HOLTON — It may not have seemed that way at the time, but it was exactly what Jackson Heights needed.
After cruising past their first three foes, the Cobras not only found itself in a dog fight with Maur Hill in week four, but staring at the distinct possibility of suffering their first loss. Down 14-8 in the fourth quarter after the Ravens scored with about eight and a half minutes left, Heights mustered a response and got a late touchdown run and two-point conversion from senior back Brady Holliday to pull out a 16-14 victory.
“That Maur Hill game was the best thing for us,” Heights coach Caleb Wick said. “That game really opened up our eyes and it gave us a lot of confidence. Maur Hill’s a very good team and to be able to drive down on them and win, it was really big for us.”
The victory was a much-needed boost for Heights just before the start of Class 2-1A District 2 play. Grouped in arguably the toughest district in 2-1A, Heights (6-0) has a grind-it-out win to fall back on as it prepares for what could be its biggest test of the season Friday night when fellow unbeaten and No. 5 Valley Heights comes to town.
In some regards, Valley Heights coach Tony Trimble wishes he had the same luxury. The Mustangs have yet to be tested during their 6-0 start with their closest margin of victory a 30-point win over Wabaunsee two weeks ago.
And while Trimble would like to think his team is ready for the rigors of the final three weeks, well, he doesn’t know for sure.
“I’m not sure where we’re at really, to be honest with you,” Trimble said. “Everybody wants to be 6-0 at this point, so we’re glad that’s where we’re at. We’ve earned the right to be 6-0 for sure, but at the same time, we’re really not sure where we’re at.
“That’s what we’ve been talking to our kids about, that these type of games are what football’s all about. This is why we play the games, why I coach the game. … This is the kind of game we want to play.”
Friday’s game is not only important as a true measuring stick for both programs, but also has a bit of a must-win feel to it. Each has yet to face Centralia in district play and though the Panthers are 4-2, both Trimble and Wick are fully aware of Centralia’s schedule and tradition and the challenge the Panthers will pose.
A win on Friday provides at least some margin of error in the final two games. A loss and beating Centralia will be imperative to earn a playoff berth.
“Centralia’s record isn’t the same as Jackson Heights and ours, but if I had to sit down and predict a finish to the district, Centralia’s the team to beat at this point in time,” Trimble said. “Just from the way they’ve played and performed against those bigger schools (3A unbeatens Nemaha Central and Sabetha). They’re a very talented football team who is coached very well. Their kids know how to win and have a culture of success and have high expectations and live up to them most of the time. Definitely this is the big game for both of us.”
Not only do the two school share a similar moniker with Heights in the school name, but they also share a similar approach on the gridiron. Namely, it’s two teams that like to line up and smash-mouth their way offensively, eschewing the passing game for a run-dominated attack.
Both have done it extremely well this year with plenty of new personnel in the backfield handling the load.
Jackson Heights returned Holliday to the backfield after he ran for close to 1,000 yards a year ago, but his surrounding cast was entirely new. Holliday has once again been the workhorse, rushing for 856 yards, but newcomers Sebastian Butto (492 yards, 8.5 yards per carry) and Cooper Williams (217 yards) have emerged as solid complements with Williams settling in at quarterback as a sophomore.
“After Brady, we did have some big question marks,” Wick said. “Sebastian, we didn’t know what we would get from him but he’s sort of exploded onto the scene. And Cooper, he played a little as a freshman at running back, but we didn’t have many viable options at quarterback and he’s sort of taken the reins. He’s really formulated the offense the way we want it and I think Maur Hill was a big game for him. It showed a lot of maturity for him to take us down for the win in that game.”
Valley Heights, meanwhile, brought back senior fullback Jordan Yungeberg after he ran for 913 yards a year ago as well, but had to replace All-2-1A back Hunter Stevenson (1,662 yards) and saw projected starting quarterback Bryan Yungeberg broke his thumb two days before the opener and another potential back, sophomore Trey Martin, transfer.
Sophomore Cameron Beardsley has filled in well at quarterback, but the pleasant surprise for the Mustangs has been the emergence of sophomore back Cole Coggins. Stepping into Stevenson’s shoes, Coggins has done a pretty good impression and has 989 yards and 15 touchdowns through six games.
“You talk about being a surprise, it was to us,” Trimble said. “We knew Cole had some ability and talent, but quite honestly until our first game I didn’t know he could do what he’s doing for us. We had a very good freshman (Martin) that played a lot for us last year and Cole was always kind of in his shadow. When he moved away, I think that allowed Cole to shine a little more and show us what he could do.”
Yungeberg has added 745 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground and as a team, Valley Heights has rushed for 2,392 yards. Jackson Heights has run for 2,045.
The difference Friday could come down to the battle up front and going into the season, both coaches felt that was their team’s biggest strength returning almost every starter. Valley Heights is upperclassmen heavy up front led by returning all-leaguer Dalton Joseph and tight end Harrison Blaske.
Jackson Heights has had to adjust on the fly, however, losing junior Curtis Niehues before the opener to a torn labrum and sophomore Riley Watkins for the bulk of the season with nerve damage in his back. The Cobras have started two freshmen on the line most of the season.
“They’re still young and we’re still going through bumps in the road,” Wick said. “But they’ve grown up and gained a lot of confidence.”
Valley Heights won last year’s contest 26-22, a victory that propelled the Mustangs to the playoffs and relegated Jackson Heights to postseason onlookers despite a 6-3 overall record. It was the second time in four years the Cobras won at least six games yet missed the playoffs.
“It’s on our minds for sure,” Wick said. “When you go 6-3 and don’t make the playoffs, it’s a gut-wrenching feeling because you know you would compete. … The kids are hungry for sure.”