Reports of Soldan High's sharp decline in football after a brief run of success may have been premature. Likewise, expectations of Sumner's continuous decline may have also been premature.
Indeed, two Public High League programs which seemingly had been going in opposite directions in recent seasons, went in the same positive direction last weekend. Both clubs won their respective season-openers, as Soldan rolled by visiting Roosevelt 28-6 last Saturday afternoon in a heat-shortened contest, while Sumner outlasted host St. Vincent of Perryville,Missouri 12-8 last Friday night.
The host Soldan Tigers, who lost only one league game last season (to eventual champion Career Academy), were supposed to be trending down due to the graduation of several star players: Among the Tigers' graduated departed were two-way end star Emmanuel Vaughn (57 receptions for 951 yards and 14 touchdowns on offense, while being credited with 23 sacks and 68 tackles on defense), quarterback Steven Irving (2,314 yards passing and 28 touchdown strikes), running back Kendall Stewart (1,031 yards rushing) and defensive linemen Gregory Curry (83 tackles and five fumble recoveries) and Demon Taylor( 73 tackles and six sacks).
If those departures didn't warrant enough changes, Soldan also has a new head coach in former assistant Jarrett Kendall, who takes over for Sean Morris, who relinquished his position during the off-season.
"We went through a transition, but the foundation for a good program has been laid," said Kendall. "We want no excuses for this year: not a new coach or a new team of players."
Indeed, Soldan upstaged the Rough Riders with a cast of new stars, if not new players, leading the way: Quarterback Ronald Clower, who saw limited varsity duty last season, scored on a 65-yard touchdown run and threw three touchdowns passes, including two to Cortlen Brooks, a Maplewood transfer and another one to Dwight Sacus, a CBC (Christian Brothers College High) transfer.
"I knew I had to step up with all the players we lost," said Clower. "It was cool. It was no big adjustment. Even the new coach was no big change because we knew the coach well."
Sacus, who scored the game's first touchdown on a 16-yard scoring strike from Clower in the first quarter, said he was more than prepared to prove his value to the program after being an ineligible bystander last year.
"It was hard standing on the sidelines just watching last year, " said Sacus. "I had been playing football every year since I was real young. But we (receivers and quarterbacks) together all summer. We worked together on certain routes, running consecutive routes to make sure we got it right. We put in a lot of hard work."
Complicating the season-opener degree of difficulty, as it were, was the fact that the game was moved up from a 1 p.m. start to 10 a.m. to mitigate the heat and humidity.
"The word of the day was persevere ," noted Clower. "I did what I had to do to help my team win."
Indeed despite the time change,the game was shortened about midway through the third quarter when the heat index officially hit 105, the state-mandated rule to conclude the game at that juncture.
"The kids' safety is paramount," explained Martin Jenkins, an administrator with the Public High League office. "Everybody should understand that. When the temperature gets as high as 95 you have to help modify the situation. You give them more breaks and more water breaks as much as you can. But when the heat index hits 105 it is a mandated rule, you have to call it. That's all you can do. It is what it is."
Heat and abbreviated ending notwithstanding, Roosevelt coach DeAndre Campbell was more 'heated' at his Rough Riders than anything else, including Soldan's performance.
"I wasn't impressed," said Campbell. "We killed ourselves. We stunk up the place. We didn't protect the quarterback on offense. We gave up big plays on defense. They (the Tigers) got some lucky catches. They got some lucky breaks and we didn't execute well at all."
Both Roosevelt and Soldan will be on the road this weekend against formidable non-conference opponents: The Rough Riders will play at Chaminade in a 7 p.m. game tonight while Soldan will take on an even more intimidating foe when they play the powerful Edwardsville Tigers as part of a multiple-game showcase East St. Louis Classic at noon Saturday at Clyde C. Jordan Stadium in East St. Louis,Ill.
