FITHIAN — Big-time game. Big-time atmosphere. Big-time players.
That scene will await the crowd for Friday’s 7 p.m. Vermilion Valley Conference showdown between host Oakwood (5-1, 2-0 VVC) and Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin (5-1, 3-0).
The winner clinches a playoff berth and helps their standing in the conference race. Salt Fork (4-2, 2-0) is also another factor in the league title picture, especially since the Storm’s final two games are against BHRA and Oakwood.
“Bismarck has become the team to beat,” Oakwood second-year coach Al Craig said. “They’re one of the top-tier teams in the VVC.”
So is Oakwood, though. The Comets rebounded from an 0-3 start last season to not only reach the playoffs, but also win the conference title. Their resurgence can be traced to a 42-33 win at BHRA last October that helped catapult Oakwood to a VVC championships, its first in the 16-year existence of the conference.
“We felt pretty embarrassed last year when they came to our place and beat us up pretty good,” BHRA coach Mark Dodd said. “It’s definitely a motivator for our guys this year.”
Both teams feature a wing-T offense focusing on the run game, but both have quarterbacks who can throw the ball efficiently. Oakwood senior Rhett Harrison is 28 of 55 for 683 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
“Rhett has taken huge steps this year,” Craig said. “Last year, I would say he was more in the vein of a game manager, but this year, because he knows his opportunities to throw are few and far between, he’s looking to make big plays each time he throws.”
Case in point: fellow Oakwood senior Jack Carey has six receptions for 317 yards, with five of those catches resulting in touchdowns.
BHRA counters with a similar duo in senior quarterback Avery McConkey (40 of 59 for 941 yards, 12 TDs, two INTs) and junior tight end Eric Watson (12 catches for 400 yards, three TDs). Watson’s emergence, in particular, is noticeable.
“He’s just a really awesome athlete and a good kid,” Dodd said. “He’s versatile, and that’s the big thing for us. We can use him in the spread game with his pass-catching skills and then go right into the wing-T with his blocking skills. We don’t have to change personnel, so he’s obviously really, really important to everything that we do.”
The run game, however, is where Friday night’s outcome might be decided. Especially because Oakwood is expected to get contributions from senior Colby Smiley again. Smiley, who accumulated 1,611 rushing yards and 19 scores last season, suffered a sprained foot during the Comets’ 54-12 home win against Hoopeston Area/Armstrong-Potomac on Sept. 20 and hasn’t played since.But Craig said Smiley is slated to play, bringing with him 463 rushing yards on 56 carries and six touchdowns this season.
In his absence, sophomore Gaven Clouse (475 yards on 58 carries, six TDs) and junior Blaine McCord (395 yards on 53 carries, four TDs) have helped keep Oakwood’s ground game humming.
“Getting Colby back is always a boost, but by losing him, it’s gotten other kids some confidence,” Craig said. “Now, we know we’re not just a one-man show.”
BHRA relies on senior Caleb Lahey (643 yards on 68 carries, 13 TDs) and junior Weston Strawser (427 rushing yards on 38 carries, five TDs) to produce as the Blue Devils try to lock up their 11th straight playoff appearance, while also contending for their first VVC title since 2015.
The stakes are high on Friday night. Almost playoff-like. And both coaches wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
“Until you have that sixth win, you just never know what can happen with the playoffs,” Dodd said. “We expect to be in the playoffs, and we fully expect to compete for the conference title.”
Craig echoed that sentiment.
“The sixth win is always huge,” Craig said. “You get your ticket to the show. Everybody wants a ticket to the show. And the earlier you get it, the better.”