When Battle and Fort Zumwalt North played in the opening week of the 2020 season, the Spartans came out on top 60-43, carried by a five-touchdown performance by Gerry Marteen Jr. But while Battle’s defense had a decent showing, recovering three fumbles and keeping Fort Zumwalt scoreless in the fourth quarter, the 43 points the Panthers scored is the most it has allowed all season.
The Spartans know that lots of things have changed in the 12 weeks since their season opener, including themselves. In fact, Jaylen Broadus says everything has changed. “We’re better at reading, we’re better at tackling, we’re just better overall,” the junior defensive back said.
Broadus is one of the more experienced members of Battle’s defense. He said many of his teammates have only been playing defense for a year, and coach Atiyyah Ellison pointed out that many of them also play offensive positions. “I think just seeing a lot of reps and being in those positions throughout the year make them able to compete better and see their job in a different light,” Ellison said.
Sophomore linebacker Rickie Dunn is one of the younger players who have stepped up in a big way for Battle this year. He’s made over 53 tackles this season — one of the highest totals on the team — and 2.5 sacks. “I feel like we’ve grown a lot,” Dunn said. “I feel like that we are more mature, more disciplined and we’re more ready.”
Battle (8-1) will need its defense ready this Friday as it faces Fort Zumwalt North (10-1) again, this time in the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 5 quarterfinal. Dunn said that because of the Spartans’ previous win over the Panthers, they’re coming into the game with “a target on (their) backs.”
Ellison knows Friday’s game won’t be anything like the season opener. Just as Battle has changed, Fort Zumwalt has, too, with both teams looking for ways to surprise each other. “We know them, but they also know us,” Ellison said. “That’s why it’s hard to beat a team twice.”
Comparing the game to a chess match, Ellison said the deciding factor will be which team makes fewer mistakes. The Spartans are still looking for their elusive, Ellison-approved four-quarter game, which they haven’t successfully played yet.
Dunn said the team didn’t work explicitly to fix any mistakes from its district championship win over Washington in practice, sticking to its normal regimen. Battle had just four penalties against Washington — three on defense, one on special teams — one of its lowest totals of season. The defense allowed under 200 yards combined offense, a feat Dunn credited to the D-line, and forced two turnovers.
Broadus attributed the defense’s growth this season and strong performances in the two district playoff games to Ellison and the rest of the coaching staff. “Coaching has been like really on it,” Broadus said. “They’ve really helped us tweak our techniques and get better overall.”
Battle’s offense, while certainly still performing well enough to win, has struggled the past few weeks at maintaining early momentum through the second and third quarters. Against Washington, the Spartans only scored in the first and fourth quarters. They haven’t found the end zone during the second quarter since Oct. 23 against Hannibal.
One thing that could reverse that trend against Fort Zumwalt is the return of senior receiver Manny Chiteri, who missed the first two playoff games with an injury.
Chiteri has been a favorite target of quarterback Khaleel Dampier, catching eight passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns this season. A number of other players, however, sat out of Wednesday’s practice.
Ellison said the team is just trying to be “smart” with some of its most-used players.
“It’s just that time of year where we can’t go guns blazing every single time,” he said. “We’re just trying to make sure everybody’s good to go when it matters.”
Battle and Fort Zumwalt North kick off at 7 p.m. Friday at Battle. The winner will face Jackson or Chaminade College Prep in next week’s state semifinals.