Whether Roosevelt was unlucky and bad may be a matter of debate, but there's no debating the fact that the once-mighty Sumner Bulldogs had been neither good nor lucky last year, based on an epic 0-9 campaign, from a program which once had been a perennial state contender from the 1970's through the 1990's before hitting rock bottom. Before Sumner claimed the victory over the St. Vincent Indians on a 27-yard interception return by Malik Antrum and a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Jauris Roinson after a blocked punt, the Bulldogs had last won a game back in October 2011, when they blanked now-defunct Beaumont 34-0.
Last year, save for a 20-14 defeat league foe ROTC and a strong first-half against former arch-rival Vashon, before losing 28-16, the Bulldogs were on the receiving end of several blowouts, including five defeats in which their opponents scored 40 or more points.
"It was tough," said then Sumner senior linebacker Trevion Leonard, who was second in the PHL with 111 solo tackles last year, when reflecting on the winless campaign. "I know I didn't think I would go through the whole season without a victory. But as it was happening, I just tried to make the most of it. Everything happens for a reason. Even though we didn't win a game, I think we grew as a program."
Sumner athletic director Anthony Mitchell concurred with that sentiment and gave now second-year coach Johnny Randle a vote of confidence throughout the off-season.
"We definitely think the program is going in the right direction," said Mitchell, of the once-storied program which had been drastically impacted more by declining enrollment, a drastic population decline in the school district and a realignment of the school's neighborhood boundaries and lower roster numbers than coaching and player effort. "It's not a neighborhood school anymore. Kids have been getting bused in from other (zip code) areas for several years now. We don't have the population to draw from we used to. But on the field the kids were much more disciplined under Randle in his first year than they were under the previous coach (James Williams, the two previous seasons). They have been more disciplined on and off the field. I love the attitude of the kids. The kids really like the new coach. They just didn't have the experience as the top teams. They were very young. But everybody else in the PHL lost a lot of key seniors, so we expect them to be more competitive this year."
After enduring that challenging season as the leader and starting quarterback, Robinson acknowledged during the off-season that he was appreciative and respectful that Randle had taken much of the accountability.
"Coach Randle did a good job of taking the blame off of me and he didn't have to do that," said Robinson. "We as players were responsible for how the season went more than the coaches. But the coach helped me learn from my mistakes. It was a learning experience. We didn't expect to struggle that badly. But we were able to grow as a team."
"It's definitely going in the right direction," reiterated Mitchell over the summer.
The Bulldogs, who were one of the state's preeminent programs for nearly three decades from the 1970's through the 1990's before hitting rock bottom, had lost won in October 2011 when they blanked now-defunct Beaumont 34-0. Sumner managed only single-win seasons in 2010 and 2011 under former coach James Williams and last posted a winning mark in 2008 at 7-5 Sorrell Harvey who guided the Career Academy Phoenix to the PHL title and a perfect 9-0 regular season and 10-1 overall last season.
But at their high point former legendary coach Lawrence Walls led the Bulldogs to an incredible 20 PHL titles in 28 years, including four state titles and nine state championship final games. Walls compiled a 247-60-5 record during the span, including 14 straight league titles from 1983 to 1996. In his final season, in 1998, Sumner made it to the state quarterfinals before losing to eventual Class 4A champion Jefferson City Helias. For his accomplishments, Walls was inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2012.
Sumner, which many years anywhere from 1,200 to 800 students reflecting its Class 5 or Class 4 large school state classification, was barely over 400 students last year as a Class 3 member and may likely be dropped down to Class 2 status by the state realigns the state brackets again next spring.
After being idle this week, Sumner will open its league slate next Friday (Sept.13) in a 6:30 p.m. contest at Gateway Tech against the Jaguars, who have a key conference match-up against the Vashon Wolverines this Friday night at Sumner. Kickoff is 6:30 p.m. also.
Meanwhile the defending league champion Phoenix will take on Carnahan in a 1:30 p.m. start Saturday at Gateway Tech. The Phoenix held off host Eldon,Mo 48-42 in an explosive offensive duel, in which running back Marquis Stewart rushed for a prolific 224 yards and three touchdowns on just 16 carries and Jaylen James added three rushing touchdowns as well.