At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 11)

No official picks this week, Wildcat Universe. This is a clarion call of the highest measure. The Snarling Ones are playing spoiler this year for a change, and all the events go down on the Senior Day/Carnival/Ladue Road Classic game this coming Saturday, as the Rams make the short bus ride from just east of Lindbergh to the friendly confines of Town & Country (#HeyNeighborsNoLightsNoProblem) for the thirteenth playing of the Ram-Cat Derby. Locked in at six wins apiece, both squads have more to play for than Libertarian presidential contender Gary Johnson and, unlike Johnson, one team will see their stock rise significantly after this weekend. (#WhyTwoPartySystem)

Both teams are coming off needed wins. MICDS broke the stranglehold of John Burroughs' home field win streak, ending it at 35 games with the abruptness of a Bill Belichick press conference (#HesNotADoctor).
The 26-24 win established two things. First, MICDS can make the most dangerous weapons, like the ballistic missiles of Tyler Foote and Jake Bain, look as ordinary as the screenplay of The Davinci Code. Secondly, the Rams de facto clinched at least a tie for the Metro League title, a championship the Wildcats earned for Westminster last year by bottling up Bain and Foote pretty well themselves. So MICDS comes in on a four-game win streak and full of confidence, while the Wildcats are swiping and clawing their way through injuries to yield brightly burning character. Westminster's 20-6 win over Priory last week posed many items for the grist mill. Significantly, we learned L.B. Battle can both spell Steve Webb at running back AND get stronger as the game goes on. Refusing to go down like David Cameron's poll numbers after Brexit (#DaddyWants), Battle drove his legs hard enough to get three to four yards more after first contact. With Webb on the mend and ideally in the lineup for Saturday, the Wildcat running game has to be at an encouraging spot for head coach Chris Pederson. Dyllan Conway is six catches away from the school receptions record and one TD snag away from a career touchdown catch mark in that category. Despite the giftedness and talent of the elusive Dyll-Pickle, quarterback Josh Pottebaum must still look to find other receivers like Grant Lavalle, Logan Sells, and Atlin Hall to keep the Ram secondary on their heels. If Jo-Potty can string together a myriad of consistent deliveries, he could have the Ram defense as bewildered as Jose Mourinho after a spanking by Liverpool.
But speaking of defense, this Saturday's game could be the stoutest challenge yet for the young Wildcats, not because of the smattering of stars on the MICDS offense, but due to the lack of them for the sake of teamwork. Not since Joseph II of Austria have we seen a propensity for spreading around the glory (#EnlightenedMonarch). Six different MICDS players have at least double-digit rushing attempts for the season, and three have at least 129 yards apiece, led by Preston Buchanan's 173. Graham Bundy, Jr., has completed only 46 percent of his 67 throws, but his 633 total passing yards yield over 20 yards per completion! And although MICDS averages only a little over 200 yards a game (nearly evenly split between rush and pass), they are absolutely deadly when given opportunity. The Three Musketeers of Keiondre Jordan, Ryan Thompson, and Alexander Feldman account for 23 catches for 521 yards and 7 TDs. More than anything, the evenness of the individuals stat sheets is what grabs your attention when looking at the MICDS Rams, and they'll look for the #SuccessByCommittee slogan to come true one more time.

So to sum up and end it and not drone on like William Henry Harrison's inaugural address (#ThirtyDayPrez), here are the keys to the game:

(1) Rise above the negatives: MICDS is facing a four-year losing streak to Westminster by an average margin of 19 points per contest. It is true the margin of victory has shrunk from 34 to 20 to 14 to 8, but the Rams know there is a monkey on their back (#WhatDoesThatMeanAnyway), and if they're going into Peter Gabriel mode to shock the monkey, it will take a keen effort to avoid memories of seasons past. No doubt that's a sermon coach Matt Buha will preach this week in practice to the front-running herd of Rams with the fervor of Joel Osteen on amphetamines. For the Wildcats' part, they have just broken a four-game losing streak of their own in the midst of this campaign. The young Cats must put paws up and claws out all over again and be prepared for a more difficult task than last week. Neither team can afford to put their heads down in distress like a wildebeest and allow the savage lion of negativity to tear them limb from limb. The team that keeps its collective head up the most wins this game. (#DoNotBeAWildebeest)

