MOKANE, Mo. — On the brink of the state tournament, the undefeated South Callaway High School football team has been getting attention for their shut-down defense and high-octane offense.
However, head football coach Zack Hess said all the big running gains and touchdown passes are only the result of a part of the team that occasionally goes unnoticed.
"All of our skills players get a lot of press," he said. "However, the guys up front don't really get a lot of attention. Our team's success is based on how well they play."
In the middle of every football play, there is a battle going on, Hess said. The battle on the offensive and defensive line is where the game is won and lost.
"First of all, I think offensive line and defensive line is where it starts," he said. "You have to win the line of scrimmage. It's important to do well up front."
Quarterback Landon Horstman Jr., a beneficiary of the offensive line's skill, said the other players truly reap the benefits of the guys in the trenches.
"Our offensive line is quick, and they know what they're doing," he said. "On the defensive line, everybody does their job and knows how to play. We've been able to pass quite a bit because of them, and on runs, they give us all the space we need."
Full of fight
Tobias Gibson, defensive line coach for the team, said the offensive and defensive line in a way resemble the school's mascot: a bulldog.
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight," he said. "It's the size of the fight in the dog. These guys have a lot of fight."
Dakota Kraft, a senior on the team, plays offensive line. One of the struggles the unit has faced all season has been their lack of size, he said.
"We do a lot of work," he said. "We don't really get recognized often for a lot of things. We're getting hit the whole game and going up against guys twice our size."
The lack of size has forced the linemen to focus on perfecting their technique, senior lineman Ben Shumate said.
"Since we are undersized, we have to use our speed and technique," he said. "They're generally bigger and stronger than us, so we really have to focus on technical work."
Braden Sconce, a senior lineman, said there is no margin for error, so the linemen spend practice obsessing over the small details of each play.
"I think it's misunderstood with our team that size matters," he said. "People bash us because we are small, but I feel like we play pretty well. It's important to have communication between the offensive linemen. Better technique and communication will beat size and strength any day."
In addition to great technique, Hess said his team has also developed an offense that plays to the line's strength.
"I think the good thing for us is the offense we run," he said. "It plays to our strengths of being undersized and quick and knowing who we need to block in different scenarios."
Technique and strength only take a unit so far, Hess said. In the case of the South Callaway linemen, they are truly a brotherhood on the field, he added.
"I think that goes a long way," Hess said. "You don't always have that. When you have a group of guys that have strong friendship, that goes a long way."
In fact, the line provides a shining example for all other position players, Hess said.
"Having a close line really develops team chemistry," he said. "A lot of other position groups see that and understand why it's important."
The strengthened relationship between the group is one of patience and empathy, according to Kraft.
"We don't blame each other," he said. "If someone sees something wrong, there's always someone who will help out and correct you."
In a sport where a single missed step can have catastrophic results, junior Hunter Schroer said the entire group of linemen rise and fall as one.
"If one of us messes up, we all take it as a unit," he said. "We're like brothers, and we don't single any one man out. Anything that falls on someone else falls on us, too."
The unity extends after the final whistle blows at practice, Shumate said.
"It goes beyond football," he said. "We always hang out with each other after school. We weightlift together over the summer and do everything together. It's a brotherhood."
Luckily for the Bulldogs, the mix of technique and unity seem to influence the scoreboard, according to senior Darrell Risch.
"I just like to look at the stats," he said. "We have over 300 rushing yards per game and allow very few sacks. Coach is always saying everything starts with the front."
The South Callaway football team will play in the first round of the state playoff tournament tonight in Mokane at South Callaway High School. The game starts at 7 p.m. against the Montgomery County High School Wildcats.