5) makes the trek north to once again play the Redmen in the opening round of the state playoffs.
The Black Bears, in their eight straight playoff trip, are led by fifth-year coach Matt Hendricks. Sterling started the season 0-4, but finished it by winning four out of five games. Sterling was the runner up in Class 2-1A, District 5 to La Crosse.
Although Smith Center is not paying any attention to the records. Sterling was only 3-6 when it upset the 6-3 Redmen a year ago in the state playoffs.
"They did end our season last year so there is no doubt that that's something these kids probably remember," Sasse said. "They have a lot of big kids and I think that's going to be the challenge -- whether or not we can block those kids and whether or not we can gain enough and get off their blocks."
Much like Sterling, the Redmen started the season slow under Sasse, opening with a 2-2 record. But a lot of this had to do with the schedule, as the losses came to Beloit, currently ranked No. 1 in Class 3A, and 9-1 Phillipsburg, also in Class 3A.
Smith Center hasn't been touched since that Sept. 27 loss to Phillipsburg. The Redmen have won five straight games by an average of 50.8 to 3.2, including three shutouts.
"As a coaching staff we weren't thrilled with how we played against Phillipsburg ... that probably, in hindsight, was a good thing because we had a little false confidence in what we were doing as a team," Sasse said. "Those 3A schools at the beginning of the year really helped prepare us. They helped mentally to understand how you have to play physically and that carries over going into districts and into playoffs."
The Redmen are led by do-it-all senior Clint Rogers, who has nearly 1,300 all-purpose yards. He leads Smith Center in rushing (763 yards, 10 TD) and receiving (220 yards, 4 TD), and is also its best return man.
Smith Center, known for being a smash mouth running football team, has found a decent amount of success throwing the football this year behind senior quarterback Kody Molzahn, who has thrown for 548 yards and 9 TDs this season.
This added dimension has made the typically one-dimensional Redmen even more difficult to prepare for.
"If they don't have quality defenders all across the field, I think we can eventually find a place that opens up," Sasse said. "Our quarterback has been able to throw and we have been able to catch. Both of our running backs have been able to have some big games. So I think it's hard to game plan for us and decide what it is the team needs to stop. I think that's been an advantage for us."
The last time Smith Center won a state title was in 2008 under Barta. And it should be fitting that the team which ended Barta's illustrious career has another connection -- Sterling won its only state title in 1982 (Class 2A), the same year Barta won the first of eight eventual state championships (the first coming in Class 3A).
Now the teams will unite on the field once more on Friday. And even without Barta at the helm, his words are likely to always be on the minds of the Redmen players.
"Some things he said over the years," said Sasse, a former player under Barta. "The kids have all heard it. They know it's coming from him."