(2) First down fortitude: For each defense, the success at stunting the opposition's drives will be a direct result of how well they limit yardage on first down. Can the triad of Fred Maune, Jayson Love, and Keiondre Jordan force the Wildcats into second- and third-and-longs? Will it be Cooper Moore, Steve Webb, and company stunting the Rams and preventing their "Hear the Crash, See the Flash" style from stretching the field? What happens on first down will pay dividends for the remainder of each offensive series. And that comes down to discipline, containment, and making reads.

(3) Location, location, location: No doubt, compared to all the other games so far this year...this one is the game where field position will be at a premium. Outside of opening day, Westminster has not been in shootout mode, and MICDS has neither scored more than 28 points nor given up more than 24 in any single contest (#Consistency). All of which means that ball control AND WHERE you are controlling said pigskin is of prime importance. In a game that figures to be a grinder, what end of the field gets used most will most likely tip the balance in favor of the winner.

It's the Carnival matchup of dreams, fans. MICDS vs. Westminster in the thirteenth edition of the Ram-Cat Derby. We'll see you for kickoff at 2 pm this Saturday with a huge crowd. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 10)

Just the facts this week, folks. Just the facts. No hashtags. we mean business. It's time for a win.

1-4 is not what was planned, but life rolls on into the autumn with the Wildcats still poised to make a move upward in both the Metro League and district standings. Priory is the next challenge up for Westminster after our 24-17 defeat in the rain and mire at Lutheran South, and though the Rebels might be standing at 0-5, we cannot take them for granted.

Although being outscored by an average of 6.6 to 37.2, the Rebels will throw everything at the Wildcats in the person of quarterback James Dimitroff, who has completed 50 percent of his passes so far for 354 yards as the successor to record-breaking Andrew Rund. Holden Wilmsen and Dan Willman anchor a durable running game, the latter churning out 247 yards on 34 carries for a rate of 7.3 ypc. Connor Donnelly heads up a young receiving corps with 11 receptions for 205 yards, and he can take a hit, too, as he showed in the playoffs last year against Josh Pottebaum.

On defense, Anthony Kraus, Christian Hulett, and Dan Willman all have more than 30 tackles each for the year and will endeavor to slow down the Wildcat offense. With the ball in the air early and often, that might stretch the Rebel stop forces. LB Battle is due for a solid game at running back as the coaching staff hands him the start behind Pottebaum, whose arm might fall off in an attempt to nudge receivers like Dylan Conway upward on the stat pack. Conway stands ten receptions from the school career lead, and if there's a day that could see him snag double-digit catches, it's tomorrow.

After several bruising rounds in the Metro League, the Wildcat defense is prepared to roam free and make high-impact plays behind the generalship of Cooper "Knock 'Em Around Some" Moore and Austin "Smack 'Em, Yack 'Em" Greene. Look for young players to get some game time to spell five players who are playing both ways.

Kickoff is at 1 pm. Be there and be loud. Your team needs you. (And while you're at it, show up for a $5/head Straub's BBQ tailgate at 11 am in conjunction with Sporting WCA High School Gameday!)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Volume 9)

