Last Saturday afternoon at Gateway Stem (formerly Gateway Tech, formerly O'Fallon Tech) the Carnahan Cougars football team basked in school history, following a 36-14 conquest of the host Jagaurs.
It wasn't just a routine victory, which in itself used to be a rarity for the Cougars program; rather this was a season-ending milestone achievement. The Cougars had reversed a 3-7 record from the previous year to finish 7-2, which earned them their first small-school division title in the Public High League.After senior quarterback Dontrelle Busby scored on a six-yard run with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining before the half to give his club a 12-7 cushion, the Cougars never looked back on the way to the romp.
Carnahan athletic director Charlie Bean could look back, however, on the long road from perennial losing to winning with a sigh of relief and accomplishment.
"We've made school history by going 7-2 and winning our first league (small school division) championship and our first district championship and after going just 3-7 last year and it was a long, long time coming," said Bean, noting that the program had endured all losing seasons during its previous six years of varsity football.
While the large-school division Miller Career Academy Phoenix have owned the PHL this season with a 7-0 conference mark, which includes an early season 37-0 rout of Carnahan, five lopsided shutouts of other league foes and a perfect 9-0 mark overall, the Cougars must be considered the Next Best Thing in the PHL.
Indeed they have reversed the curse of their two initial seasons as a PHL varsity program to the point of beating some league foes as badly as they were beaten: They thrashed Roosevelt 62-7 and rolled past Northwest Academy 44-12 on the way to the 7-2 regular season mark. Then they opened their Missouri Class 2 playoff action on Thursday night by overwhelming the ROTC Commanders 60-24 to improve to 8-2, pending the sectionals next Wednesday with a team and site yet to be determined.
It hasn't been a gradual transformation,either; rather it has been a dramatic turn-about, in how they have reversed their proverbial fortunes.
In fact, in the inaugural 2008 campaign the Cougars went 0-8 and scored in only three games, while meanwhile losing to Maplewood 69-0, Vashon 67-0, Sumner 62-0 and Jennings 56-0. Ditto for the 2009 season in which the Cougars duplicated the 0-8 mark, while again just scoring in three games and losing to Jennings 69-0 and Maplewood 61-0.
All of the players from those teams have left, transferred or graduated, but the current players don't need long memories of their own struggles-to a lesser degree- since the Cougars were 3-7 just last season.
"It feels nice to know that hard work really pays off," said senior Chavez Hines, who paced the club's defense with a league-high 117 total tackles and paced the club's balance rushing attack on offense with 448 yards and 12 touchdowns. "That extra summer training, the extra wind sprints after practice, that has finally paid off. A lot of people doubted us at first."
In fact, 'a lot' of people still weren't even convinced that the Cougars had won all of their games that box scores indicated, in particular a 12-7 upset of league power Soldan earlier this season. Given that the Soldan Tigers have been second only to the Career Academy Phoenix in league supremacy and bragging rights the last couple of years, few outside of the Carnahan program saw that victory coming. But Martin Jenkins of the league's office said it was no fluke.
"The common thread amongst all PHL football teams this year is inexperience," said Jenkins. "All schools have underclassmen playing the bulk of the snaps, so there is more parity in the league."
But to prove the Soldan triumph was no fluke, the following week the Cougars rolled past a young, but improving Sumner Bulldogs squad 44-20.
"I think we really picked up the momentum after that Sumner game," said Busby, a senior quarterback converted from receiver and slot back positions. "We really started rolling from there."
But make no mistake about it, Busby is the focal point behind the attack on offense, thanks in large part to the blocking of the offensive line with center Chris Perkins,(5-7,170), tackles DeAndrea Preston (5-11, 230) and Rashad Williams (5-9, 240) and guards Jerome Ware (5-7, 240) and Rashad Williams (5-9, 240). Busby was the club's leading receiver last year with just 17 catches but for a whopping 618 yards, good for a 36.4 yards per catch average, while then-senior quarterback DeJon Shelton passed for 1,102 yards and rushed for a club-high 851 yards.
Now in a revamped offense with triple option read plays, Busby has completed 44 of 77 passes for 734 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for over 3oo yards.
Cougars offensive coordinator Darren B. Hale said both he and head coach Lee Scott thought Busby was suited to take over for Shelton.
"Dontrelle Busby has been in my system since he was a freshman playing slotback and receiver. He's well-versed in what I like to run as offensive coordinator and what the head coach wants to see, so physically and knowledge-wise he was the best fit for quarterback in my system to replace DeJon Shelton. It didn't surprise me because he's an athlete and that's why we chose him to lead the team on offense."
As far as the Cougars team overall, they no longer have to take a back seat to most of the other PHL teams, except the Career Academy Phoenix who beat them 37-0 earlier in the season but are a larger school (Class 4 versus Carnahan's Class 2 status). For the most part, Carnahan has now set a higher bar.
"When we competed against some of the best teams the state had to offer and won against Potosi (42-31, the season opener) and lost to Battle High in Columbia (48-28) late in the fourth quarter, it was the mental lesson they learned to play as a team and not accept failure," relayed Hale.
"It means a lot for the school and the team," says Busby.
Anyone seeking information state playoff action involving PHL teams should call the league office at 314-345-4418.