Sometimes you are not what you appear to be on paper: Ask many area high school football teams. Sometimes circumstances, as well as execution and production, figure into the equation.
Take the Gateway Stem (formely Gateway Tech) Jaguars of the Public High League. They were a 3-8 team last year capable of playing up to the level of an eventual 11-1 state quarter finalist like the 11-1 Career Academy Phoenix before losing 28-22 in overtime, one week after needing two overtimes to scramble to past eventual 2-7 Sumner by the score of 13-7.
But the slate will be wiped clean when the visiting St. Mary' High Dragons of the Archdiocesan Athletic Association (AAA) takes on the Jaguars in a 6:30 p.m. non-conference clash this Friday. The Dragons have been no strangers to the Public High League in recent years, since they have also been in the same playoff brackets. Last season, St. Mary's fell to PHL champion Career Academy 48-21, as the Phoenix eventually advanced to the Missouri Class 4 state quarterfinals. But in 2012, the Dragons rolled by Vashon 49-22 and Career Academy 41-6 on the way to make it to the Class 4 state semifinals, the highest ever finish for the Dragons.
But the quarterfinals and semifinals are not exactly unchartered territory for Gateway either, as the Jagaurs made those postseason runs a few years ago when they had current National Football League returning Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson, former star quarterback Paul Rice and running back Michael Ball, among others.
Even last year Gateway not only played well in spurts, but showed that there was enough senior talent, when healthy, to land five players scholarships at colleges in the region: center / defensive lineman Mark Conley, two-way lineman Nehemiah Ford, two-way lineman Booker Thomas,290- pound-plus, Jabari Wayne, who was adept as a fullback, defensive end and two-way tackle and Zach McBride, another utility star who split time at quarterback, running back, receiver and in the secondary. But the Jagaurs had so many players go down, versatility took a back seat to the lack of experience.
"We had a number of obstacles and challenges to overcome to be successful," said Jaguars coach Jason Dulick in summing up that 2013 roller-coaster. "At one point in the season we had five to six freshman starting on both sides of the ball (due to injuries). While that was a great experience for them to be young and playing varsity, it took them a couple of games to transition from playing JFL (Junior Football League) to varsity (high school) football."
Dulick also cited an extremely difficult non-conference slate, which included Riverview Gardens, emerging new upstate power Columbia Battle, Jefferson City, surprise league upstart Carnahan, recent contender Soldan and always-tough Career Academy. The coach also had tread slowly with a freshman quarterback Antonio Cunningham, who has all-league potential as a developing signal-caller. Cunningham and senior Zach McBride, a standout athlete of multiple positions shared the duties.
"I struggled with the decision to start Antonio at the beginning of the season," said Dulick. "We did not want to put him in a bad position and mess him up for the future. He did not miss a day of practice during the summer or off-season workouts and I thought he earned the spot, so I decided to start him for the Riverview Gardens game. He did well for a freshman."
But in that defeat and the following week in a close league loss to Vashon, attrition got the better of the Jaguars.
"When our running backs went down, we needed a (running) threat at the quarterback position and that is where Zach McBride came in," said the coach. "From that point we decided to switch them in and out according to down-distance situations ."
Cunningham was particularly effective as a passing playing from way behind against the powerful Jefferson City Jays in a 55-22 blowout that was 42-0 at one point. Cunningham completed 12 of 20 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns. Then at the end of regular season, following a 31-17 district championship to Carnahan, where the two signal-callers shared time, Cunningham went the distance in a 29-22 playoff triumph at St Charles.
"He did an excellent job for us in a tough, close ballgame against St. Charles and we came out on top," said Dulick.
Amid key graduation losses on the line, Cunningham will be protected by junior Bryce Allen at left guard, junior Devontay Anderson at right tackle, sophomore Terrell Cooper at right guard, sophomore Myles Reed at center and junior Aaron Williams at left tackle. Receivers Donnell Williams, who were among the players who missed significant time due to injuries, and Anton Garrett will be two of Cunningham's prime receiving targets. Garrett is also a standout defensive back as a pass defender and tackler: He had three interceptions in a game against Roosevelt and 12 tackles against Jefferson City.