MOKANE — When it comes to articulating a game's significance with his players, South Callaway Bulldogs head coach Zack Hess is split on his approach.
Today can certainly be categorized as momentous for Hess and the Bulldogs (7-3) when they host the third-ranked Thayer Bobcats (10-1) in the Class 1 state quarterfinals. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.
South Callaway will be playing a home game in the state quarterfinals for a second straight year. The Bulldogs advanced with a 26-6 victory over Mark Twain for the District 2 championship Nov. 13 at Mokane.
"I've tried both and had success both ways, and had failures both ways," Hess said Wednesday afternoon about motivational speeches. "I don't know if there's a right way or a wrong way to do it. I think a lot of it just depends on the personality of the coach, and the personality of the team.
"Sometimes you have a group of players that need that, they need the rah-rah, then sometimes they need to be taken down a notch. I think it also depends on the moment and you throw all those things into the pot — that'll get you a rah-rah or a low-key."
In making its sixth appearance in a row in the state quarterfinals, Thayer will be seeking a breakthrough this afternoon. Three of the Bobcats' five quarterfinal losses were to eventual Class 1 state champions (Valle Catholic in 2015 and 2019, and Hayti in 2018).
Thayer set up its quarterfinal clash with South Callaway by roughing up second-ranked Hayti 52-22 for the District 1 title Nov. 13. The Bobcats also won their 10th game in a row by avenging their only loss of the season, a narrow 30-28 setback to Hayti in the Aug. 28 opener.
"Coach (Billy) Webber has done a great job," Hess said. " They've done a great job of establishing their identities on both sides of the ball. You can tell that the players, the team, the community, the coaches, everybody has bought into it.
"It's a quality football program and they have good athletes. Those two things are a dangerous combo."
Thayer's offense — which Hess estimated is 88-12% run-pass ratio — is producing a plethora of points with an average of 40.1 per game, climbing to 51.7 in three decisive district victories.
"They run a lot of different formations and they run certain sets, certain plays out of those formations, and they do those very efficiently," Hess said. "It creates a lot of conflict with the defense."
The Bobcats will be directed by quarterback Jayce Haven, a 6-foot, 175-pound senior. Haven ran for three touchdowns — one covering 44 yards — in the win over Hayti.
"(Haven) looks the part — he's a good, athletic-looking kid and he's got a great arm," Hess said. "He can throw the ball well on the run, but his strength is running the ball.
"He's a good quarterback, but he's also a good running back. He's fast and very athletic, so you definitely have to account for him."
Junior running back Jackson Willison (5-9, 190) also supplied touchdown runs of 3 and 17 yards against Hayti. Senior running back Jordan Madden (6-0, 170) scored on runs of 5 and 12 yards.
"(Willison) is a real quick guy, real fast," Hess said. "He's a good perimeter runner, but he's not a small guy either. (Madden) is kind of like their fullback-type of runner, and he runs the ball really well."
Thayer's backfield is shielded up front by an offensive line that features massive senior tackle Bobby Dale, who logs in at 5-11 and 300 pounds.
"He's not super-tall, but a big kid — physical, a great blocker, somebody that we are well aware of," Hess said.
South Callaway will counter with a defense that is allowing just 19.6 points per game, 119.2 yards rushing and 100.6 yards passing.
"Depending on the formation and what we think (the Bobcats) are trying to do, we have to be flexible in our defensive alignments and fronts," Hess said. "Ultimately, I think we're going to have to tackle well and we're going to have to get off blocks well.
" We've got to keep our leverage on the edges and be physical, and fly to the football."
While the Bobcats sparkle on offense, they're equally stingy on the defensive side in giving up only 10.5 points per game. Hess noted that the outside linebackers like to play up close to the line of scrimmage in Thayer's 3-3 odd-stack scheme.
"Their outside backers kind of play man-to-man on any No. 2 receiver, but they're still edge-setters," Hess said. "Their linebackers play at a two- to three-yard depth most of the time, so those stack backers will shoot inside or they'll shoot outside depending on where the anchors are going.
"It's all coordinated, so it presents a little bit of a challenge. They play fast, they shoot their gaps well and they fly to the football."
The Bulldogs are putting up 28.7 points per game and will look to lengthen possessions today with a running game that is averaging an impressive 245.4 yards.
Senior running back Hayden Vaught will try to extend his hot streak after combining for 302 yards rushing and four touchdowns over the last two weeks. Vaught has 1,146 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season.
Junior running back Trace Helsel has also gained 798 yards and scored 11 touchdowns for South Callaway. Junior quarterback Sam Buckner has rushed for 423 yards and nine scores.
"It's going to be like a grind-it-out type of offensive approach," Hess said of today's showdown. "We're going to have to get those first downs and keep possession of the ball, try to eat up clock and at the same time run as many plays as we can.
"We'll take our shots and we'll look for opportunities to put pressure on them in terms of the length of the field and the width of the field. We don't want to just compress everything down."
Hess, his coaching staff and players appreciate being back in the state playoffs.
"It's a fun atmosphere and something we're not used to playing in the middle of the day," Hess said. "It kind of messes up our routine a little bit, but it's a good problem to have.
"It's exciting to be in this situation — to be able to coach the game and play in the game. I think we're excited about that opportunity."
Notes: The South Callaway-Thayer winner advances to face either fourth-ranked Windsor or No. 5 Marionville in the Class 1 semifinals next Saturday, Nov. 28. There is a 20% chance of rain and temperatures in the upper 40s at kickoff this afternoon at Mokane.
Ryan Boland can be reached at (573) 826-2422, or on Twitter @FultonSunSports.