(David Jenkins/Standard Democrat)
Under the current playoff format, Sikeston has reached the district semifinals three times in the last four years heading into this season.
And all three times the Bulldogs' season came to an end.
(David Jenkins/Standard Democrat)
For Sikeston coach Kent Gibbs, he's hoping his players are relishing the chance to reach the district championship game. It's something that Sikeston hasn't done since 2010 when the team made it all the way to the state semifinals.
But it will take a win over talented Hillsboro to achieve the goal.
"I think the kids are excited that we're able to play another game and I think we're excited that we're playing better football and we've seen that in our practices," Gibbs said. "Maybe playing with a little more confidence. But it all comes down to every week's a new game. You take care of the preparation and once you arrive, you've got to execute and be fundamentally sound."
Hillsboro comes into the game with a record of 8-2, but the Hawks have lost two of its last three.
The Hawks ripped off seven straight wins to start the season, had garnered a state ranking, and appeared well on its way to the top seed in the district.
But back-to-back home losses to Poplar Bluff (43-28) and MICDS (38-22) knocked the Hawks into the second seed.
Hillsboro defeated seventh-seeded DeSoto, 40-6, to earn the semifinal game against Sikeston.
The Hawks average 34.6 points per game while surrendering 24.8 points per game. Hillsboro has scored 40 or more points in seven different games this season, so Gibbs knows stopping the high-powered offense will be a chore.
"They want to pound the ball at you and they do a nice job of getting out on the edge of blocking," Gibbs said. "Their running backs do a nice job of following their blocks and breaking a big one. They also do some misdirection type stuff. They're a load. They're going to be tough to stop."
Hillsboro's offense is triggered by junior quarterback Tyler Isaacson, who has completed 30 of 67 (44.8 percent) for 521 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also rushed for 355 yards with eight touchdowns.
The Hawks' top ball carrier is junior Michael Keller, who leads the team with 1,589 yards rushing and a whopping 26 touchdowns. He averages 10.7 yards per carry.
Junior Luke Skaggs follows up with 821 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. Joseph Gregory has 501 yards with three touchdowns.
Gibbs says that Hillboro's offense has similarities to Sikeston's last two opponents, Park Hills Central and Festus.
"They're foot to foot on the offensive line," Gibbs said. "They do a lot pulling and they pull their centers which creates some down-blocks and kick-out blocks. What they're trying to do offensively is in some ways similar to the last two teams we've played. They want to run the ball, control the clock and keep it away from you with long drives. It's an assignment football type thing. You've got to be disciplined and take care of your job."
Of Isaacson's 30 completions, 20 of them have gone to junior receiver Isaiah Martin for 437 yards and six touchdowns.
"They'll throw the play-action pass up top to No. 88 (Martin) so we've got to be aware of where he is and not let them get off the big pass plays," Gibbs said. "They run some option, some veer, inside option and stuff like that. They're an active football team. They do a really good job up front on both sides of the ball getting off the ball."
Hillsboro and Sikeston have two common opponents in Festus and Poplar Bluff. Hillsboro beat Festus 22-20 in Week 4 while Sikeston hammered Festus 59-10 last week in the first round of district play. Hillsboro lost to Poplar Bluff 43-28 in Week 8 while Sikeston lost to the Mules 48-30 in Week 7 after blowing a 30-13 lead in the first half.
Sikeston (7-3) enters the contest on a three-game winning streak bolstered by the return of senior running back Justus Faulkner.
The Bulldogs are averaging almost 56 points per game during the stretch with Faulkner rushing for 711 yards in those three games.
With the return of Faulkner, quarterback Dre Johnson has also produced some big games in his own right, rushing for 235 yards and throwing for 180 yards.
"Getting our injured folks back changes the dynamics of the team. Offensively with having everybody back, it improves everybody's performance because you're kind of locked into your role and you build off the success of each individual," Gibbs said. "For instance, Dre had to do quite a bit when Justus was out. But with Justus back, Dre can focus on his job and do better with the passing game and executing the offense. The consistency on offense is something that will be big. We're going to need some big plays on offense."
On the season, Faulkner has rushed for 1,161 yards with 14 touchdowns despite missing three games due to mononucleosis and being pulled at halftime of two others in lopsided games.
Johnson has rushed for 607 yards and seven touchdowns while throwing for 753 yards, completing 46 of 116 passes with seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
Senior Phayzun Fobbs has 788 all-purpose yards along with six touchdowns.
Sophomore wide receiver Ricky Scott leads the team with 389 yards receiving and three touchdowns.
"I think we're playing our best football right now, you bet," Gibbs said. "And that's what everybody wants to do. Just as Hillsboro is probably saying they're a whole lot better than they were in Week 1. I think on both sides of the ball and on special teams that we are playing better than we were, particularly these last two weeks. Penalties, turnovers and special teams execution. When you get to this time of the year if teams are evenly matched, the penalties and turnovers can be deal-breakers for either side. I think those things can be key."
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs are led by nose tackle Josh Stinnett's 90 tackles with 22 for a loss and five sacks. Linebacker Jason Moore follows up with 81 tackles while linebackers Keshawn Ellis and Jeland Allen each have 70 tackles.
Don Larry leads the team with three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown. Stinnett has a fumble return for a TD and Elijah Faulkner has an interception return for a TD.
Tomorrow night's game will mark just the fourth-ever meeting between Sikeston and Hillsboro. The two played a home-and-home series in 1994 and 1995 with Sikeston winning both games, 27-6 and 34-12. Hillsboro defeated Sikeston in a regional playoff game, 34-32, to end the Bulldogs' season in 2011.
Hillsboro last reached a district final in 2014 before losing to Cape Central. The Hawks were eliminated by Farmington in the district semifinals last year.
"Everybody's going to be good at this time of the year," Gibbs said. "At this time of the year you're going to start seeing better and better opponents and that's why you play."