In a game that could have District 2-2A title implications, the Sterlington Panthers visit the Winnfield Tigers on Friday at 7 p.m. Sterlington (5-1, 1-0) is ranked No. 8 in the Louisiana Sports Writers Association's Class 2A poll, while the Tigers (4-2, 1-0) stand at No. 7.
Sterlington coach Jason Thompson says his team has a tough assignment this week.
"They are the best team we have played to date," Thompson said. "They're well-coached and — I said the same thing about OCS — they're accustomed to winning and have done so for years."
A newcomer to District 2-2A, Winnfield played a challenging pre-district schedule. After dropping a 14-13 heartbreaker to No. 4 Many in the season opener, the Tigers blanked Class 3A Marksville 18-0, bested 1A Natchitoches St. Mary's 20-8, shutout 4A Leesville 27-0 and lost to 3A Jennings 35-21. Last week, the Tigers manhandled General Trass (formerly Lake Providence) 52-12 in the district opener.
Thompson is especially impressed with the Tigers' defense, which, with the exception of the Jennings game, has smothered its opponents.
"Without a doubt, this is the best defense we've faced this year," Thompson said.
Quarterback Justin Johnson, running back Chris Ellis, tight end Brenton Mills and wide receiver LaRoderick Evans head a solid group of skill players, while center Sam Martin and left guard Josh Walker anchor the offensive line.
"Scheme-wise, they're good at what they do," Thompson said. "They're good at running the football and they can throw it when they want to."
With just one week of district play in the books, anything can happen. Nevertheless, at this juncture, Sterlington, Winnfield and Oak Grove are the early front runners in the 2-2A race.
"I think you are probably going to have to go undefeated to win district," Thompson said, reiterating an assessment he made last week. "For us to have a chance to be that team, we are going to have to have our best effort of the year, especially since it's on the road."
Winnfield isn't Thompson's only concern this week as the Panthers are battling a rash of injuries.
Page 2 of 3 - "I considered shutting practice down midway through (Tuesday)," Thompson said. "We just have a lot of what I call Week 7 injuries. I know everybody is fighting the same thing, but we have a lot of injuries in a lot of areas. We have a lot of old injuries that haven't healed. Like everybody else, we've been going at it since early August and (the injuries) are starting to add up."
Sterlington is coming off of its best offensive output of the season after opening district play with a 63-34 road victory over Ferriday.
Fullback Austin Haman (18 carries, 251 yards, 4 touchdowns) and Jaylon Wade (19-242-3) inflicted most of the damage as the Panthers piled up 650 yards rushing on 55 carries. Sterlington's previous season high rushing total was 398 in a season-opening 34-31 win over Benton.
Sterlington's play is beginning to get noticed as the Panthers cracked this week's Louisiana Sports Writers Association poll. Though welcoming the recognition for the program, Thompson downplayed the Panthers' first top 10 ranking since 2008.
"It creates a lot of excitement for our students and around the community, but it doesn't change anything for us as far as our preparation," Thompson said. "If it was Week 10, it would be something to be excited about, but it's only Week 7."
Offensive linemen Austin Goodson, Chase Parks, Logan Jinks, Tyler Buffington and Dylan Moore, along with tight end Ross Lambert, have enabled the Panthers to average 314.2 yards rushing per game and 8.2 yards per carry.
Wade improved his season rushing numbers to 802 yards and 10 TDs on 88 carries. He has accounted for 1,013 all-purpose yards, including 61 yards receiving and 150 yards in kick returns.
Haman has 543 yards and 10 TDs for the season, followed by quarterback Devon Murphy with 273 yards and seven scores.
Defensively, the Panthers have already recorded 12 sacks and nine interceptions as compared to eight sacks and five picks for the entire 2012 season.
Linebacker Cody McGuire continues to top the Panthers' tackle chart with 63 tackles, seven tackles for loss and a pair of sacks.
Sophomore cornerback Jaylan King returned two interceptions for 104 yards, with a pick-6, against Ferriday. He now has a team-high five INTs, along with 35 tackles.
Page 3 of 3 - Another sophomore, defensive back Luke Temple, has contributed 38 tackles and an interception.
Returning home from a two-game road swing, the Panthers play Jonesboro-Hodge for homecoming on Friday, Oct. 25.