Cherokee and Pioneer have been here before.
In the final week of the regular season, the Chiefs (8-1, 4-0) and the Mustangs (7-2, 4-0) will meet in the season finale for a game that will once again decide the District B-2 champion.
The details for Friday's game at Cherokee are nearly identical to last year’s. Both Cherokee and Pioneer come into this game on a winning streak. Both are undefeated in district play. Both defenses will have to go up against the top offenses in the district.
“The only difference is now we've got to go to their place,” said Pioneer head coach Gus Overstreet.
The playoffs are a week away, yet Overstreet and his team are playing in the playoff mindset and have been since the start of district play.
“We’re just still taking it as a one-week season,” he said. “It really is like a playoff game because you’re playing for the chance to play at home.”
The district champion will be awarded home-field advantage through the first two weeks of the postseason, should they survive that long. The second-place finisher will have one home playoff game for the first round and will likely play on the road if they survive past the first round.
The Chiefs and Mustangs combined for nearly 100 points in last year’s shootout. However, the Mustangs managed to build an early lead which helped keep plenty of distance between them and Cherokee. Overstreet said a fast start will once again be the key in this year’s game.
“We’ve got to come out on fire,” he said. “We can’t come out cold. Cherokee will jump all over us and we’re going to dig a hole if we do that. We got to stay on fire. We got to keep that the entire game. Cherokee is going to play like that. They’re going to play on fire and have the chance to for the whole entire game. We’ve got to match it.”
Both Cherokee and Pioneer graduated playmakers from last year’s game which paved the way for new playmakers to emerge this season. Pioneer has a multi-faceted run-game consisting of underclassmen like juniors Marzell Washington and Gavin Spargo and sophomore Ryan Newberg.
Cherokee will have newcomer quarterback Lake Lyon. Lyon is a dual-threat with 953 passing yards on the year with 16 touchdowns and just one interception. He also leads the team with 885 rushing yards on 116 carries.
“Lake does a great job,” said Cherokee head coach Bryce Schanbacher said. “And he’s just a sophomore … pretty much everything does go through him.”
The Chiefs still have veteran running back Payton Ream, who is second on the team with 525 rushing yards.
Lyon and Ream have combined for 20 rushing touchdowns this season.
Overstreet said the Chiefs typically pass the ball a quarter of the time, but his defense will need to “be prepared for both aspects.” Fortunately for the Mustangs, the Pioneer secondary had plenty of live reps against passing offenses in Waukomis, Garber, Kremlin-Hillsdale and Ringwood.
The Chiefs fully expect the Mustangs to move the ball with their power-run game.
“They just want to play smash-mouth football,” Schanbacher said. “They have a lot of different kids that carry the football for them and really spread it around. Their (offensive) line does a really good job with that offense.”
The Mustangs offense will face a versatile and athletic defense.
“They can do pretty much whatever they want,” Overstreet said. “They are an extremely well-coached team. Coach Schanbacher does a tremendous job coaching them. That’s the reason why he has a state championship under his belt because they believe in what he says.”
Cherokee’s defensive success will come down to proper execution in the right spots. An offense like Pioneer’s, Schanbacher explained, can cause defenses to get impatient because some players will be searching for the tackle-for-loss play.
“An offense like that is not going to give you a whole lot of opportunities,” Schanbacher said. “You got to make big stops and try to limit the yards there, and put them in long-yardage situations on third down.”
Tonight’s outcome will determine Cherokee’s and Pioneer’s respective paths in the playoffs. But for the Chiefs and Mustangs, the playoff path starts here.
“To me, this game is a playoff game,” Overstreet said.