WARDSVILLE — Non-conference play may be finished, but the schedule doesn't get any easier yet for the Blair Oaks Falcons.
With Tri-County Conference play starting tonight, the Falcons hit the road to play the Boonville Pirates. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Gene Reagan Field.
This is Boonville's second year in the conference, coming to the Tri-County from the North Central Missouri Conference. In last year's meeting in Wardsville, Blair Oaks defeated the Pirates 31-0.
"After our game, I thought they were going to be a force to be reckoned with," Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said, "and I think they are this year. They're a very good football team, they're very well-coached."
Like Blair Oaks, Boonville enters this year's matchup with a 2-0 record.
The Pirates, led by second-year coach Greg Hough, beat Pleasant Hill 19-14 in Week 1 to win their season opener for the first time since 2015. Last Friday, Boonville went on the road and rallied past Holden for a 33-13 victory.
Boonville trailed 13-0 at halftime, then scored 33 unanswered points after intermission.
"In the first half, they really tried to pound it in between the tackles, and Holden had seven or eight guys in there," LePage said. "With the running back and the receiver that Boonville has, they tried to impose their will on Holden, and (Holden) wasn't going to give.
"Once they got out on the edge and let their athleticism come into play, that really hurt Holden."The Pirates return all-state running back Avian Thomas. The senior rushed for 1,411 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, averaging 7.1 yards per carry.
Through two games this season, Thomas has 253 yards rushing and two scores. He gained 143 yards on the ground against Holden.
LePage said the Falcons can't afford missed tackles against Thomas.
"He has a tendency to make the first guy miss and maybe run through the second guy," he said. "We've got to get four or five guys to the point of attack."
Senior Tramell Coleman is listed at wide receiver, but he has been more effective in the run game this year. Of his 126 yards of total offense, 83 yards are rushing.
"They try to give him the ball really quick and let him run with the ball, but he's a really good down-the-field threat too," LePage said.
Josh Polk, another senior, leads the Pirates with 105 yards receiving.
"He's one of those guys that just seems football-savvy," LePage said.
Boonville will use a multitude of offensive sets, LePage said. With senior Nick Ferrari at quarterback, the Pirates have used between one and three running backs in the backfield. They've also brought Coleman into the backfield with a Wildcat formation.
"They do a multitude of things to try to accentuate their talent, and then when you get to concentrating hard on that, they get Coleman or Polk loose on the outside and get them in a 1-on-1 matchup," LePage said.
First and foremost, LePage said the Falcons have to stop Boonville's downhill run game. The Pirates are averaging 212 yards rushing per contest.
"That's one of the things we're really going to have to be alert for tonight, not to let their athletes get loose in space," he said.
Defensively, LePage expects Boonville to line up in a 3-3 stack, something the Pirates have used in their first two games. Last season, Boonville was strictly a four-man front defense.
"What they've done is they've tried to take a D-lineman off the field and they're trying to get more athletes on the field," LePage said. "They play a five-linebacker look, and they really just try to create havoc."
Boonville is loaded at the linebacker position with Polk and juniors Harper Stock and Lane West.
Stock leads the team with 24 tackles (four for loss), while Polk has 18 tackles (two for loss) and West has 15 tackles (three for loss).
West also had a pair of interceptions in the win against Holden.
"They put him on the right side of the field and they try to take away your throwing lane with him with his length," LePage said. "He's very long. Last week, they tried to throw a little quick out (pass), and he jumped up and intercepted it."
Thomas plays safety for the Pirates, patrolling the secondary from sideline to sideline.
"They're guys that remind me of our guys," LePage said. "They study the game, they do what they're coached to do and they go out and they play hard."
Blair Oaks struggled in the first half last Friday but came away with a 44-21 win in its home opener against Oak Grove.
"That was a good football team we beat, vastly improved from what they were the year before," LePage said.
One of the areas that pleased LePage was he noticed an improvement on the play of the offensive line from Week 1 to Week 2.
"If we can move people the way they moved Oak Grove last week, a very good defensive football team, we feel like we've got some chances to do some things besides just lining up and running the football," he said.
However, after the game, LePage and his team spent about 15 minutes in the locker room, reflecting on the game. Rather than being satisfied with a win against a quality opponent, players were already concerned about getting better for the next week's game.
"They want that next level," LePage said. "They're not worried about what the scores are, they're worried about how they play, and they didn't feel satisfied with how they played.
"That pleases me, but it also inspires me to coach them harder."
Notes: In this week's Missouri Media Rankings, Blair Oaks was the unanimous pick for the No. 1 ranking in Class 3, while Boonville moved up one spot to No. 8. This season is the first time the Pirates have been state-ranked since the final poll of the 2011 season, which is also when they last won a district championship. Through two weeks, Blair Oaks has the No. 1 seeding in Class 3 District 5 with 51 points. Salem, the only other undefeated team in the district, is No. 2 with 43 points. Boonville is in Class 3 District 7, but even with a 2-0 record, the Pirates are currently only the No. 4 seed. The three teams ahead of Boonville are Center (receiving votes in Class 3) at No. 1, Southern Boone (ranked sixth) at No. 2 and Odessa (ranked second) at No. 3. Kyler Griep's 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last Friday was Blair Oaks' first kickoff return for a score since C.J. Closser returned a kickoff 82 yards for a touchdown during Week 2 of the 2015 season against Owensville.