PUNXSUTAWNEY — The Chucks will honor the senior members of their squad in a ceremony tonight at Jack LaMarca Stadium, but Punxsy hopes to honor them in another manner, as well: With a victory.
"These seniors have been a great part of this program," Punxsy head coach Alan Nichol said. "They came in as sophomores on a very good team, and they all had a lot on their plates. A lot of them really paid their dues, and then last year, they had a lot to do with a lot of wins in Punxsy. This year, with a small squad, every game has placed a burden upon the seniors, and they've just been the kind of young men that have taken on extra duties to carry that burden. So, it's going to be a big night for us."
Despite the Chucks' 2-5 record, they've played some close games that could have gone either way, and Nichol is proud of the way his seniors have bounced back from some tough losses.
"What I like most about them is that they come back with a lot of spirit in practice," he said. "I like that they're enjoying the game of football. Despite the ups and downs, we've kept our focus, and I just can't say enough about them."
Nichol said his squad has been preparing for tonight's game just as it would any other, even though they know there'll be an emotional element attached to the game.
"At this point, I think we've been working so hard as a group to have a good performance tonight; That's where our focus has been," he said.
As the Chucks are coming off a tough loss to undefeated Moniteau, Nichol likes what he's seen in practice this week.
"It's been going good," he said. "We have some younger guys that are going to have to play, and we're feeling good about that. It's just been a good, high-spirited week of practice, and the seniors have done a good job bouncing back after a game that we felt we didn't play our best."
At this point in the season, there's not much the Chucks have to do differently to prepare for other teams. But each squad requires a unique game plan, and the Bulldogs are no different.
"They're pretty much on the wide-open side, with a spread formation — one back and no tight end," Nichol said. "They have lots of speed, and they're a team that has shown a lot of big-play potential. That's something we'll have to do: Stop the big play."
Nichol highlighted sophomore running back Mark Strothers and senior receivers Caleb Smith and Keaton Delp as a triple-threat attack that brought the most speed to the table.
But Redbank Valley's game plan isn't just to spread out the defense and run the ball. The Bulldogs' quarterback, Jake Dougherty, has also thrown for 740 yards this season, putting him on pace for 1,000.
"He can throw the ball," Nichol said. "For the most part, teams that are well balanced are harder to pre-pare for. Seven-hundred-and-forty yards passing makes you have to be able to stop both run and pass."
On defense, Nichol said the Bulldogs are a "very basic team," but he added that to be successful in a basic system, as they are, they have to utilize some good, physical players.
"Keaton Delp is a good safety, and he makes a lot of plays all over the field," Nichol said. "He's a real good tackler, and he does a nice job of getting everyone lined up. With their basic setup, they're fundamentally solid, and that makes them a tough team to prepare for."
How does Punxsy plan to counter the physical defense Redbank will throw at it? The same way they've handled the other tough defensive squads they've faced: A balanced attack.
"At this point of the season, a lot of it deals with us executing on offense," Nichol said. "When things don't go our way, it's tempting to put too much in, and that's not what we're looking for. We're looking to execute with what we're working on. We always try to take advantage of what the other team gives us, but I don't think it's anything out of the ordinary. It's just a matter of us getting back to executing like we did against Karns City (Sept. 30) and against Clarion (Oct. 7).
Late in the season, Nichol is working to instill lessons in his players that will help them on and off the football field.
"As a team, we've got to stick together and know there'll be ups and downs," he said. "It'll be another hard fought battle (tonight) like we've been involved in the past few weeks. And if something goes wrong, we'll just move on. We've talked about that, and every team has to do it at some point."
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., and the Senior Night ceremony for the football team and cheerleaders will be prior to the game, and the band will recognize its seniors at halftime.