Phillipsburg, Smith Center meet in a top-ranked showdown

By: Conor Nicholl for
Sep 14, 2018

Share This Story:

Phillipsburg coach J.B. Covington and Smith Center coach Darren Sasse are longtime good friends.

Highway 36 features Smith Center on east, Phillipsburg 30 miles straight west, and Norton another 30 miles west. The triumvirate is longtime Mid-Continent League rivals and traditional state powers.

Both coaches have seen a mindset shift with their programs in the Phillipsburg/Smith Center matchup, a series that has decidedly swung Phillipsburg’s way.

“We are sandwiched between Norton and Smith Center,” Covington said. “And that’s two programs with great history and for a lot of years, we had been beaten down to the point where a lot of our kids didn’t believe they could beat the Nortons and Smith Centers.”

Smith Center had dominated the series for years.

On Sept. 10, 2010, the Panthers won 19-14. Smith Center earned a victory the following fall.

On Sept. 21, 2012, the Panthers defeated the Redmen, 28-6, the start of seven straight victories against Smith Center, many of them high-profile matchups.

 “(2012) was a good win, one that I certainly remember,” Covington said. “It was at Smith Center, and we felt like we had a good ball team going in there, and the kids really played well that year. There were a number of years there that we felt like we had good teams, but mentally Smith Center had us broke, and being able to get over that hump a little bit was huge for us.”

In ’15, Phillipsburg defeated Smith Center, 14-7, in Week 9. Three weeks later, the Panthers beat the Redmen on the road, 40-6, in the Class 2-1A sub-state title game. Phillipsburg won its first state football title a week later.

“Those were a turning point for us where our kids really became confident and that we had a chance against Smith Center,” Covington said. “I think maybe a few years before that we weren’t in that same mindset.”

The Panthers have won two straight versus Norton and captured 17 straight league contests and 23 consecutive regular season games entering this week.

“We feel like mentally, we’ve gotten past that,” Covington said. “After we beat those teams a couple, three times, then the kids become confident. We are to the point now where for the most part, our kids just expect to be able to play with those good teams.”

Last year, Phillipsburg beat Smith Center, 23-0. The Redmen eventually cruised to the 2-1A championship and finished 12-1.

“The win and loss, I don’t think that bothers as much as if we play well,” Smith Center coach Darren Sasse said. “We have had a couple of these games against them where we didn’t feel we played really well, but we had a lot of them that we feel we played really well, and they were better than us on that night. We live with that, and continue to go on and try to become a great team.”

The Panthers were ranked No. 1 in Class 3A part of the year, went 12-1 and fell to Marysville in the state semifinals.

“Their kids believe,” Sasse said of Phillipsburg. “That’s kind of where we are trying to be at here.”

On Friday, Phillipsburg, ranked No. 1 in Class 2A, travels to Smith Center, top-ranked in Class 1A. Both teams are 2-0.

Sasse is 46-13 in his sixth year as Redmen head coach after he took over for legendary Roger Barta. Covington stands at 132-41 in his 16th fall with the Panthers.

“Back when coach Barta was here, and he was winning all those games, we won some games just because I think our kids expected to,” Sasse said. “We played some really good teams at times that maybe could have beaten us but our kids just believed that they were supposed to win that game. I think that’s kind of where Phillipsburg’s at right now.”

The Panthers’ continued success is due to in part to changes in practice the last few falls, especially at a more up tempo pace.

“Football is the ultimate team game, and when everybody on the team believes, then good things happen,” Covington said.

The Panthers, a wishbone/flexbone team in previous seasons, switched to the spread look this fall. Phillipsburg had trouble guarding the spread –“what a pain,” Covington said – in losses versus Hesston and Marysville in the postseason the past two years.

Phillipsburg features four-year starting quarterback Trey Sides and had big early performances from senior running backs Treylan Gross and Cha’Ron Ellis. Junior running back Josh Sisson and senior Nathan Moon has stepped up, too, as the Panthers opened with a 52-12 victory versus Ellis, and 31-3 against Plainville.

Ellis and Moon tested very well in the summer weight room and displayed high-level athleticism. Ellis, Moon and Gross all tallied at least one score last week. Sisson, a state championship wrestler at 5-foot-9, 135 pounds has used his speed on jet sweeps and smoke screens to mix up the power run.

“We just felt like there was a need when we get into playoffs, it seems like when we get into our wishbone, everybody has really good athletes and they stop loading up the box,” Covington said. “So becomes really difficult to run inside the box, so we felt like we had the personnel to shake it up a little bit and work perimeter game, and our kids have adapted to that, and it’s something that we have never really done.”

Seniors Kasen Keeten (5-7, 165) and Jaret Shelton (5-7, 220) are highly decorated linemen. Phillipsburg needed some junior linemen to step up and has had strong performances from Noah VanKooten (6-3, 250) and junior Tyce Jerby (5-11, 215).

“He has just been a work horse just wanting for his opportunity,” Covington said of Jerby, in his first year of significant playing time. “And finally a couple of guys graduate that were in front of him, and so he’s just picked it up, and just jumped right in there with both feet, and just done a really nice job.”

This marks the final non-district for the Panthers before the district opener at Norton next week. Smith Center opened with a pair of road wins against Thomas More Prep (45-0) and Norton (40-0). Smith Center, despite significant defensive graduations, held the Monarchs to negative yards and shut out the Bluejays for the second straight season.

“You’ve got to play well, whether you are Smith Center, Norton or Phillipsburg,” Covington said. “You’ve got to play well to beat the other team even if one team is outmanned a little bit. They are just rivalry games. We are not going to save anything back. We are going to throw everything we got at them, and they are going to do the same to us.”

Norton ran 60 plays for just 138 yards. Smith Center forced four turnovers. Four players recorded double-digit tackles. Junior Joel Montgomery had 15 stops, while sophomore lineman Charlie Timmons recorded 14.

Seniors Austin Hobelmann and Colby Benoit tallied 11 and 10, respectively. Sasse gave great credit to previous Redmen players, development of Smith Center’s program back to junior high and the coaching staff.

The Redmen returned four offensive and five defensive starters but many of the first-year starters saw varsity time in 2017 due to big margins of victory.

“We had a lot of guys that got to play last year, and it shows again,” Sasse said.

Timmons, a lineman, was a rare freshman starter in 2017. Asked about his development, Sasse immediately talked about the past.

Gavin Overmiller taught Dalton Kuhn, last season’s state defensive player of the year. Hobelmann followed Kuhn’s lead. Currently, Timmons learns from Hobelmann on the line.

“Just the physical play and the line play,” Sasse said. “And then I think Austin has done a good job of teaching a lot of stuff to Charlie this year already, and that’s what you hope for is those kids learning from each other is something that I can’t do as a coach.

“And then when they do it, and teach other and bring along guys like that, our hope is Charlie does the same thing to the next guy,” he added.

Offensively, seven players have between 40 and 181 rushing yards for a team that has 549 of its 579 yards on the ground. Seniors Ethan Peterson (181) and Benoit (130) lead the offense and have combined for six rushing TDs.

“Sometimes you play that guy sophomore, junior, senior year, I think they lose a little bit of that excitement,” Sasse said.  “They have done it for so many years, and sometimes you get that senior who is finally getting his chance and really excels, because he is a little fresher.”

Use your Facebook account to add a comment or start a discussion. Posts are subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment.