A steady rain fell from dark clouds, submerging an already underwater practice field. Inside the Hubbard football complex, Coach Barta did not have his full team. He was missing 11 of his players, including most of his starting backfield. Marshall, the Rempes, and eight others were in Osborne performing in a vocal concert as members of the Chansonaires. These were not the ideal conditions for preparing for the toughest game of the season.
The lights were off, and the La Crosse-St. Francis film was projected on the screen. Coach Barta's unmistakable silhouette -- arms crossed over cascading stomach -- formed an eclipse over the flickering images.
On the laps of the Redmen was a 22-page scouting report of the La Crosse team that Coach Barta and his staff believed was the Rosetta Stone for defeating the Leopards. The staff had spent nine hours in the NASA Lab on Sunday identifying offensive and defensive keys and finding weaknesses to attack when the Redmen traveled south on Friday to play La Crosse.
The Leopards were blessed with speed at all the skill positions. Jeremy Garcia was the best quarterback they had seen all year, completing 64 percent of his passes for more than 1,000 yards.
Cory Torrez and Scot Irvin were burners at wide receiver. In the backfield, Marcus Moeder was a 142-pound tailback who had gained nearly 900 yards simply by running past people.
Then there was Marshall Musil. He had gained 1,067 yards because he was fast and powerful. He could catch and averaged better than 15 yards a reception. He blocked like a road grader and was responsible not only for his accomplishments but also for Moeder's yards and often for Garcia's time in the pocket. He was smart, too. Marshall's late father, Terry Musil, had coached down the road at Osborne, and Coach Barta had known and liked him very much. Terry had died from cancer when Marshall was a little boy. Coach Barta had gotten to see Marshall at track meets, and he was impressed with the young man and how his mother, Connie, and sister, Meredith, had formed a tight unit around him.
Coach Barta had heard that Marshall had attended summer camps at the University of Oklahoma, and that the Sooners' coaching staff knew immediately that they had a future "H-back" in their midst. From what he had seen, Coach Barta agreed: Marshall Musil was strong, athletic, and smart. He also had the coach's son's knack of not making mistakes.
The Leopards' coach, Ryan Cornelsen, was also a coach's son. His father, Gary, had won four state championships at Liberal High School in southwestern Kansas, and Ryan had put together a 51-13 record over six seasons at La Crosse.
Just 36 years old, Cornelsen was confident and enthusiastic and straightforward enough to approach Coach Barta and Big Hutch at a state coaching convention to ask to pick their brains. It is a common practice in the coaching fraternity, and Coach Barta and Big Hutch were flattered. So in a hotel room in Wichita, Cornelsen played game film of the Redmen offense and asked them how they would stop their own offense. They liked his boldness.
Then they proceeded to run down the different defenses they had encountered over the past 30 years, and how they had steamrolled them anyway. Coach Barta and Big Hutch knew that it was likely they would face La Crosse again. It didn't matter. They had enjoyed the session, admired Cornelsen's passion, and believed he was going to be a terrific coach for years to come.
When Coach Barta sat at the computer earlier in the afternoon to draft the theme for this week of preparation, he was revved up. Coaching in big games, finding weaknesses on film, and exploiting them on the field were among the most gratifying parts of his profession. He knew exactly what points he needed to emphasize to his players.
1. We have a game. You must get ready. A real test.
He also knew how to take apart the Leopards. It was all there in those 22 pages, and his staff was jazzed about it, especially Brock. Little Hutch saw the keys to shutting down La Crosse's high flying offense so clearly that here on Monday he was already in his evangelical pregame mode.
"We've done the heavy lifting all year, gentlemen," he said. "We have worked hard. This is a mental week, a week where we are going to keep our head in the game and outthink our opponents. You're going to study. Out on the practice field, we're going to recognize things and talk to each other.
"By Friday night, I guarantee you that we will know where they are going before the ball is snapped. Very simply, gentleman, you need to know where No. 2 and No. 56 are because they will lead you to the play. So, listen up."
Over the next two hours, Brock was in rapture as the film raced forward and backward, play after play, demonstrating his insight that Marshall Musil and the left guard, Clinton Kershner, would lead the Redmen to the ball every time. The Leopards, indeed, depended on Kershner to be the lead blocker on virtually every running play. Sometimes, they pulled him; other times, they flipped him to the right side of the line. No matter where he started, the ball always followed.
