It takes a cool head to win a hot game.
For a team in its first year as a football program, the Battle High School Spartans planned on having just that.
There are several questions, however, to answer about a team’s first season in a historic high school football town. There are always doubters that will question that team’s ability to compete at such a high standard with a group of kids who haven’t played side-by-side before.
During practice over the last week, Battle coach Justin Conyers, a former assistant at Rock Bridge High School, said he isn’t worried about any of that.
“To be honest with you, I don’t even think about not having seniors,” Conyers said Wednesday at practice. “I have 106 kids on my roster right now, and we have kids that can play all at different positions. That’s all that matters to me.”
Then it was Friday. After having to push back the start time to 8 p.m. due to heat precautions, the Battle Spartans took the field against the Kansas City East High School Bears.
Video clips of the movie “300” blared on the video screen, accompanied by chants of “This is Sparta!” Metallica’s hit “Enter Sandman” growled over the loudspeakers as the blue and gold-clad Spartans marched onto their battlefield. The football Friday feeling was back, even with only nine total people in the visitors’ bleachers before the game started.
For the Spartans (1-0), it worked in their favor. They defeated the KC East Bears (0-1) in a 56-6 rout in Columbia at the first game ever played at Muriel W. Battle High.
The score was a result of a strong rushing attack from Battle’s deep offensive backfield. The high number of penalties KC East drew on the offensive side of the ball (most of those ended up being delay of game penalties) also added to the high score.
Battle’s offense was supported by junior running backs Nash Sutherlin and Marshall Willingham, as well as sophomore running back Jerron Key. Sutherlin rushed for 4 touchdowns and Key notched 2. Willingham, who totaled 111 yards in 6 rushes, score one touchdown himself.
“We proved everybody wrong,” Sutherlin said. “People thought we were just going to be a new team and not be able to do anything. We looked like a brotherhood and we executed.”
Sutherlin rushed 8 times for 100 yards. Key rushed 4 times for 52.
Conyers said he was happy with the play of his high-powered offensive backfield.
“For me to have three tailbacks that could start for you and to be able to get all three in the game and get them carries was really nice for us,” he said.
Battle’s defense was also an integral ingredient in the team’s win as the unit kept KC East in the negative double digits in offensive yards. The delay of game penalties also helped, as the Bears finished the first half with -65 yards.
“I’m really proud of our defense,” Conyers said. “I think the goal-line stand on the 2-yard line shows a lot of poise and a lot of character by those guys to bend, not break.”
The defensive line notched two sacks, including a safety to add to the score.
Aside from the historic festivities, penalties were Battle’s achilles heel. At halftime, both teams combined for a total of 21 penalties.
Willingham said despite the historic atmosphere surrounding the team’s victory, the Spartans will need to cut down the “stupid mistakes” to ensure success in the future.
“We had a lot of mental mistakes and penalties,” he said. “Those are easy things (to fix), and I’m much happier that (those mistakes) are not from a physical standpoint. If we focus on those things, we can come out next week and cut those things in half. I can assure you that.”
Another area the Spartans will have to improve on is in special teams. A few mental errors on the kickoff and the kick return game caused KC East to gain favorable field position.
During a KC East kickoff after a touchdown, the Battle kick return team failed to realize the kicked ball was live. KC East recovered it within Battle’s red zone.
“I’m not being cliché, but we’ve got to get better,” Conyers said. “We’ve got to clean up the special teams. Special teams can win or lose games for you…we’ve got to be able to make plays on the special teams side.”
Looking past the numerous mistakes and special teams mishaps, the Spartans’ rushing attack ignited a running clock, well into the fourth quarter. By the fourth quarter, several second and third-string athletes got their chance to play under those Friday night lights.
“At the end of the day, it’s good to see our two’s scoring touchdowns, everybody getting the ball and everybody wanting to score,” Willingham said.
Battle erased any lingering doubts. They showed they could compete with Rock Bridge and Hickman at last week’s Jamboree, and now that they’re in a game setting, the Spartans are already off to a great start.
“I never imagined, honestly, going into week one to be where we are right now today,” Conyers said at Wednesday’s practice. “It’s one of those things that as a coach, it has been amazing.”
To quote the team’s mantra, “The Battle Begins.”