The South Callaway Bulldogs can exhale, knowing that they don't face staggering odds as the overwhelming underdog.
In fact, No. 7 South Callaway (9-1) - which is making its third straight appearance in the state playoffs - might even be labeled the favorite tonight when it hosts Clopton/Elsberry (6-4) in a Class 2 regional. Kickoff is at 7.
In advancing to the postseason each of the past two years, the Bulldogs were rewarded with the arduous task of attempting to take down perennial state power Centralia. To no one's surprise, the Panthers punished South Callaway in both regional matchups - 57-14 in 2008 and 55-8 in 2009.
While there is a sense of relief for the Bulldogs that Centralia won't be the opponent on the opposite sideline tonight, it doesn't diminish their regard for Clopton/Elsberry.
"We can take a big breath in just knowing that we're not playing Centralia, but Clopton/Elsberry does a great job and is a talented program," South Callaway head coach Tim Rulo said after practice Monday night. "They've earned the right to be in the playoffs, so we're definitely not going to look past them or anything like that."
The Bulldogs were forced to craft a comeback to claim their first-ever district title last Thursday night, overcoming a 20-8 halftime deficit to lock up the District 9 championship with a 37-28 victory at Hermann. Meanwhile, the Hawks finished as District 10 runner-up after being manhandled by Mark Twain 54-14 on Friday night.
"It's definitely a little different feeling to be at home, to be the district champs and to not have to go on the road," Rulo said. "That helps out because Clopton is going to have to come a long way; that's a couple-hour drive for them.
"We're grateful that we're at least going to be at home, in a familiar place."
Speaking of the setting, South Callaway will earn the distinction tonight of hosting its first-ever playoff game. In a season full of landmarks, it's another watershed moment for the Bulldogs.
"I'm excited to see the fans come out - I really hope they come out in droves," Rulo said. "I'm just excited for the environment ... and our community support. Our community is growing in this process as well; this is a community that's still new to football, they're still trying to understand how to get involved and get excited.
"People are starting to figure out what it's like and what it means. I only hope that (tonight) is an even bigger one; I hope we break all of the attendance records we've ever had."
Clopton/Elsberry is averaging 29.2 points per game out of its no-huddle, spread offense. It will be the third week in a row that South Callaway's defense will be tested by the offensive scheme.
"They're not totally like Hermann, not totally like Montgomery County (a 40-15 South Callaway win on Oct. 22)," Rulo said. "They're their own version of the spread."
Quarterback Scott Kroeger - a 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior - is a dual threat in directing the Hawks' offense. Kroeger has completed 152-of-256 passes (59 percent) this season for 1,852 yards and 18 touchdowns, but has been intercepted 12 times. He is also Clopton/Elsberry's top rusher with 893 yards (5.7 average) and eight scores.
Kroeger has a trio of receivers he targets, led by junior Brennan Hurley (6-0, 160) with 61 catches for 585 yards and four touchdowns. Senior Ryan Bencomo (5-10, 155) is next with 42 catches for 467 yards and five scores, while junior Kevin Dotson (5-9, 165) has 30 catches for 618 yards and five touchdowns.
Bencomo has rushed for just 202 yards on 31 carries, but has scored seven times on the ground.
"They do (the spread) well; they put up points in droves," Rulo said. "You've got to take away one (phase) so you can defend the other. We've always got to stop the run and make them throw the ball.
"I think they're going to try to run on us, I really do. That's kind of the M.O. (mode of operation) for a spread team; they're going to count the number of guys in the box and they're going to try to run the ball."
Rulo stressed that the Bulldogs' defense - which is allowing just 12.6 points per game - can't surrender lengthy gains tonight. Hermann senior quarterback Lucas Budnik threw for 281 yards and had touchdown passes covering 64, 12, 54 and 34 yards against South Callaway last week.
"We didn't get off blocks very well; we didn't get our guys swarming off the ball enough," Rulo said. "We just need to make sure we're communicating in coverage. We've got some pretty heady kids back there (in the secondary).
"They just need to communicate so they can go and be athletic, and make their plays."
Clopton/Elsberry will likely switch between 4-3 and 4-4 defensive alignments tonight. The Hawks, who are giving up 28.0 points per game, have faced mostly spread offenses this season, Rulo explained.
"It will be interesting to see how they determine who's going to be responsible for stopping certain guys," Rulo said. "Our (triple-option) offense typically is going to demand that you're going to have to have this guy accounted for, and this guy, and this guy.
"We have not seen them play a lot of offenses that have that."
The Bulldogs piled up 414 yards of total offense, including 203 rushing, against Hermann. Junior tailback Hunter Leeper ran for a team-high 70 yards on 11 carries and also had two catches for 55 yards, most of that production coming on a 48-yard touchdown pass from senior wide receiver Will Brandt off a fake punt.
Sophomore quarterback Jason Kimminau was 8-of-16 passing for 165 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while also scoring on a 1-yard run. Kimminau threw TD passes of 25 and 60 yards to Brandt and junior tailback Konrad Kemper, respectively.
Brandt topped South Callaway with three catches for 77 yards.
Rulo noted that the Bulldogs, who committed two turnovers last week, can't be wasteful in the red zone tonight. South Callaway - which is averaging 27.5 points per game - twice had the ball inside Hermann's 10-yard line, but came away without any points both times.
"I was really disappointed," Rulo said. "That's just frustrating."