Photo by Bulletin graphics
St. Pat's coach Kevin Dodson
Photo by George Lauby
Hershey coach Ryan Smith
The St. Pat's-Hershey football game is big every year, but the rivalry might reach a boiling point Thursday.
Both teams are 7-0 and are playing the final game of the regular season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. at Summers Field in Hershey.
Perennial power St. Pat's is looking to win another district championship.
Hershey is looking to cap its best season in recent memory and make its mark by beating the Irish for the first time in six years.
Knowing the circumstances, it has all the makings of a game that will be remembered for years to come.
It is a game that has been anticipated since both teams reached the quarterfinals of the Class C2 playoffs last year. Now after a long wait and seven more games, it is time for the Irish and the Panthers to square off.
"There has been a lot of attention put towards this game by people outside of both programs," Hershey coach Ryan Smith. "I'm proud of both teams for being able to block out those distractions throughout the entire regular season and focus one game at a time. For both of us to end up 7-0 going into this game, says an awful lot about the teams and the players."
St. Pat's and Hershey had high expectations entering the season, which was nothing new for the Irish, who have been one of the top teams in western Nebraska during the past decade.
It was uncharted territory for the Panthers, who only made the playoffs six times in school history. Their only two wins in postseason came last year.
But Hershey has lived up to its promise, winning its first seven games. The Panther defense, which was the strength of the team last year, has become even more dependable year.
To go along with that stout defense, Hershey's offense is more consistent, as it has scored at least three touchdowns in each game.
Smith said the key to success has been the performance of the offensive line.
"Offensively, we seem to be hitting our stride as we wind down the regular season," he said. "Our guys up front have done a nice job progressing throughout the year and we feel our run game has become pretty strong. They have really improved in their pass protection, and our passing game seems to be clicking in different areas at different times."
But it's Hershey's defense that is making St. Pat's coach Kevin Dodson and his staff put in overtime as they prepare.
Since Dodson became the Irish head coach in 1999, it's no secret that his team will try to run the ball on nearly every play.
Some may call it one-dimensional and predictable, but St. Pat's executes well and it rarely works against them.
But against a defense like Hershey's, the Irish may have trouble moving the sticks, especially if they are backed in their own territory, which has been where Hershey opponents often find themselves.
So St. Pat's may have to go outside of its comfort zone, which means throwing the football.
"Hershey's defense is awfully good," Dodson said. "They're big, strong kids who are physical and they run to the ball well. I think statistically, they're the leading defense in C2. When playing a defense like that, you try to find a few plays that will work for you. You want to find a play to take advantage of their aggressiveness."
Because the Panthers have lost the last three meetings to the Irish and with the opportunity at hand, Hershey will be coming with an edge. They will play with a lot of intensity and the Irish have to match it.
But Smith said that being too amped up could work against his team, especially against a team as poised as St. Pat's.
"I think the team that can handle their emotions best early in the game will have an advantage," Smith said.
But the Irish will also have a lot of emotion. They have dominated the area for so long they want to keep it going with another win over the Panthers.
Dodson said the preparation for Hershey isn't any different than, say, last week's game against Dundy County-Stratton. But as a former player for St. Pat's and the coach of the team for 14 years, he knows that there are more factors for motivation.
"We're working this as any other game," Dodson said. "We approach it no different than any other opponent. But with it being for the district championship and it being Hershey, there's more attached to this game.
St. Pats' running game has always been productive. This year senior Collin Pieper is the top tailback. The Irish look to be a little more balanced this year than last. Quarterback Alex Harms has shown ability in throwing the ball and tight ends Mark Mayfield and Andrew O'Neill are capable receivers. Speedy wide receiver Drew McClellen can also make big plays.
No matter what year it is, or who graduated the year before, the Irish always have playmakers.
Smith said that is a by-product of how well St. Pat's is coached.
"St. Pat's plays with a lot of confidence and are obviously well-schooled in what they do," Smith said. "They seem to be ready for every situation they run into. They have a very talented group of skill players, and even though they had to start over and re-build their offensive line from a year ago, they have done a very good job to put together another very strong group that will lead them deep into the playoffs."
The St. Pat's defense is tough and rarely allows big plays. They might give up a first down or two, but they seem to stiffen once teams get into their territory.
"Defensively, they play very fast and are rarely in the wrong position," Smith said. "They attack weaknesses extremely well. We know we'll be a better team after the game because our weaknesses will become evident."
Because both teams seem evenly matched, the outcome will likely be decided by a touchdown or less. When that is the case, special teams are crucial because one big play on either side could swing the game.
Both Dodson and Smith place importance on the line of scrimmage because they feel that is where most games are won. It will be a true battle between teams with similar strengths.
Neither team has really been pushed this season.
That should change on Thursday night.
Both teams are already in the playoffs. Besides the district title, a win will likely mean one more home playoff game for the victors. But both coaches say they are happy to play this game, that there isn't a better opponent at this point.
"It will be a playoff atmosphere," Dodson said. "I think both teams will benefit from playing each other."
"I think the atmosphere will be a lot of fun," Smith said. "It will really get both teams ready for the playoffs. Both of us will host a first-round game regardless of the outcome and I believe this game will make both teams a little more playoff ready when the time comes."