"I can't say this enough: You must know where 56 is," Brock said, loud enough that it echoed in the locker room. "He is the key player that takes you to the ball."
And time after time on the white screen, either Musil followed Kershner, or Garcia kept the ball, or Garcia handed it to Moeder. Either way, both followed Musil, who was following Kershner.
There was more. Whenever Musil lined up in the slot or as a receiver, Garcia was going to try to pass to him. The film did not lie. It showed Musil going wide and then catching a pass. When Musil got a handoff in the backfield, he always hesitated and drifted east or west until he spotted a lane that he could motor through.
"We're going to be coming for Musil, and we're going to wrap him up while he's standing there trying to go sideways," Brock said.
"Watch him," he commanded. Once more the film was telling the story. "When he finds a hole and gets his shoulders square, he's dangerous. We're not going to let him square his shoulders. Are we?"
On it went, the flaws and tipoffs in the Leopards' offense, pointed out and shown over and over again on screen. Moeder did not like to run inside. He didn't like getting hit. So the Redmen were going to fly from the corners and turn him into the middle. They were going to hit him. Hard. The quarterback, Garcia, liked to run the ball himself on short yardage up between the tackle and end, and especially near the goal line.
"He tips off every time," said Mike Rogers, from his chair in the back of the room. "Watch his right foot when he gets under center."
"See, right there," he said. The film was paused. "He drops that right foot back, getting ready to go."
What La Crosse intended to do on defense was even clearer to the Redmen coaching staff. The Leopards had played St. Francis the week before, after all, and had done a decent job of shutting down an offense that was identical to Smith Center's. They did it by dropping a "monster back" behind the nose guard; he was going to shoot the gaps on either side of the center and free up Musil, who played middle linebacker, to chase the ball and make plays. They also moved Garcia, who played outside linebacker, closer to the line. He was going to bolt between the guard and the tackle in an effort to blow up the play in the backfield immediately after the handoff.
Coach Barta thought his kids were stronger and faster than St. Francis's; La Crosse would be unable to stop the Redmen offense.
The La Crosse players had been gracious in their pregame public remarks about the Redmen, and they understood how much it meant to their town that they were facing Smith Center in a game of this magnitude. In fact, the school was putting up temporary grandstand seating for an additional 1,500 people.
"It is the biggest game in La Crosse High School history," Jeremy Garcia told the
In the past three seasons, the Leopards had compiled a 32-2 record with one of those losses a 46-0 drubbing by Smith Center in the 2006 playoffs. This year they were 11-0 and ranked No. 2 in the state behind the Redmen. The Leopards believed they were the right team to snap the winning streak and Smith Center's grip on the state title. They, too, believed this was the real state championship game. The population of La Crosse -- 1,376 -- had quadrupled on game night. Its stadium did not have much parking, and folks were pulling into spaces wherever in town they found them, and hiking to the lights that loomed east of Main Street. It didn't matter that it was a bitterly cold night; the grandstands were packed, and the people were three deep all the way around the field's perimeter.
The Redmen, of course, had been here since 5:10 p.m., sprawled across the La Crosse gym floor and sinking into their iPods, readying themselves for a game they could not wait to play. Dillon Corbett, however, had gotten restless and wandered into the Leopards' weight room. Dillon was one of the stalwarts of the offensive and defensive lines. He blew holes open for the backs on offense and made plays from his position as defensive end. Dillon was one of the happy- go- lucky juniors; they were everything the seniors weren't -- extremely confident.
A document caught Dillon's attention on the floor in the weight room: La Crosse's scouting report of Smith Center. Inside, there were a few pages of data and very cursory observations that would not even have made it into the Redmen's scouting reports. It was the cover that was interesting. There was an illustration of what looked like a state championship ring and a message typed out under the headline, WE WILL PLAY WITH A PASSION ABOVE ALL EXPECTATIONS.
"Smith Center creates an image on the countless radio, TV Stations and even a book about them, that they're real humble, classy football program and team," it began. "They've proved to me several times in the last six years that this is a cover for the real personalities."
Coach Cornelsen's tirade was just getting started. The preamble on the scouting report took the Redmen to task for arrogant behavior at the previous spring's track meets, and accused the coaching staff of routinely running up the score on opponents to show their dominance. He claimed that the Redmen coaches made fun of the teams they played at the film session he had with them at the clinic in Wichita. He accused the Redmen players and their parents of being incessant trash talkers. Coach Cornelsen claimed that he was not alone in his feelings, that every school that the Redmen played felt the same way.
