When putting together preseason things like honor lists and rankings, Oakland-Craig was not one of those teams that immediately jumped off the page.
Sure, there were teams like Pierce and Humphrey St. Francis which have made good on high expectations going into the season. But the Knights had graduated double-digits from its team that had reached the semifinals and was just four years removed from reaching Memorial Stadium.
“We graduated 11 seniors, and 10 of them started on at least one side of the ball,” coach Joe Anderson said.
As we all know, those preseason accolades don’t matter.
Oakland-Craig has won all but two of its games by at least four touchdowns, including wins of 50-16 and 54-13 in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively. Pick one for a statement win, whether it be shutting down a prolific Doniphan-Trumbull offense or outscoring previously undefeated St. Paul by 41 points in the semifinals. Forty-one!
“We really challenged our kids to set the tone in that game,” Anderson said. “I thought our offensive line really went out in that first quarter and played lights out. Our backs ran hard, our receivers blocked well on the edge, and we were able to put some points on the board. Defensively, we’re playing really well right now, too.”
Even with just six starters back on offense and five on defense, high expectations have followed this program.
“We lost a lot of real good football players, but our JV team has been really good the last few years, and so we knew we had a good group of kids coming,” Anderson said. “It’s a group of kids who love football. We also have a group of kids right now who are students of the game. They love to watch film. They do a great job of preparing.”
However, “unselfish” may be the best word to describe the Knights.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys who go out there and play together,” Anderson said. “We’re much more balanced than we have been in the past.”
The numbers back up his claim.
Five rushers have gained at least 275 yards and scored at least six touchdowns each, led by Jaron Meyer’s 1,037 yards and Ian Lundquist’s 18 touchdowns. Coulter Thiele, Tavis Uhing and Caden Nelson have combined for another 1,213 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns.
“They’ve all done damage in different games,” Anderson said. “We’ve got guys who, each week, they take turns and allow us to attack different areas.”
In his first year as a starter, senior quarterback Colton Thomsen has thrown for 1,204 yards and 14 touchdowns. Thiele is the leading receiver with 478 yards and seven touchdowns, though Nelson has 344 receiving yards, 275 rushing yards and a combined 15 touchdowns this season.
“Colton’s had an outstanding year,” Anderson said. “He improved by leaps and bounds this summer, got so much stronger and so much more confident. He’s a great leader for us.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t care how we do it. He doesn’t care if we’ve had games where he’s only thrown it two or three times. That doesn’t matter to him. Winning is his No. 1 thing, and that’s the motto all of our kids have taken this year.”
Having to face St. Paul and its 2,000-yard rusher in Eli Larson in the semifinals was a dose of preparation for Sutton. The Mustangs’ Jackson Perrien is 59 yards away from a 2,000-yard season, and Cade Wiseman has rushed for another 1,523 yards. The duo has combined for 45 touchdowns.
“It is nice to be able to play these teams back-to-back,” Anderson said. “It gives us an idea of what we can do and what some of our weaknesses are that we can fix this week. Sutton is a great team with a couple of special athletes in the backfield. ... They present a lot of challenges for us, but our guys are looking forward to another one. Our linebackers love that. They love playing this kind of a team.”
Big-game experience may be on the side of the Knights, however.
Oakland-Craig has made the playoffs every season since 2008, including a 36-7 loss to David City Aquinas in the 2015 Class C2 final.
“We have a lot of smart kids who prepare well. They’ve been in a lot of big games,” Anderson said. “They were in the state semifinals last year, they’ve played in some big playoff games this year, so I feel like when they see the big stadium, they’ll be locked in and ready to go.”