Last year at this point, Vian was rolling.
The Wolverines had just knocked off defending champion Millwood and were home for a Thanksgiving weekend battle with Adair.
Then, five turnovers came.
And then, the off-season.
Two of those helped drop the Wolverines into a 22-0 first-quarter hole, and the push-back wasn’t enough for Vian, which got within a touchdown but eventually lost 38-27.
Gary Willis, the Wolverines’ fourth-year head coach, doesn’t expect a repeat of that.
“Last year we had a lot of penalties, stupid penalties, and a lot of turnovers and yeah, we’ve worked to clean that up,” he said. “Knock on wood, because one of those nights now can kill you.”
It helped eliminate Millwood last week at Vian in a 47-16 outcome. The Chargers had four turnovers, two of which led to scores. Fourth-ranked Vian committed just one, and all of this on a rainy, sloshy, muddy night.
Overall the Wolverines have given up the ball 11 times, nine fumbles and two interceptions. On the flip side, they’ve recovered 16 fumbles and picked off 15 passes. That’s a plus-20 on turnover margin.
Maintain that play and Vian (11-1) stands a good chance of reaching the semifinals next week. But first, they’ll have go to Adair on Friday and slow the aerial attack of the fifth-ranked Warriors (11-1), which was also effective in the last meeting.
Gone is Austin Hines, who passed for 356 yards and four TDs last year and finished his senior season with 2,686 yards. His successor, sophomore Nate Ratcliff, is 136-of-217 passing for 2,435 yards, 34 touchdowns, and has been intercepted seven times in 12 games.
“I’m not going to ever really get too caught up on classification,” Willis said. “There are times you look at a kid and see ‘oh he’s a sophomore,” and it becomes a factor, but he doesn’t get rattled. He’s pretty dang good right now.”
Jacob Lappe (1,142 yards, nine TDs) and Garrett Long (781 yards, 12 scores) have been the main targets this year, but Barrett Bradberry, who had 13 catches for 135 yards last year, has 558 yards this season.
His older brother, B.J. Bradberry, quarterbacked the Warriors to a state title and 70-6 win over Haskell in the 2015 2A championship.
Another contrast between last year’s matchup and now is health. Two of the Wolverines’ key components last season, seniors River Simon and Bodhi Vann, were playing limited due to elbow and ankle injuries.
There are no injury issues this year, part of that coming from depth and the ability to rotate players at multiple positions. Even last week, Grey Cloud and Xavin Lackey had near equal production at running back with 91 and 81 yards, respectively.
Like last week, it appears there will be less-than-favorable conditions Friday. Rain and thunderstorms are in the forecast and Adair’s turf is a natural surface.
The rain slowed Millwood’s speed a week ago. It may well play havoc with Adair’s aerial show.
“Possibly. They do throw more than us, for what it’s worth. But we can’t control the elements and they can’t either,” Willis said. “Turnovers can come into play on either side, and we’ve preached all year about taking care of the football regardless of the conditions.”
Having responded to that throughout the year, there’s an elevated sense of optimism that this could be the year Vian reaches the title game for the first time since 2005, or perhaps wins a title for the first time since 1971.
Willis is keeping it real, though.
“Honestly that may be in the back of some guys heads and I know it’s in the town’s head, but as far as our team and our locker room I can assure you we aren’t looking past Adair,” he said. “We’re very aware how they got on us 22-0 last year. If you don’t play every down this week and play it pretty perfect, you’ll be sitting at home next week.”