By BRETT MARSHALL
For third-year coach Jeff Blattner, the unbeaten 9-0 South Gray Rebels have relied on their eight seniors to provide leadership on and off the field through a most memorable season.
"It all starts with our seniors," Blattner said. "They've exceeded all my expectations. The level of play has been great and that's carried over to our younger kids."
These same seniors will lead the Rebels into Saturday's home quarterfinal game against Clafin/Central Plains at 7 p.m.
Throughout the season, the Rebels have relied on the 1-2 punch of running back Coulter Croft and quarterback Wyatt Slaven.
Croft, a shifty, speedy senior who also is a state-caliber wrestler, is nearing the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the year. After a 322-yard, five-score performance on Tuesday, Croft now has 1,923 yards on 170 carries with 31 touchdowns.
"He's just got that ability to get to the line of scrimmage. and then can dart either way where the holes might be," Blattner said.
Slaven, meanwhile, has been the final ingredient to a team that lost just twice a year ago and missed the playoffs. In his first year of playing quarterback at South Gray, Slaven has provided the alternative to teams ganging up on Croft and has rushed for 1,223 yards on 125 attempts and 27 touchdowns.
"He's been a godsend to us," Blattner said. "He's got those intangibles you want in a quarterback. He's worked so hard and has inspired others to work hard, too."
As with any team piling up rushing statistics like Croft and Slaven, Blattner credits his offensive line with the team's success.
"They've done a wonderful job, and we have a mix of seniors and underclassmen," Blattner said. "(Senior center) Hunter Brown has been the mainstay in the middle, but every one of our linemen has been integral to our success."
The short recovery period from Tuesday's win over Pretty Prairie to the upcoming Saturday night game against Central Plains figures big in Blattner's mind.
"It's tough, you're basically playing three games in nine days," Blattner said. "The recovery time is tough on the kids. But it's the same for everybody and we're glad to have the next game at home."
Blattner said he expects Central Plains (9-1) to be another tough opponent.
"Quivera Heights (consolidated now with Claflin) had the state weightlifting championship so we expect a big, strong team to come in here," Blattner said.
It's been four years since the Rebels last made the playoffs under Gerald Salmans. The school with a rich tradition in basketball, is trying to build on that success on the football field.
"I'm so proud of our basketball program and have the utmost respect for coach (Mark) Applegate," Blattner said. "He's been one of my best fans and I'm one of his biggest fans. I believe success breeds success and you can be good in both."
A victory for the Rebels will send them to the state semifinals on Nov. 11 against the winner of Saturday's Macksville-Osborne game.
See prep pairings, Scoreboard, Page B2.