Different approach needed for rivalry game

Thursday, September 25, 2008 | 11:00 p.m. CDT; updated 8:23 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 26, 2008
Rock Bridge football coach A. J. Ofodile speaks to his players Sept 25 on the eve of the Bruins' game with rival Hickman.

COLUMBIA - Hickman and Rock Bridge will meet on Faurot Field on Friday for the fifth consecutive year and, again, both teams will be forced to face more than their rival on the other sideline.

The game's atmosphere brings several distractions that don't usually come with an average game . A larger crowd and a more familiar opponent are a change for both teams.

Through four games, both teams have seen crowds in the hundreds rather than the more than 10,000 fans the venue has produced for this game in the past. And after playing games against teams from as far as St. Louis and Kansas City, each team will see an opponent that resides barely four miles up Providence Road and fields many friends, rather than simply jersey numbers on a scouting report.

Both teams enter the game at 1-3 and will have the chance to get acclimated to Faurot Field in their pregame walkthroughs. That however, is where the similarities end.

Each team's coach has taken a different approach in preparing his team for Friday's environment.

To Hickman coach Jason Wright, the distractions that come with the game have been a key message to his young team throughout the week.

"What I always say every year, no matter if it's an older team, a young team, a middle of the pack team is, ‘Who can handle the lights?'" Wright said. "Who can handle the prestige, the atmosphere of being at Faurot, the 15,000 people? Which team can handle that the best, and settle down and make plays and block and tackle and execute is the team that's going to win."

Like his coach, Hickman senior offensive tackle Josh Harvey acknowledged that the environment makes the emotions leading up to this game different.

"It's a lot easier to get pumped," he said. "There's more noise, the crowd gets into it more."

Wright said he thinks this heightened emotion is why he needs to address the situation with his players. While some players can control their emotions, others have a tendency to get themselves over excited that they lose focus on their assignments.

In stark contrast to Wright's approach, game conditions have been the least of Rock Bridge coach A.J. Ofodile's concerns.

"We haven't even addressed it, to be honest with you," Ofodile said. "We have so many problems in terms of patching some injury issues, we're being held together with paper clips and duct tape. So our biggest focus has been getting guys ready to know assignments and know what to do."

Ofodile also said that with both teams struggling and no longer playing in the same conference, the implications of the game have gotten smaller over time.

"It used to be a type of 'all-in' type game when we were in the same district," he said. "Especially this year more than others when both of us are struggling for the first time since I've been here, it doesn't feel like a special game."

One other reason for the difference in approach is the level of experience with each team.

The majority of the Rock Bridge starting lineup played in the game last year, and Ofodile said he thinks that experience will carry over to Friday's performance.

That experience has gradually built itself up. The teams played all of their games before 2004 at one of the team's respective stadiums, but during that first game on Faurot Field in 2004, Ofodile said the environment played a large role in a 35-0 Kewpies victory. As the years have passed, however, his players have become more comfortable with the surroundings.

"We were a deer in the headlights," Ofodile said about the 2004 loss. "They were a great football team that year and we were stunned. The environment was bigger than what we were ready for, and we played bad because of it. I think every year after that everyone kind of got themselves prepared."

While Rock Bridge may be experienced, Hickman returns only five starters from the game a year ago and has many skill position players including their quarterback, junior Matt Herman, who haven't experienced a game like this.

Wright thinks that the advantage of playing in the game before can only go so far.

"Experience in anything is obviously a plus, but once again we're talking about 15-16-17-year-old kids," Wright said. "Just because you've been there before doesn't mean you're going to be able to handle the environment. That's why we give it a lot of talk."

While the distractions of playing on a big stage can cloud a player's focus at times, Wright stresses that the difference in environment can ultimately be turned into a positive.

"There are some kids that like the bright lights," Wright said. "I think back to my days, I hated to practice. But when Fridays came under a big stage like this, I loved it. I lived for it. I'm trying to get our guys to understand, how many times are you going to get to play realistically on Faurot Field and in front of 15,000 (fans)?"

Whether they're positive or negative, Ofodile has found that the best way to deal with the distractions is to immerse his team in the football aspects of Friday's game. With all of Rock Bridge's injuries, players have been forced into new roles and are learning new positions.

"That's challenging enough without having to manage the psychological aspect of it," Ofodile said of his team's short preparation time. "When you have that kind of urgency to know your assignments, that leaves little room to worry about anything else."


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