CLAREMONT, Calif. - The SCIAC Football season is only in its third week, but this weekend's contest for Claremont-Mudd-Scripps at Redlands has the potential to be the biggest one of the year.
After two weekends of league play, CMS and Redlands are the only two teams remaining undefeated at 2-0. The winner at Redlands on Saturday night at 7 p.m. will take over sole possession of first place and have their own destiny in their hands the rest of the way for the SCIAC title. Without a conference playoff, this weekend's game has at least the potential to be the one that determines the championship when the final contests are finished next month.
"There's only seven regular season games in the SCIAC," said CMS Head Coach Kyle Sweeney. "Normally, the conference champion is going to be undefeated. Every once in a while, you have a one-loss champion, but in a seven-game schedule, every game is a playoff game and you have to treat it that way."
This year's Stag team only has nine seniors on it, but they vividly remember their freshman season, when a 32-27 loss to La Verne in the SCIAC's second week proved to be the difference as La Verne went undefeated and CMS finished up 6-1.
"Freshman year after losing to La Verne in an early game, we all thought 'OK, let's step up and finish strong' and we did," said Wahl, "but that actually ending up costing us the SCIAC Championship and moving on to the playoffs. This year we are saying every game to us is a SCIAC Championship, and we need that kind of focused mentality. Every game matters, every play matters - that's the biggest thing we have to worry about."
Indeed, in order to put themselves in a position where the Redlands game has such high stakes, the Stags had to win their first two conference games at home, defeating La Verne 37-24 and Cal Lutheran 17-10. In both contests, CMS protected its leads by maintaining the ball for over 20 minutes of possession after halftime. The Cal Lutheran game, in fact, finished with the Stags running the final 9:29 off the clock, taking a knee inside the 10-yard line to end it.
"I think every week takes on its own challenge and its own identity," said Sweeney. "The last couple weeks we've been able to grind some things out and play great defense, but Redlands is always very tough at home. Especially since we have a situation this weekend where both teams can say they're 2-0 in the league, there's no question they'll be ready to go. We'll have to find a way to make enough plays to get over the top in order to win it. And at Redlands, which is always tough."
The fourth quarter of the Cal Lutheran game was scoreless, and maybe didn't have much in the way of spectacular plays to put in a highlight reel. It was just simply hard-nosed football, churning out a few yards at a time and moving the chains to keep the other team's offense on the sidelines. In other words, an offensive lineman's dream.
"I loved it. As offensive linemen, it's our job to protect the ball and run down the field and try to make some plays," Wahl said. "Honestly, it was a good team effort - receivers, running backs, quarterback, o-line - altogether as a group focusing on finishing the game strong and getting a big win."
The linemen largely led the way for junior running back Garrett Cheadle, who has taken on the bulk of the running load after fellow junior Spencer Sheff was injured in the season opener. Cheadle has carried 134 times for 648 yards this season, putting him ahead of pace for a 1,000-yard season, and he has been over 100 yards four times in the first five games. He carried the ball 30 times for 138 yards against Cal Lutheran, after a 28-carry, 155-yard effort in the La Verne win.
Sophomore Jordan Leonard has also stepped up to supplement the run game after beginning the year as solely a return specialist, and now has 170 rushing yards on the year. He had a pair of big carries on the final drive against Cal Lutheran, getting a seven-yard run on 4th-and-3 to keep the drive moving, and then a five-yard run for the final first down that allowed the Stags to take a knee.
The fourth-down running play call was one which Wahl appreciated.
"That's a huge statement of how much the coaching staff trusts us on the offensive line," he said. "It's a big boost to show that in those pressure situations, we can get it done."
The pressure only gets higher on Saturday night at Redlands, but the Stags wouldn't have it any other way.
"This is definitely a big game for us," said Wahl. "Redlands has always been a top opponent, and we're looking at this as a great opportunity to prove ourselves in SCIAC. I'm definitely looking forward to the competition."