Another week gone by and more laid on the table for improvement. It's clear that the Wildcats are not going to get anything easy this season; every measure of success will be earned...on purpose with no accident. There are no magic fixes of team-building, no quickly devised quirks. Naturally, one would hope for a one-size-fits-all remedy to slay the vicious rabbits on our schedule, but (1) we do not bear a Holy Hand Grenade and (2) the difference has always been negligible for those who do (#MontyPythonAndTheHolyGrail)
The historic and immutable truth--right up there on the certainty meter with the Nicene Creed, Men in Blazers' optimism, and Mick Foley's lacerated kidneys after being pitched off the cage top eighteen years ago... that it's rare we play a quality end-to-end game on John Burroughs' field (#HardcoreMemories). This on top of the injuries and reshuffling we face in the Wildcat den as we march through a difficult Metro League slate. The Bombers' 28-12 victory was a clear indication they had this game marked on their calendars. Tyler Foote's 250 yards passing set the tone and stretched the Wildcat secondary to their limits. On the plus side, the Cats never quit in adverse circumstances, and the timing of their offense continues to improve as they seek to polish off drives more consistently.  One particular bright spot was Steve Webb outrushing Jake Bain for the second consecutive year, which means our smaller offensive line is doing its job, moving toward the moments when we can kick our opponents around on a regular basis (#MeanHorsey).
Turning toward this Friday night's road opponent, one wonders which teams will be showing up. While Westminster looks to assert itself back into the Metro League upper division level, the Lutheran South Lancers want to exorcise the demons of two years ago, when they inexplicably blew a 21-0 third quarter lead in even more reasonable then-coach Chuck Faucette fashion as the Wildcats stormed back for a thrilling 28-21 victory (#HeyLancers1984MiamiHurricanesLostThatWayToo).
The question becomes, will we see the Lutheran South team that has crunched Roosevelt and Priory by a combined 91-6? Or the team that came back to beat Soldan by four? Or the team that fell apart AGAIN versus MICDS to continue a streak of sadness longer than Kentucky had against Tennessee before 2011? Whatever the case, the Lancers will rely fully on last year's Metro League Player of the Year, Cody Schrader. The all-world junior continues to put up eye-popping numbers with the strength of Jerome Bettis and the durability of former NFL quarterback Jeff Hosteler (#NotBackingDown). Schrader has rushed for 823 yards--691 yards more than the second-place Lancer--and 11 touchdowns, while actually throwing three times, completing all three with one TD pass to go with it. In fact, Schrader has touched the ball of three of every seven Lancer offensive snaps. As Schrades goes, so go the Lancers.

Yet there's more to this team than their tailback. Quarterback Vito Orlando has improved greatly since last year in mobility and throwing stats. Presently completing 65 percent of his tosses for 705 yards, Orlando will look for connections to receivers Colton Bates, Derek Scott, and Keshon Spraggins. The trick will be "Can they spread the field and keep Schrader running up the middle as well?" The Wildcat defense faces a stern test, but it's one they passed with flying colors in a 49-14 romp last season at home, when Schrader was held under 100 yards. Limiting Lutheran South's run success and forcing Orlando to throw on third-and-long will give the Cats better odds on taking over the field (#LikeWilliamWallaceAgainstTheEnglish).

On the offensive side for the Wildcats, Josh Pottebaum continues to gain better timing with receivers Dylan Conway, Grant Lavalle, and Logan Sells, and if Steve Webb has an outing this week like he had against Burroughs, Westminster fans will have a lot to cheer for (#DaddyWants). Don't forget also the critical role of special teams and turnovers as well. A short or flipped field can be a source of joy or misery. If we win the turnover battle, it could be a long night for the Lancers.

Which, incidentally, is exactly what we want (#HaveNoMercy).

Kickoff is 7:00 pm Friday, September 16th at Lutheran South's field. As Notre Dame fans would chant, "Onward to Victory!"

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Volume 8)

With the MSHSAA regular season one-third in the books, the conference races start to go from warm-up to rising heat (#FrogInTheKettle). That image in mind, it's most appropriate to look ahead to this weekend's wrangle at the corner of Clayton and Price Roads as Westminster visits John Burroughs in a rematch of last year's Metro League championship-deciding clash won by the Wildcats, 27-14. (#GloryRoad)

The sting of that one loss drove the determined Bombers all the way to the Class 3 state championship, with the Oct. 3rd shocker being their only defeat of last season. But they have already matched that total this year with their opening-weekend loss to equally stunning St. Dominic. Returning from that loaded team is the Nuclear Payload himself, Jake Bain. With the name that should be familiar to Westminster fans, Bain has totaled 410 rushing yards and 7 TDs this year. Still dangerous to strike from anywhere in the backfield or on special teams, it is noteworthy that Bain's yards-per carry total is down this year from 9-plus to "only" 5.9. (#ThatsNoDowngrade) Nonetheless, the Wildcat stop forces will need to contain JB of JB to keep the Bombers from more advantageous down-and-distance possibilities. (#DaddyWants)