Coach Cornelsen wrote that what bothered him the most was that Smith Center's coaching staff, players -- the whole town -- were phonies, and had suckered the media into portraying them as humble when they were anything but.
"I'm tired of their cocky attitudes, disrespect and the image they try to portray," he wrote. "Let's find out how humble they are when they get knocked around, and they are on the loosing [sic] side."
Word of the scouting report spread through the room like a nasty virus. When Coach Barta finally heard about it, he took it away without reading it. He could tell his team didn't need any more motivation.
To get to the field from their locker room, the Redmen parted hundreds of La Crosse fans through a gap in the home team's grandstands. They paired off and clasped hands. They seemed to get bigger as they passed through the hostile territory. There was not a trace of nervous energy as they took the field for the opening kickoff.
The first minute of the game set the tone for the next 47. On the second play from scrimmage at the Redmen's own 8-yard line, Joe Osburn took the ball from Travis and followed a devastating block by Cody Tucker, bounced to the Smith Center sideline, and then went 92 yards for the touchdown. The Redmen's whole bench provided an out-of-bounds convoy for him into the end zone. It set off a cathartic celebration in the Smith Center grandstands and left the Leopard faithful silent and out of breath.
La Crosse's fans came to life again after the kickoff when the Leopards' offense took the field. This unit was averaging more than 52 points a game -- surely they would answer the Redmen's opening salvo. As Garcia led the Leopards to the line of scrimmage, Marshall McCall tapped Trevor on the rump and nodded resolutely at Kris.
When the ball was snapped, he zeroed in on Marshall Musil, who had the ball and was drifting left. Trevor had him at the thighs, and Marshall McCall lowered his head and suddenly felt like he had been fired from a slingshot.
The collision was brutal. Marshall had buried Musil for a two-yard loss.
La Crosse went three plays and was forced to punt. Travis Rempe was smiling as he led the Redmen offense onto the field.
Travis handed the ball to his brother four straight times, each of them ending the same way -- with Trevor dragging La Crosse tacklers into the center of the field. Now that the middle was soft, Travis handed the ball to Colt, who scooted off tackle between Justin and Kris and was in the end zone 50 yards later. Just like that, the score was Redmen 12, Leopards 0.
After forcing La Crosse to punt again, Smith Center looked to close the door for good. Instead, Colt lost the punt in the lights, and the ball bounced off his shoulder pads. The Leopards recovered it at the Smith Center 9-yard line. Colt hung his head, and on the sidelines his father, Mike, did the same. On third and goal, Jeremy Garcia hit Corey Torrez on a slant pattern for a seven- yard score, cutting the lead to 12-6 after Musil's kick failed.
The Redmen took their time, going 69 yards over 13 plays. Trevor Rempe again was the work horse, and he showed the Leopards how a fullback runs from the textbook. He took nine handoffs up the middle, his legs never stopping, and his helmet bashing into Musil, Garcia, and whoever else got in his way. When he took the ball into the end zone from the 1-yard line, it was Trevor's 38th yard on the drive and he looked as strong as he did when the game began.
The Redmen defense was even better. Brock had dissected La Crosse perfectly. Marshall and Kris Lehmann were following the guard Kershner and delivering knee-wobbling hits on Garcia, Musil, and Moeder. Dillon, Trevor, and Joel Osburn were getting to Musil in the backfield as he moved laterally, never letting him get his shoulders squared. Whenever the Leopards got the tiniest bit of offensive traction, the Redmen came up with big plays. On consecutive drives, spanning the second and third quarters, La Crosse reached the Redmen's 31-, 26-, 36-, and 11-yard lines before having to give up the ball on downs.
No one knew better how dominating the Redmen defense was than Marshall Musil. After 48 minutes of football, the best running back in Kansas and future Oklahoma Sooner had gained just 21 yards and his high school career ended without a state title in a 32-14 loss. He led the Leopards across the field to shake hands and, after making it halfway through the line, couldn't help himself.
"What! Are there like three thousand of you guys?" he said. "It felt like that all night. Everywhere I went, one of you guys was on me."
When he reached the end of the line, Coach Barta reached out his right hand and stretched his left arm up to touch Musil's shoulder pad. "I knew your father, and he was a really good man," he told Musil. "I know how proud he is of you as a football player, and as a man. Good luck at Oklahoma."