STERLING – In recent years, the Sterling-Geneseo rivalry series has belonged to the Golden Warriors, who have won each of their last six matchups against the Maple Leafs by three scores or more.
Last year, Sterling beat Geneseo 31-0 in Week 5, but this year could be entirely different. After a 3-6 campaign last year, the Maple Leafs are off to a 3-1 start in 2022, matching the Warriors through four weeks.
The last time Geneseo played a one-score game against Sterling was in 2014, a 17-14 Warriors win in Week 7. The last time the Leafs beat Sterling was the year before, a 30-20 victory in Week 7 of 2014.
This year’s game may or may not be as close as that, but it should at least be more competitive than last year’s, with the Maple Leafs looking dramatically improved to start 2022.
“They’re pretty strong. They’re a lot better than they were last year. They’re a lot bigger, too,” junior two-way lineman and tight end Lucas Austin said. “They really run, and they try to get their bigs on bigs, and just get open.”
Sterling coach Jon Schlemmer sees the difference as well. Coaching the Warriors in many of these matchups over the years, he’s seen a lot change year-to-year.
“They’re 3-1. I think they’re much-improved. They’re 2-0 in the conference just like we are. When you look at them on film, the first thing I think is they really want to establish the run, and they’ve been able to do so,” Schlemmer said. “I think their kids up front are good, their backs run hard. They do enough stuff on the perimeter to make you have to respect it.
“But kind of looking back to where they’ve always been as far as they want to establish the run, that’s kind of where it seems they want to hang their hat this year. I think our kids are just going to have to understand that, but they also have 17 [Jaden Weinzierl] on the perimeter who’s a really, really good player. They’ve got other kids, and then the quarterback, 3 [A.J. Weller], he’s able to get the ball out there. So it’s not like we can sell out on the run, by any means, but we know that’s where the game is going to be won, is on the line of scrimmage.”
Schlemmer says he, the players and his coaching staff look forward to the rivalry matchup every year.
“It’s huge. It’s the one team in the conference that we came over with, and to a lot of people around town and our kids still, there’s just something different about this week,” he said. “It’s a game that our kids love playing in and our community loves, and something that I think our coaches even, we take a lot of pride in the way we prepare throughout the week and understand how big it is for not only just that next one, that conference win, but any time we’re playing somebody who’s had as much success as a program that they have throughout the years. They’ve been a great measuring stick for us for a long time, and we have a lot of respect for them.”
To defeat their Western Big 6 conference rival and improve to 4-1, the Warriors will need to find success, first and foremost, in the trenches. In their minds, if they win the battle up front, they should ultimately win the game.
“We have to win up front,” Austin said. “Everything’s easier — for our running backs, our quarterbacks to make decisions, get their openings and get touchdowns.”
Added senior offensive/defensive lineman Javier Luna: “We just have to win up front, make sure everybody’s doing their jobs.”
Schlemmer wants to see his team take better care of the football this week after coughing up a turnover in last week’s 69-0 win over Alleman.
“Obviously, we have to take care of the ball. We’ve done a pretty good job overall, but we turned it over last week, and we can’t do that. We can’t do that against a good team like Geneseo,” Schlemmer said. “So we have to take care of the ball, and I think all the little things: you’ve have to tackle, you have to block. As cliché as it is, it’s so true.”
Sitting 3-1 four weeks into the season, the Warriors have learned plenty about the 2022 iteration of their team. Whether they’ve played from ahead or behind, in close games or blowouts, their mentality has remained the same.
“[I’ve learned] that we have no quit,” Luna said. “If we get punched in the face, we’ll punch them back, and keep going, keep going, keep going.”
“And you can hold everybody accountable,” Austin added. “They’ll tell you if they’re wrong, and they’ll fix it. You have to actually hold them accountable, otherwise they won’t do anything, but if you do, they’re really good about it.”