Passing has been an area of improvement, as Tyler Foote, who shone last year during the title run, is even better this season, completing over 55% of his passes for 642 yards, 4 TDs and no picks. It could be argued that the determined Wildcat secondary could pose a stiff threat to Foote and his posse of receivers. Ronald Smith has graduated, but Suleman Burrows (#PhoneticMatch) complements his kicking prowess with an uncanny knack for finding the ball out of the air, as his nine receptions for 280 yards have given him a 31.1 yard per catch average, electrifying Bomber fans like CM Punk thunder- bolting Chicago (#StraightEdgeChampion).
On defense, John Merritt's boys are hungry and disciplined as usual, and they don't get caught napping often. Look for Harris Malik to come hard and fast from his linebacker position and add to his 28 team-leading tackles.

The Wildcat defense knows they have to key both Bain and Foote, but Cooper Moore is capable of rallying the troops as the defense has improved since week 1. The secondary matchups with Burrows will be critical, and the Cats realize that they have to eliminate the big plays they gave up against Lutheran North lest we be stung with something the likes of the Miracle at Michigan (#GiveKordellStewartSomeLove). 
The offense will go as far as the offensive line will protect and open holes. To that end, quarterback Josh Pottebaum will seek to build on his 216 yards against Lutheran North, many of which ended up in the hands of Dylan Conway, who is closing in on several career receiving records (#TheLittleEngineThatWill). Steve Webb will look to get back on track and re-capture the form he flashed against St. Mary's on opening day. But again, it comes down to the advances of the line. And on a day that should feature some gorgeous weather, the elements should stay clear of affecting their movement.

We're getting there, Wildcat Universe. Brick by brick. It's time to make Burroughs part of that wall at fourteen hundred hours on Saturday.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 7)

For those of you wondering when this will stop, stand firm.

Your team is doing so.

For the first time since 2012, the Westminster Wildcats have been hit with a two-game losing streak. As such, that means this year's senior class is coping with something unknown. That also means that the Wildcat Universe needs to give them room to deal with it.

The heartbreaking 24-21 loss to number-one area small school Lutheran North puts the Wildcats at 1-2 on the season with a daunting game against John Burroughs coming up this Saturday. I'm not going to go into all the details of the play-by-play. John Hough has captured the highlights of the contest here at Gateway Sports Venue (by the way, there is no better sole proprietor-run vehicle of high school football action in the St. Louis than what John Hough puts really need to check him out). I'll simply say a few things.

1. It's disheartening to give up big plays, especially the game-winner when you have the opponent on their side of the field. I think it's fair to say the players and the coaching staff are of one accord in saying they will improve in this area.

2. Josh Pottebaum came in and did a great job spelling the injured Chad Briden. This is in addition to playing defense. Great mobility, too...and as we move through the stretch of games we have remaining, that should be a tremendous asset to the offense. Just stay healthy, Josh.

3. Dyllan Conway continues to impress, if that was at all possible given what he's already done in his career. Two more touchdown grabs last Saturday makes people wonder what could possibly be an encore. So there are good things here.

Now let me offer one more insight. Yes, I realize we are 1-2. Let's also recalibrate this matter in a different light (apologies for the mixed metaphor).

Gilles Tippette's book Saturday's Children recounts the 1971 Rice University football season under head coach Bill Peterson (whose surname is a phonetic hair's breadth away from that of Westminster head coach Chris Pederson). The Rice Owls played a fierce schedule loaded with powerhouses like Houston, USC, LSU, Texas, and Arkansas. The final record was 3-7-1, which means Rice was relegated to the lower division of the then-Southwest Conference.

