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Chasing the champs: PHL football will rise with the Phoenix as camps open soon

The Life of Riley: The Phoenix's Travis Riley has been a game-changer
photo submitted by Career Academy

Considering the way in which they dismantled their own league last football season, when high school football camps officially open throughout the area and state early month, there will be little doubt in the Public High League who will set the standard of excellence until another contender emerges to the forefront: The Miller Career Academy Phoenix, the defending league champions, who turned most games into a virtual clinic on dominance.

Not since the vaunted Sumner Bulldogs of the late 1980's and early 1990's had there been a PHL football program so dominant within the league as last year's Phoenix, who outscored their PHL foes 339-34 in their six games against league foes. But if it weren't for the Vashon Wolverines (47-12 victims) and the Gateway Stem Jaguars (28-22 losers), the Phoenix would have had a clean shutout of the league. The ROTC Commanders were at the high end of the beat-downs, losing 78-0, but seemingly respectable league opponents like Northwest (47-0), Soldan (44-0) and Carnahan (37-0) were also no match.

But Phoenix coach Sorrell Harvey didn't necessarily take a measure of accomplishment or pride in running over his league foes. In fact after the ROTC blowout he acknowledged that he is sometimes disappointed that his rival coaches aren't better prepared to field a more competitive team for the fans to see a more competitive game. The Vashon Wolverines were ready for the Phoenix early by jumping them for two touchdowns, but were eventually overwhelmed in the end.

On the other hand, the Gateway Jaguars played with the Phoenix to the very end, of regulation and the first overtime, until Career Academy's Marquis Stewart scored on a 15-yard sweep in the right corner of the end zone to clinch the win for the Phoenix.

"We just didn't seal the edge on that play," a dejected Gateway coach Jason Dulick would say later, after he had buried his cap on his face briefly.

But little did Dulick know then-back in late September- that his Jaguars actually kept the PHL football race from becoming a no-contest, one-team wrecking crew. The Jaguars would go on to finish only 3-8 in an injury-riddled, inconsistent season. Meanwhile, the Phoenix were solid, if not dominant against quality playoff opponents as well on the way to a school-record 11-1 mark. Only a late rally by host Cape Girardeau Central 25-22 in the Class 4 state quarterfinals prevented the Phoenix from reaching the state semifinals with a perfect 12-0 mark. Nevertheless Gateway almost caught a seemingly unbeatable Career Academy at the right time.

When camps open in early August, the other PHL teams who were no match for Career Academy last year will no doubt have to be more like Gateway if nothing else and give the Phoenix all they could handle. But it won't be easy because as soon as the Phoenix graduate impact players, others quickly step up. Two seasons ago when they also won the PHL in a passing-oriented attack, senior quarterback Trevon King passed for 2,630 yards and 25 touchdowns with five interceptions. Senior Devan Roberts led the rushing attack with 1,083 yards.

Last year, Jaylan James, who had caught 17 passes as a receiver for 334 yards the previous season, moved in at quarterback. He didn't have the prolific passing yards that King had, as James threw for 1,332 yards but he threw 21 touchdown strikes and rushed for over 700 yards. But because of so many blowouts, backup signal caller Derrion Twitty passed for 623 yards as well.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix's top rusher was junior Marquis Stewart who piled up 1,863 yards, who's back for what figures to be a banner campaign along with a host of top defenders like safety Travis Riley, who had 70 tackles, seven interceptions and seven touchdowns off kick returns and picks. But the Phoenix dominance, which has included a two-year unbeaten league streak, still hasn't deterred opposing teams from being confident, as well they should. Harvey wants competition and opposing players to be at their best.

"I believe there are many teams that think they can beat us because teams are always saying it but it never happens," said Riley this week.

As camps open two PHL programs really on the bubble to improve will be the Sumner Bulldogs, who finally won two games after a winless 2012 season and the Northwest Hornets, who have picked up remaining Beaumont Bluejackets, as that school transitioned into a trade school offering no sports before it eventually closed down.

The Bulldogs last had a winning season in 2008 when Harvey, a former Sumner running back great who has a state title as a player, was coaching there and he led the team to a 7-5 mark, including a 28-27 playoff win over Ladue. But many longtime Sumner faithful reminder the glory years of perennial PHL dominance and at least postseason success. But they ended last season with a 75-0 playoff loss to McCluer South-Berkeley.

The old, great Sumner Bulldogs won the Missouri Class 4A title in back-to-back seasons in 1990 and 1991 and boast four overall. They had one stretch where they won 14 straight league crowns under legendary coach Lawrence Walls, who is in the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

"It makes me feel bad to see us struggle like this now," said former Sumner player Deshaun Murphy a starting defensive back on that 1990 state champion who also started several games at quarterback before giving way to Reginald Williams. "I remember when we used to run through teams. It makes me feel sad we don't do that anymore. But I guess it's the sign of the times."

But Harvey would certainly like to see a more competitive PHL season in 2014, just as Walls did back when his teams were so dominant they had to schedule powerhouse non-conference foes like the East St. Louis Flyers and the Jefferson City Jays. With plenty of talent, the Phoenix may continue to rise but will the other PHL teams follow suit to some extent?

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