BATTLE RISING: Spartan fans cheer in the 'Battlefront' in football opener

Monday, September 2, 2013 | 1:00 p.m. CDT; updated 3:29 p.m. CDT, Monday, September 9, 2013
The Battle High School Spartans defeated the Bears of Kansas City's East High School with a score of 56-6. It was the first football game in Battle High's history.

COLUMBIA — Caleb Wheeler, 16, expected Battle High School to win handily in its home opener against Kansas City East.

Wheeler was decked out in a full-body American flag spandex suit that he purchased at Party City specifically for the Spartans' home opener. "It's the first game; I oughta wear it," he said, calling the getup his "adult footie pajamas."

Wheeler might have been the only one wearing a spandex suit, but he wasn't the only one being loud and proud. His friends Garrick Stoker, 16, and Taylor Kirby, 16, sat on either side of him, raising their arms over their heads, wiggling their fingers and starting the chant: "Gooooo, Spartans (arms come down), go! (arms back in the air)."

It was so noisy in the student section that it was hard to hear Wheeler say, "I've been yelling most of the game." Indeed he had. By the second half, his voice faded.

Stoker, who had been on the field in the first half covering the game for his high school journalism class, was glad to enter the stands and support his team.

"It was a little hard not to cheer (in the first half)," he said, explaining that his journalistic ethics did not allow him to "show bias" when he was officially covering the Spartans from the field.

"I'm just glad people came out to support us," Kirby said, enthused by the crowd that filled a solid three-fourths of Battle's 4,300-capacity field.

The students at Battle have only spent two weeks together and are still forming their school's culture. There were several Hickman and Rock Bridge students in the crowd, sitting with their friends and former classmates who are now Battle students. Everything is new for Battle students, and there's still a lot they don't know about the school and the football team.

Kirby said she and several of her new classmates served on a leadership committee that met before the start of the school year. She explained that the committee's job was to figure out how to bring Battle's student body together.

"We focused on unity," Kirby said. "Now that we know the football team is good, that will be a factor (in unifying the student body)."

The Spartan fans were certainly unified as they cheered from the "Battlefront," the student section on the 50-yard line, closest to the field.

There was a smattering of Rock Bridge and Hickman T-shirts in the crowd, and even in the "Battlefront." Isaac Bennett, a senior at Hickman, sat among the Battle students, talking with friends and watching his brother, Josh, a Spartan football player.

Bennett said it was "kind of weird" watching his brother play. "It's like watching myself play," he said, explaining that his playing days were over. "I wish I was out there. I taught him how to play — we worked together."

Just as Bennett was adjusting to seeing his brother in a new uniform, freshman Kelsey Johnson and sophomore Synya Spain were adjusting to their new school. Both girls came to Battle from Jefferson Junior High School.

"I don't know my schedule, and it's been two weeks," Johnson said as she described her adjustment to the new school. "I almost got lost this morning."

Spain and Johnson were drowned out as the crowd erupted around them following another Spartan touchdown.

"My throat hurts from screaming," Spain said, beaming with pride in her new school.

"We're killing it," Johnson said. "It makes me smile because everyone had doubts about Battle."

One thing's for sure, though: All the Spartan faithful now know who running back Nash Sutherlin is and the explosiveness he brings to Battle's offense.

Sutherlin scored the first touchdown in Battle history, bouncing out to his right and jetting up the near sideline for the lengthy score. He came to Battle from Hickman, where, in his words, he didn't see much playing time. He saw plenty against Kansas City East.

Sutherlin's most impressive run actually resulted in the loss of a half-yard. After taking the handoff from the quarterback, Sutherlin didn't see an inside running lane. He veered out to the near sideline only to be corralled by three East defenders.

He juked that trio and cut back toward the middle of the field but was met by another host of would-be tacklers. Still on his feet, he tried one more time to cut out to his right, finally being stopped just short of the line of scrimmage.

Although he lost the half-yard, he probably ran a total of 15 yards, impressively eluding defenders for several seconds.

"I was trying to go for a cut-back lane. I was being impatient," Sutherlin said of his scramble. "When I saw that (the cut-back lane), I was trying to score — that's all I was thinking about."

Although Sutherlin wasn't happy with that run, it certainly reflected his elusiveness and athleticism. Sutherlin said Barry Sanders, the former Detroit Lions rusher, was his role model as a running back. "Even with a terrible line, he could do anything he wanted to," Sutherlin said. "I watch his tape all the time."

When the Spartans watch tape from the East game, they won't see any terrible offensive line play. Coach Justin Conyers said the O-line was the game's unsung hero.

"To be honest with you, I'm gonna give it to the offensive line," Conyers said, smiling as he talked about his linemen dishing out pancake blocks 12 and 15 yards up the field.

"To see those kids have that kind of drive ... they were taking them (East defenders) downfield and putting them on their backs."

Conyers described the Spartans as a "family-first" team, and Sutherlin shared his coach's sentiment. "We love each other, and we know how to execute. We play every down for each other," Sutherlin said.

"I told the guys, it's been very emotional for me all day long ... having tears in my eyes because it's so historical," Conyers said of coaching Battle's historic win.

"You know sometimes you lose the moment when you prepare for a game like this and you don't really understand what type of impact that this is having. ... That's what I told them. You guys win tonight and you're gonna be ... the football team that they call back to honor ... for being the first team to ever win at Battle High School," Conyers said.

Battle has already achieved a major milestone by getting its first win. While no one knows what the rest of the season will hold for the Spartans, it's a safe bet that Caleb Wheeler and the rest of the fans will continue to fill the "Battlefront." And they'll make the most of their opportunity to craft Battle's identity.

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