But look at the results week-by-week and you'll see many close games. To wit:
     9/11/71        Houston                    Lost        21-23
     9/18/71        (#17) USC                 Lost          0-24
     9/25/71        Tulane                       Won       14-11
     10/2/71        @ (#16) LSU            Lost          3-38
     10/16/71      SMU                         Lost         10-16*
     10/23/71      @ (#16) Texas          Lost         10-39*
     10/30/71      @ Texas Tech           Won          9-7*
     11/6/71        (#16) Arkansas         Tied         24-24*
     11/13/71      Texas A&M              Lost         13-18*
     11/20/71      @ TCU                     Lost          19-20*
     11/27/71      Baylor                       Won         23-0*

The conference games are marked with an asterisk (this was before Houston joined the SWC). And therein lies the wonder. Note the margins of defeat. Six points to SMU. Five points to Texas A&M. One point to TCU. And a last-second tie against Arkansas when the Hogs kicked a field goal at the final gun.

After the last game vs. Baylor (the Bears were a tepid 1-10 that season, nothing like the recent powerhouses), Peterson told the team about "sixteen points". That was the spread that kept the Owls OUT OF THE COTTON BOWL AS CONFERENCE CHAMPS! Had the Owls scored 7 more points vs. SMU, one more against Arkansas, six more against A&M, and two more against TCU, they'd have finished 7-4 overall but a sterling 6-1 in the conference. They would have tied with Texas and--under the conference rules of "most recent appearance"--because the Longhorns had been to the Cotton Bowl more recently, in the event of a tie, Rice would've gone to Dallas!

3-7-1, and sixteen points was the spread that kept the Owls from a New Year's Day trip to Dallas to play Penn State.

What does this have to do with Westminster, you ask? Well, we're not that far away from lofty heights ourselves.

A high snap on a punt vs. St. Dominic. Punching in another TD against the Crusaders. Defending the last TD against Lutheran North.

Courage, fans. We are three plays away from being 3-0 on the season. That's how close we are.

That should be a bolstering encouragement to our team. We're on the verge of something great. We need to gain more experience, but we're getting there.

The ride has only begun. Look out, Burroughs. Because we're coming at you.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 6)

The upper respiratory gunk sneaks into my system, spreading with all the certainty and stealth of kudzu in the Deep South, land of grits, accents, and night-time train passings (#MyCousinVinny). But never fear, Wildcat fans, because no matter what else occurs from week to week, the Lair is doubly determined to keep you informed and ready for this weekend's game (#DaddyWants).

With enough talent to make deep runs in the Class 2 playoffs for years to come--or at least longer than Eddard Stark held on as Lord of Winterfell (#GameOfThrones)--the Lutheran North Crusaders host our Wildcats this Saturday on Lucas & Hunt Road just a potato gun shot from the UMSL campus (#GoTritons). Last year, LN had come off bruising encounters with Clayton and SLU High before they visited Thomas Cranmer Field at Westminster Stadium, and after holding u off the first couple possessions, the Cats broke through for a 28-0 halftime lead--utilizing a Cameron Tucker pick-six and a Steve Webb rip-six on defense--en route to a 35-6 win. But North recovered down the stretch, parlaying an explosive offense which averaged 52 points per game over the next nine games (#ArenaFootball). Losing to Palmyra in the Class 2 quarterfinals was no shame for Carl Reed's men, who finished the year 8-5.

The supersonic slinger Aqeel Glass takes his final season behind center, having committed already to the Sun Belt Conference's Florida International University (#GoldenPanthers). Clocking in at a completion percentage just south of sixty, Glass is averaging 235 yards a game and can spread the wealth around to a talented posse of pass-pluckers. Jordan Sommerville is the primary deep threat to the Wildcat secondary, with his twelve catches for 291 yards evoking comparisons to the legendary Wolverine, Anthony Carter.

Not content merely to tear up the airwaves, Glass can roll out and keep the ball, or hand it off to Donovan Marshall and his 211 total yards on 5.1 yards a crack (#WheresJeromeBettis). The Crusaders will stretch the Wildcats' front and see if they can contain their speed, but, having seen the workhorse effort of Jacob Larson in last week's game, they are sure to test the middle of the vaunted Westminster defensive line.

