MOUNT CARMEL -- It's homecoming week in Mount Carmel and the Aces are looking to take one step closer to playoff qualification.
Entering the week the Aces have been thoroughly impressive, most recently scoring a surprising 55-14 demolition at rival Princeton, possibly surprising even their own head coach, Mount Carmel Head Football Coach Michael Brewer, with the nature of the victory.
Brewer echoed an overwhelming message to his team after the win, "That's what good teams do."
"More than anything I just want them to understand we have to be able to close games out," Brewer said. "I think in the past we've let teams hang around, or the Mount Vernon game two weeks ago even. We got up 20-0 and then we let them get back in the ballgame. Not even necessarily how talented we are or anything, but when you have a team on the ropes you have to put them away and that's what good teams to do, they don't let them hang around, that'll get you beat."
Now, the Aces are undefeated, expectations are rising and the Aces will host a fellow undefeated team, the Richland County Tigers, who are aiming to play spoilers to the festivities in Mount Carmel.
The Tigers (3-0) enter the game with victories over Casey-Westfield, Lawrenceville and Red Hill, winning each game by an average margin of 24.3 points.
Between junior quarterbacks Austin Nuttall and Kaleb Foster the Tigers have thrown for 604 yards and eight touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Quinn Miller is the most frequently targeted of the Tiger receivers, having caught 11 balls for 231 yards and three touchdowns thus far.
Junior running back Gavin Dorn helps balance the Tigers offense, having rushed 41 times in their first three games for 267 yards and a score, but make no mistake, the Tigers prefer to throw the ball. 67 percent of Richland County's touchdowns on the season have come through the air.
Having been tested through the air the last couple weeks against Mount Vernon (Ind.) and Princeton, Brewer wants to see steady improvement from his secondary, as well as his pass rush, with each playing a pivotal role in containing the Tiger offense.
"[It'll] be another good test for our secondary," Brewer said. "More opportunities to play the ball in the air, more opportunities to play the pass. They run it, throw, they're pretty balanced. They'll be another test this week for our DB's. . . . Our pass defense, I'd like to see that continue to improve. I think we were able to make some adjustments last week after we got things rolling. Along with that you can't ask guys to cover forever, so we have to get pressure on the passer."
Offensively the Aces may face more of a challenge, as the Tigers defense has allowed just 9.3 points per game through their first three games.
They'll look to get their run game going again, as sophomore back Zeke Hadra has been absolutely dynamite on offense for the Aces thus far. Hadra's totaled 664 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns through the Aces first three games of the year. Junior wide receiver Beau Stipp showed his capability as a playmaker against Princeton as well, totaling 138 yards and three touchdowns in the victory.
The two dynamic playmakers have thrived when they've had room to create in space and showcase their tremendous athleticism, making Mount Carmel's offensive line play paramount to their success. Despite season-ending injuries to senior Elijah Laws and sophomore Luke Laws, the offensive line has been impressive.
"I think like you said, the offensive line is the most important part about that," Brewer said. "If we're able to establish and run the football efficiently and with success, I think that opens up easy throws for Kaleb, whether that's throwing the ball to Beau, Rayce, Satchel, whoever that is, that opens it up. The offensive line, if they're allowing Zeke to make cuts downfield and he's not having to make cuts in the backfield, it makes things a lot easier on him. I give a lot of credit to the offensive line and the steps they're making, especially with the absence of Elijah and Luke. I'm really proud of them and the way they're playing."
"I think all of that coupled with the talent that Zeke and Beau have has been the secret formula I guess to the success, the play of the Oline, plus the talent of Zeke and Beau and what they're able to do when they get the ball and they have open field space and can work in that space. If nobody's blocking for you it doesn't matter."
As Brewer mentioned, the Aces were able to find some rhythm their junior quarterback Kaleb Applebey, who tossed 6 of 8 passes for 119 yards and three touchdowns against Princeton. If Applebey can continue to find his rhythm and progress following his return from injury, the Aces offense will have the capability of giving defensive coordinators nightmares.
As for the homecoming festivities -- Brewer said he embraces everything going on around the city this week, citing it's what high school football is all about. Between the parade, the dance, the announcement of the homecoming court at halftime, he feels his group is seasoned enough to handle such outside noise and excitement.
"I think we have a team with kids that have high character and I think they can handle it," Brewer said. "We'll keep talking about making sure we're focused in practice and in game situations making sure we're locked in and taking care of what we need to take care of at that point, but I think we have kids that can handle it, so we're going to keep stressing that and handle business when we're at practice or in a game situation. Enjoy the other parts of it as much as we can."
BY THE NUMBERS: Mount Carmel and Richland County resumed what was once a heated football rivalry between the schools last season, a game which Mount Carmel won 49-23 over the Tigers.
Prior to that game the two teams had not faced off since 2002, at which point the rivalry remained dormant in a 16-year absence. The Aces have dominated the series in the last half century, having won 31 of the last 32 matchups between the two schools.
Kickoff for Friday's game is scheduled for 7 p.m., with Mount Carmel announcing the Homecoming King and Queen at halftime of the football game. Follow the Mount Carmel Register's Facebook page for updates at the end of each quarter of the game and for the announcement of the king and queen.