Despite an unusual season, Rock Bridge football has made the most of it.
After adjusting on the fly with COVID-19 protocols, head coach Van Vanatta and his team are nearing the end of an impressive regular season.
Coming off its worst season since 2016, Rock Bridge (5-2, 4-2 Central Missouri Activities Conference) entered the fall facing difficult transitions, from implementing a new quarterback to replacing impact players on defense.
The Bruins have certainly proved that those are all problems of the past. However, Rock Bridge’s biggest test before districts awaits as it takes on Francis Howell (6-1, 4-0 Gateway Athletic Conference — South) at 7 p.m. Friday.
Injuries have hindered the Bruins all season and, they will be without many of their most impactful starters.
Among the injured players out for Friday’s game is starting linebacker Nate Norris, who injured his shoulder in the first half against Hickman. Wide receiver Mason Gortmaker is out, too, while right tackle Evan Cox is questionable. There are many others who will be game-time decisions.
“We’ve got a lot of injuries out there right now,” Vanatta said. “It’s kind of shocking because we went into last week pretty healthy.”
It doesn’t help that Rock Bridge’s opponent is one of the hottest teams in the state. The Vikings bring a five-game winning streak into Friday’s contest. Francis Howell’s offense in that span has been nearly unstoppable, averaging 46.8 points per game.
“Francis Howell’s got a good offense,” Vanatta said. “They move the ball, and they got some good weapons. We got our work cut out for us, no doubt.”
This will be the Bruins’ third time in their last four games that they face a team tied or in sole possession of first position in its district. The first two matchups didn’t bode well for Rock Bridge, as it lost convincingly in both games.
The Vikings share only one common opponent with the Bruins: Hickman. Rock Bridge came out stagnant against the Kewpies last Saturday in its first game after being quarantined for two weeks. The Bruins eventually broke loose after a slow start, winning 41-32. On the other hand, Francis Howell dominated Hickman 63-21 in its season opener.
The Bruins are going to need their bend-don‘t-break defense to limit the Vikings as much as possible. Rock Bridge’s struggles on defense are well-documented. The Bruins’210 points allowed this season are the second-most in the district, trailing only winless Capital City.
However, Rock Bridge comes off its best defensive performance in nearly a month, showcasing its upside. It started with the defensive line creating havoc in the backfield. The Bruins have been decimated in the secondary and struggle to contain opposing receivers.
One way to combat that is getting a consistent pass rush to speed up quarterbacks. Rock Bridge did exactly that against Hickman, recording its most tackles for loss in a game this season.
“I thought I saw that on the rush defense and pass pressure; we did a really good job,” Vanatta said. “We’re young back there in the secondary. We got two sophomore safeties. (For) two seniors that corner isn’t their natural position, but they’re getting better. Anytime we can get pressure on the quarterback that’s a good thing.”
Speaking of the trenches, the unsung hero for Rock Bridge has been its offensive line. Running back Bryce Jackson and quarterback Nathan Dent get a lot of praise for their huge rushing totals every week, but the Bruins’ O-line has been just as consistent.
“The O-line is probably the biggest surprise to me this season,” coach Van Vanatta said. “Going into the season, that was our main concern. Coach Jonah Dubinski’s got those guys working. It’s five seniors that have put their time in. We talk about all the time if they can just give Bryce a little seam, he’s got great vision.”
Despite the injuries, Vanatta likes the spot his team is at going into districts.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the team,” Vanatta said. “We’re 5-2 and there’s a lot of teams that wish they could be where we are.”
Rock Bridge takes on Francis Howell at 7 p.m. Friday in St. Charles.