The injury to Chad Briden has given Coach Chris Pederson and his cohorts a chance to hit the reset button and change personnel if not the visionary approach. Josh Pottebaum will likely be called on to fill Briden's shoes, and Steve Webb no doubt wants to recover from being reined in against St. Dominic. Lutheran North has size along the line, and it may come down to how much conditioning each side has when the game moves into its latter stages. (#RunBabyRun)

All in all, it comes down to what team shows up for Westminster tomorrow in Normandy (#NotTheD-DayOne). Who steps into their roles and flourishes will go a long way toward securing victory over a talented North squad. Yes, the road is a tough slog, much like the slip and slide effort of the Panthers and Jaguars...
...but difficulties do not a field of horror make. Above all, remember your Narnia history on the pages of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as the White Witch didn't go down until the reserves showed up. (#CSLewis)

There's always a place for the hidden champion. And may we find that way to victory on the road tomorrow.

The Wildcat Lair (2016: Vol. 5)

One loss is not sufficient cause for suddenly quoting Nietzsche in a dark room with lit candles. A stumble along the way is no cause for nihilism. The brooding Bard perhaps, for the difficulties that beset our beloved Wildcats are enough to cause the garden-variety Westminster fan to lilting "Stars, hide your fires/Let not light see my black and deep desires." (#Macbeth) But in a year that has already seen quality reaction to raw talent and new faces, rest assured that the Cats will claw right back into contention, St. Dominic loss aside.

'Twas a game that had all the sensation of running a 5K race in three feet of cooked oatmeal (#HealthyBreakfast). Knotted at a 3-3 tie at the halftime break, the 'Saders and Cats had slugged it out in a defensive bout worthy of a clash between SEC powers (#BAMAvsLSU). But skittish special teams put Westminster behind to stay when an errant punt snap flew over Grant Lavalle's head and through the north end zone, giving St. Dom a 5-3 lead they would never relinquish. Eighty-three seconds later, SD quarterback Dominic Demerath scrambled into the end zone to make it a two-score game, also topping that run with another tally five seconds into the fourth quarter. As St. Dominic tipped the balance in their favor by a 19-3 count, one could sense the world starting to go "BOOM" around Westminster Stadium with considerably less joy than showed by the Teutonic Care Bear. (#WeLoveKlopp)

But in just under two minutes, here came the Wildcats running and shooting with the pinball like action of a June Jones setup. An 11-yard scoring toss from Chad Briden to Dylan Conway and a two-point run by Steve Webb made things a one-possession game as the stands came alive. On the next Westminster possession, none other than Lavalle himself made a Sportcenter-worthy snag of a Briden toss and took it to the Crusader 7, and Wildcat fans felt their team back on the prowl again.

Alas, with the swiftness of the gods when they condemned Prometheus, disaster struck on the next set of downs when Briden took a hard shot to his left shoulder and crumpled to the turf. Soldiering on to the end of the drive, he barely overthrew Conway on fourth-and-goal before leaving the game with a broken collarbone and our fans with broken hearts. (#WhatAStinger)

Inexplicably, the Crusaders channelled their inner Jeff Fisher on their next possession, calling a fake punt inside their own 20, and the Wildcat special teams smelled it out like Nancy Kerrigan sensing Will Farrell's advances at a disciplinary hearing (#BladesOfGlory). The ball went back to the Westminster "O" and backup signal-caller Josh Pottebaum. The attack forces fought valiantly, but the Wildcats had peaked and spent themselves, and much like Swansea City in rain last week at Leicester, it wasn't enough to catch the victors. (#PremierLeaguePlug)

Looking at the game, it is a difficult pill to swallow, much more so than 1000 mg acetaminophen. But Wildcats know they have no time to waste. Shifting pieces around the chess board with the resolve of a Garry Kasparov will be a must throughout this week, as well as opening up holes for Steve Webb, who was held to 48 yards rushing against the St. Dominic defensive front. But we have a team and coaching staff that refuses to quit as we head into Metro League play this coming weekend. And that is the focus of our next post.