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Football: Wildcatz hope to gain momentum vs. Comets with return game

Special teams big in second round

Eastland-Pearl City's Cody Kluck (right) is caught by Polo's Kevin Cheesman at the 1-yard line during a punt return Oct. 5 in Polo. EPC scored soon after and went on to win 58-14.
Eastland-Pearl City's Cody Kluck (right) is caught by Polo's Kevin Cheesman at the 1-yard line during a punt return Oct. 5 in Polo. EPC scored soon after and went on to win 58-14.

The week the Eastland-Pearl City Wildcatz have been waiting for is finally here … and they’re ready to exorcise some Three Rivers demons.

Even back in July, the Wildcatz players realized the Newman Comets would likely be waiting for them at some point in the playoffs. The chance to play them in the second round – and possibly make up for past second-round losses to the Comets’ conference brethren Morrison Mustangs – seems like it was written in the stars.

“We’re jacked out of our minds,” EPC junior safety and return specialist Cody Kluck said. “They say they’re the big Blue Machine, and we say bring them on.”

We’ll go toe-to-toe and see how we both stack up; whoever keeps their hand in the dirt and fights harder will win.”

That’s not to say that Kluck and his teammates think things will be easy Saturday at Roscoe Eades Stadium. The Wildcatz know how tough it is to bring down the Comet running backs, and are also impressed with how well Newman runs its schemes on both sides of the ball and plays solid team defense.

But as good as both offenses and defenses have been this season, EPC feels it might have an advantage in special teams. Kluck has five punt return touchdowns (and five more called back for penalties), and Donny Groezinger has scored on a kickoff return, a punt return and by returning a blocked punt.

It’s prompted the Comets – who focus on special teams every week – to make sure they get plenty of work in on that third phase heading into Saturday.

“We talk about special teams every week, but even more so with these guys,” Newman coach Mike Papoccia said. “They have scored a lot, and shortened the field so much because of their special teams, and it’s obvious they really stress that area of the game just like we do. They have a lot of weapons, and they run their return game very well.

“We want to try and take away their threats, get us some room to move and try to win the field position game. Special teams are a quick way to change the game, the momentum, and we’ll have our hands full Saturday.”

Momentum has been a big factor for the Wildcatz all year long. While they’ve blown out most of the teams on their schedule, the closer contests have seen EPC pull away, thanks to a big turnover on defense or return on special teams.

“It’s really been huge for us this year,” Kluck said. “Sometimes, we need kind of a click to get us going, and it seems like we’re always coming up with an interception or fumble recovery or kick return to get us rolling. Once we get one, we’re fired up for more, and we feed off that.”

Those momentum-shifting plays have usually led to some big plays by the EPC offense. Papoccia believes this is the most physical Wildcatz team he’s seen, and is also wary of the explosiveness he’s seen on film from the skill position players.

“They’ve got it all: dynamite backs, a quarterback who throws exceptionally well, and big receivers who go up and get it,” Papoccia said, “but like any good team, it starts with the line. They’re a very physical team, not afraid to stick their noses in on either side of the ball, and they’re well-coached and very versatile. It’s one heck of a good test for us, that’s for sure, because we can’t just zero in on one guy and expect to stop them.”

Wildcatz coach Randy Asche is just as concerned with the Comets’ physicality and explosiveness. He talked about “extreme effort,” and feels his team will need a few breaks and bounces to go their way.

But the biggest thing he and his coaches have been stressing this week is consistency. He knows that in order to get over that second-round hump, the Wildcatz can’t lose their edge for even a minute.

“It’s a daunting task, because they just wear on you and wear on you,” Asche said. “We can’t take plays off, or make mistakes or miss tackles. We have to play at our highest level, because that’s the level they’re used to playing week in and week out in their conference.

“This is a pretty deal for us, to take on one of the best programs in the state. Our guys have worked rally hard the past few years to be in this position, and they want to play games like this against teams like this. It’s exciting and fun, but I’m also nervous; I’m not getting much sleep this week.We have to bring our best effort and put our best game together, and hope it’s good enough Saturday.”

Class 2A playoffs

Second round

Eastland-Pearl City (10-0) at Newman (9-1)

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Roscoe Eades Stadium, Sterling

Radio: 1240 AM, 102.7 FM, 100.3 FM

Twitter: Dan Woessner (@DanWoessner)

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