By Jake Kreulen, sports writer
Football is back.
The Coffee County Central Red Raiders travel to Franklin tonight to face the Battle Ground Academy Wildcats.
This game will be a measuring stick of sorts for Coffee County, as BGA thumped the Raiders 52-20 last year.
The Wildcats have 14 returning starters from last year’s team that went 7-4 and made it to the quarterfinals of the Division II-A (private schools) classification, with seven on each side of the ball.
“We run multiple sets,” said BGA head coach Roc Batten said. “We like to mix it up some; we’ll run some spread, and we’ll do a few other things.”
For BGA, running back Ronald Cleveland (5-10, 185 pounds) returns after picking up 700 yards and 10 scores on the ground as a junior, and left tackle Harm Abbot (6-2, 235) “is a key player for us,” Batten said.
Returning quarterback Cole Grosvenor (6-1, 165) will be rotating under center with Clayton Beathard.
“We’ll be kind of splitting time with those two guys,” Batten said.
Meanwhile, the Raiders dominated their two preseason scrimmages against smaller schools – Grundy County and Richland. But still, the Raiders will not look the same tonight as first year head coach Ryan Sulkowski only showed approximately 10 percent of his playbook in early scrimmages.
“We were pretty vanilla and probably only used about 10-percent of our playbook,” Sulkowski said. “We’ve pretty much been going over the BGA game plan for about a month and a half or more. It’s more mental and about execution now than anything else.
“We’re going to do some things that are very complex, and we just have to execute. That’s all there is to it.”
After being forced to practice in the CHS gym due to inclement weather on Wednesday, the Raiders had a long session in Thursday’s heat.
“On a normal game week we would have waited out the weather [Wednesday]… but we took it inside and [volleyball] coach [Andrew] Taylor and the volleyball team really helped us out by letting us have the gym. We went with shoulder pads and helmets and we hit. It was pretty much arena football,” Sulkowski said. “They got a good sweat [Thursday] and got acclimated to the heat, and I think it was probably good for them. It really kind of simulates [Friday] because it’s going to be hot. They need to feel what it feels like. We’re just anxious to get on the field when it matters.”
The sense of community and pride will be on display at CHS today.
“The Quarterback Club has bought polo shirts for all of the kids on varsity, and they’re going to wear them to school Friday,” Sulkowski said. “There are about 1,400 kids walking the halls of that school, and there’s only about 46 with those polos on. The kids are excited about that.”
The team spirit has made its way to the CHS volleyball team as the entire squad took a bus to watch last Friday’s scrimmage as part of their lock-in, and the Lady Raiders have essentially filled a spirit bus for tonight’s game.
“I’m thrilled with the community support,” said Sulkowski. “The spirit bus is capped at 50 kids and it’s been sold out for two days now. Coach Taylor is going to be riding it, and it’s pretty much all of the volleyball team. The community has done a great job and that’s the exciting part. When you can fill a bus with 50 students at $5 a pop, that really says a lot about the camaraderie of the teams. Not to mention that you take the danger of teenagers driving about an hour both ways out of the equations. Our guys are feeding off of that. They want to represent our community. That doesn’t mean going 10-0, but it means going out there and competing.
“They know that at the end of the night, they have transformed the program. It’s not always based on wins and losses. They’re going to go out and have fun. They know what they’re doing.”
Outside of linebacker Seth Thompson, who has a hairline fracture in his leg and looks to still be a couple of weeks away from suiting up, the Raiders enter Friday’s season opener healthy.
“We’re actually pretty good when it comes to injuries, but I’m going to knock on wood,” Sulkowski said. “We’ve got a couple of bumps and bruises, but guys are going to play through that. Our main concern is the heat. But that’s what all of the running this summer in that black sand pit was for; it got us acclimated to the heat.”
After an unusually cool summer camp, temperatures have warmed this week and are expected to peak at 95 today.
Defensively, BGA is experienced as a trio of seniors – middle linebacker Zack Hardiman (6-0, 195, defensive end Myles Taylor (6-4, 220) and defensive back Reives Berry (6-1, 175) – anchor the BGA defense.
“They’re a 3-4 team, but they find different ways to make it a four-man front,” Sulkowski said of the Wildcats. “They keep you guessing and they have some good athletes. They have better athletes than what we have at certain positions, but it’s all about execution. If we go turn the ball over four times, we’re not going to win the ballgame. If we go out and play like we should, we’ve got a chance. And that’s how it will be all season.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday.