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When the Richmond Spartans’ team bus pulled out of Holden following a 28-6 victory over the Eagles on Sept. 4, they really hadn’t planned on a return trip. Richmond’s win over the defending MRVC East champions sent the Eagles into a tailspin that they couldn’t recover from until district play began.
When the 6-4 Spartans return to Holden for the Class 3 Regional meeting tonight at 7, they will meet a team that is playing with confidence after going 2-1 to claim the District 13 title. After losing three starters in their loss to Richmond, the Eagles continued to struggle and did not pick up its first victory until two weeks later as they continued to battle the injury bug.
Coach Richard Johnson had as many as five starters out before getting healthy by district time as the Eagles concluded the regular season with a 3-7 record.
“We have the ability to be a good football team if we’re healthy, because we just don’t have a lot of depth,” Johnson said. “We gained a lot of depth this year because we had a lot of kids starting in many positions, so that was a chance to develop a lot of depth.”
Johnson added that having all the injuries also helped redefine his depth chart as the season rolled along.
“We also found out that a lot of guys who were second string, were not,” he said. “So we had to go down to third string to find kids who would play well.”
One of those changes involved bringing in freshman Jeff Miller to start at quarterback following a district opening 26-22 loss to Clinton. Miller has completed 3 of 8 passes for 144 yards, while rushing 26 times for 136 yards as the Eagles defeated Pleasant Hill 28-20 and Oak Grove 56-6.
“In the two games he has started, we’ve only had one turnover,” Johnson said. “At times this year, we’ve played well except we had turnovers. Against Higginsville, we played very well, but we turned the ball over six times. It wasn’t just the quarterback, but he’s done a nice job of protecting the football and a nice job of running our offense. He’s a good athlete.”
Joining Miller in the backfield are leading rusher James Gray, who has over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, and Kyle Elkins, who has 667 yards and 7 touchdowns – including 203 yards and 4 scores Friday against Oak Grove.
While Holden was getting its season turned around, the Spartans also finished strong with four wins in the last five games. The lone setback was in the district opener.
Richmond Coach Rob Bowers said one of the biggest reasons for the strong finish has been his team’s practice habits.
“We have had some really good practices and working hard the last half of the season,” he said. “I’m a big believer that you play like you practice, and in practice they’ve been playing winning football. They’ve been working hard. They’ve been concentrating on what they’re supposed to do and it shows on game night.”
Bowers also adds his team is not letting bad things stay in their heads and they are doing a good job of not getting rattled. The defense, which has given up just 22 points since a 46-23 loss to Higginsville, has displayed more of a killer instinct the last five weeks according to Bowers.
“We didn’t finish plays with authority,” he explained. “The first half of the Higginsville game, we kind of lost our composure, got rattled, got confused and had all kinds of bad things happen. After that, our kids have done a great job of lining up correctly and running to the football, tackling well and playing defense the way you have to.”
The Spartan defense has also come up with 13 turnovers.
Although the offense has not posted huge numbers, it has been effective as the line play continues to improve and more players get involved in handling the ball. Despite the field conditions on Friday, the Spartans managed to run for 261 yards on 45 attempts.
“They have a lot of great athletes,” Johnson said. “Their quarterback, their fullback, both their tailbacks and their receivers are all great skill players and they’re big up front. You look at their athletic ability and I’m in awe of what they’re capable of doing.”
Richmond ran for 295 yards against the Eagles back in week No. 2, but Bowers said you can throw everything from that game out the window.
“What we did then has nothing to do with what happens Wednesday night,” he said. “I’d like to be able to carry over those points and start there, but that’s not the way it works. That second week is not going to score any points for us Wednesday night.”
Tonight’s contest will be Richmond’s fifth postseason appearance overall and first playoff game since a loss at Maryville in the 2005 quarterfinals. Holden is also making its fifth appearance and advanced to last season’s sectional where the Eagles fell to Pleasant Hill 33-7.
PHOTO: Richmond fullback Reny Reis (44) gets the Spartans near the goal line for their second touchdown in Friday night’s playoff-clinching 21-0 win at Moberly. (Photo by Russ Green/The Daily News.)