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Big test for Wildcats

November 8, 2013
By MATT WAGNER - Tribune Chronicle (mwagner@tribtoday.com) , Underthelights

When the Chalker Wildcats step onto the field at Norwalk Whitney Park to face Norwalk St. Paul on Saturday evening, they couldn't face a team that is a more polar opposite than them.

After going 5-5 during the regular season, the Wildcats secured just their second playoff appearance in school history - and the first since 2001 - by earning the seventh seed in Division VII, Region 23. St. Paul, meanwhile, will make its 15th state playoff appearance and second in a row, compiling a 28-13 record in the postseason. The Flyers are four years removed from their only state title, have finished runners-up three times and made it to at least the state semifinals six times.

"They've got great football tradition," Chalker coach Ryan Slone said. "They've been in the playoffs the last couple of years, so this is not something new to them. This is something new for us."

Although St. Paul (9-1) has the edge in terms of history and experience, Slone said his coaching staff will do what it can to dull that advantage by making his players believe they have a chance to win.

"We need to make sure the kids understand and believe in themselves," Slone said. "That's the biggest thing that we did starting three years ago here - make these kids believe that they are winners and they are a good football team. Now, we need to make them understand and believe they can be a good playoff football team."

One way to give his players belief is by preparing them for the game, Slone said, and based on the scouting report, the Wildcats will need to be ready for a physical matchup.

The Flyers like to run the ball, averaging 293.6 yards rushing per game, and 134 of their 178 first downs have come on the ground. St. Paul has three rushers who've accrued more than 500 yards and more than 6.5 yards per attempt, including senior and leading rusher Jesse Gross (909 yards and 19 touchdowns), Devin Smith (817 yards and 14 touchdowns) and Brad Smith (568 yards and three touchdowns).

While Devin Smith is injured and will likely miss the game, the Flyers have so many options that they can overcome the loss.

"They're a hard-hitting football team," Slone said. "They're going to line up, and they're going to try and be more physical. We have to be able to withstand that physicality from them and be able to push right back."

Of course, being a physical football team is in the Chalker DNA. The Wildcats, whose majority of opponents like to run the ball, held offenses to 146 yards per game on the ground.

The players seem to understand the importance of matching St. Paul's physical play, especially on defense.

"You have to show a lot of heart," junior Tyler Regal-Sullivan said. "We have to be a very physical football team."

For Slone, the Wildcats need to put together a full game of great play in order to have a chance against their heavily favored opponent, something that has plagued Chalker all season long.

"Do I think we have all the ability in the world to be able to (pull off the upset)?" Slone said. "If we can put four quarters together, we can compete with a lot of football teams in our division. We just haven't been able to put four full quarters together. Hopefully, these kids understanding what it means to be in the playoffs, we're going to have a chance to win the game."