By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
The North Andrew football team is ready to play in the program’s 14th state football championship game.
For LeBlond, it’s their first.
The Eagles (10-3), after a 2-3 start this year, have now won eight straight, including their first district title since 1993, and punched their ticket to state after a 44-22 win at Sweet Springs in a state semifinal this past Saturday.
Senior Max Bachali says that win was, well, extra sweet.
"It was kind of like a team bonding almost," Bachali said. "We were out there and having fun. We knew no matter win or lose, we would have had a great time. But, knowing that we're going to state is just the greatest feeling ever."
The Cardinals, meanwhile, are a perfect 13-0, ready to capture their first state title since 2016, which happens to be the last time they finished with an unblemished record.
Fifth-year head coach Dwyane Williams says the biggest key to this year’s surge was the hard work in the weight room during the offseason after the Cardinals finished with a disappointing 6-5 record in 2021.
"We came back this year and had a great summer program and great attendance," Williams said. "It shows on the field. It's the reason why we've been able to improve our record. Those guys' commitment in the offseason."
LeBlond scheduled tough this year, playing Worth County, Archie and North Andrew all in the first five weeks. All of those teams were ranked in the top three in the state. All of those games were losses, but LeBlond coach Chuck Davis says a valuable lesson was learned.
"It showed us what it takes to play later into the year," Davis said. "What's changed for us is the physicality we bring, especially at the line of scrimmage now. It's a lot different than what it was week two.
This game is a rematch of a Week Two meeting from this past season, when North Andrew won at LeBlond 64-36 on September 2.
North Andrew senior and defensive end Collin Patterson knows his team has their work cut out for them, trying to stop LeBlond’s senior quarterback Landon Gardner, who’s piled up 2899 passing yards and has rushed for another 1331.
"We have to get pressure on Gardner and keep him contained," Patterson said. "He's really good at running also and he'll take off if you let him. Pass defense has to be great. We have to help out our secondary by getting a lot of pressure. If we do that, things should go well."
As for Gardner himself, he’s only envisioning a LeBlond victory.
"That's my game plan going in," he said. "I'm not thinking we're going to lose. I'm going to go in with confidence. If we do win, it'll be something I remember for the rest of my life. Win or lose, it'll be a great experience."
LeBlond, meanwhile, has to try and slow senior Hayden Ecker, who’s rushed for over 2000 yards and 32 touchdowns for North Andrew. He's also snagged six interceptions on defense. Coach Williams says there’s no one better.
"He's a fantastic running back and defensive back," Williams said of Ecker. "Great on special teams when we need him to be and he's also a fantastic kid off the field. He's humble, he's quiet. He doesn't like attention. He just wants to play."
This game is a clash of styles, really. Pass heavy LeBlond, run heavy North Andrew. The Cardinals seeking their seventh state title. The Eagles their first.
When the ball is kicked off tonight in Columbia, Coach Davis says it really just comes down to one thing.
"We're just going to have to really bring the physicality," Davis said. "The good thing about this time of year is you essentially know what everyone does. They know what we bring to the table. We know what they bring to the table. It's just, who can play for 48 minutes, give everything they got and come out with a win."
"If you go back and look at the (North Andrew game) film, we're a whole new team now," Bachali said. "We practice differently, we play better, we're stronger and faster. I really think we have a shot."
"We've had something to prove since week one," Patterson said of the Cardinals. "If we can stay healthy, I believe we're unstoppable at our A-game."
Thursday's game will be broadcast LIVE on StJosephPost.com. Coverage starts at 6:30 with kickoff at 7. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN.
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