By Paul Hines
MT. VERNON —
Jared Shaner walked into the Rams football locker room during last week's weather delay before the Carbondale game.
The sight he witnessed encouraged him.
His players were gathered in the room discussing plays and their roles on the team.
“I felt pretty good when I saw that,” Shaner said.
Mt. Vernon took the field against Carbondale later that night and won a critical game. Mt. Vernon won just once during Shaner's first two seasons coaching the team. This year the Rams find themselves in a battle for a playoff berth as this season winds to an end.
“I think the first thing that we need to do is get win number five, and I hope that's this Friday at Cahokia,” Shaner said.
Three games remain on Mt. Vernon's schedule – a pair of road tests against Cahokia and Centralia followed by a home matchup with Mt. Carmel. The last Rams playoff appearance came in 2008.
“Just personally, it would be very gratifying,” Shaner said. “Two years of struggling in terms of wins and loses and I know the work that I've put in and other coaches have put in and players have put in.”
Mt. Vernon enters Friday's game at Cahokia with a 4-2 mark and are in a three-way tie for the South Seven Conference lead with the Comanches and Marion.
Last Friday presented a huge test for the Rams. They entered the game fresh off an emotional 44-42 overtime loss to Marion. Friday, about 20 minutes before kickoff lightning was spotted, and the game started about 30 minutes late.
The Rams offense struggled early against Carbondale, and Mt. Vernon entered halftime down 7-0. It was just the second time all season the Rams have been shut down in a half of play. The only other came in the final half at Rochester.
The Rams answered in the second half with a pair of third-quarter scores to seize control of the game. They never trailed again and held off Carbondale late.
“I think our kids, especially late in games, they step up and become even more physical,” Shaner said. “I feel like running the ball for the most part this year we have worn people down. I think if we probably went by quarters or even halves, I would guess our running game gets stronger by the numbers as the game goes on.”
The Rams will become playoff eligible with five wins and playoff points function as the tiebreaker, if needed. Playoff points are comprised from the total wins a team's opponents have accumulated during the course of the season. Mt. Vernon is currently among the leaders in the category for 5A schools.
Shaner said he was optimistic about the next several weeks, but he added that challenges await each week.
“We're got three difficult games left, but I also know that or believe that we're a good football team,” Shaner said. “I think we're physical and that can really benefit and pay off in these last few games.”
The final push for the playoffs starts Friday night at Cahokia.