Atiyyah Ellison has been preaching the importance of playing four full quarters all season.
However, it was something Ellison said his team had yet to accomplish heading into its Week 9 win over Hannibal and part of that, Ellison said, was physicality issues.
“Rocky syndrome,” as Ellison said, had been the Spartans state of play for most of the 2019 regular season, meaning his players always had to get hit in order to hit back.
But in Friday night’s district semifinal matchup, Battle (7-3) hit first and kept hitting en route to an 54-19 win over Francis Howell North (1-9).
The Spartans came out hard and fast against the Knights Friday night and, no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t seem to lose. Everything from silly penalties to even an onside kick recover that went the Knights’ way didn’t slow down the Spartans.
For the first time since Week 4, the Spartans defense started the game on the field and held tight, forcing the Knights into a drive that ended with a 3-and-out and was highlighted by a gang tackle for loss on Francis Howell North junior Azaiah Anderson.
From there, Harrison Keller and the offense got the ball and five plays was all it needed for a score. The senior faked everyone out on the option, tucking and running it 45 yards for six points.
Keller and company looked like pinballs in the ground game for Battle. He, Darren Jordan, Gerry Marteen, Jr., Khaleel Dampier, Tavian Miller and Rickie Dunn combined for a dynamic team rushing performance with 408 yards and seven touchdowns on 35 carries.
The pass-heavy offense of the Knights — they ran 43 pass plays Friday as opposed to 21 run plays — couldn’t generate much against Battle, mainly because of the push up front.
Quarterback Patrick Koester couldn’t seem to get much going as he dealt with a defensive line performance that saw seniors like De’Tayvion Jones and Elijah Owens, as well as a plethora of others, in the Knights’ backfield all night.
The performance from that unit, and defense as a whole, follows up two weeks of great defensive play. In Week 8 against Jefferson City, the Spartans totaled six interceptions, and some crucial defensive stops sealed a Week 9 win against Hannibal.
Owens said that the Spartans defensive unit is “leaps and bounds” ahead of where it’s been in the past.
Much like their Week 8 win, the Spartans also generated multiple turnovers Friday, all three fumble recoveries, with one on defense and two on special teams.
While the Spartans seemed to quickly overcome their Rocky syndrome, Ellison was adamant his team still hadn’t accomplished the feat of a full four quarters, mainly due to another prime suspect in a lot of the Spartans’ poor performance: penalties.
Sixteen penalties as well as attitudes became such an issue late against Francis Howell North Friday that, instead of ending the night with a huddle, Ellison, clearly frustrated, had his team line up on the goal to run sprints in front of all those in attendance.
“It’s selfish stuff,” Ellison said. “We’ve got people pouting, people arguing with coaches. It’s freaking Week 11, man. We’ve been together for four months, you’ve got to figure that out.”
The penalties will certainly be a point of focus this week, heading into a matchup with the No. 1 Fort Zumwalt North Panthers on the road.
The Panthers, who beat Smith-Cotton 63-14 Friday, will square off with the Spartans for the fifth time in the last six years this coming week.
“We play them, seems like, almost every year in the playoffs or where it actually counts, so it’s a big game to look forward to because we know it’s going to be a tough-fought game that we’re going to need a perfect week of preparation and a perfect game on Friday,” Keller said.
The Spartans and Panthers will kick off at 7 p.m. November 15 in O’Fallon, Missouri for the Class 5 District 4 title.