LUCAS – They are Cubs in name only.
A big reason 11-1 Lucas is one win away from its first trip to the Final Four in football is because of strong veteran leadership led by senior quarterback Rueben Luna and senior running back Mason Galco.
But even the Cubs who really are cubs, like sophomore Jackson Hauger and freshman Jeb Grover, don’t play like it.
It was easy to see in last Friday’s 44-35 regional semifinal win over two-time state champ Tiffin Calvert why they are two-way starters and counted on heavily by coach Scott Spitler heading into Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Division VII regional title game against top-seeded McComb (11-1) at Tiffin Columbian High School.
Grover caught a touchdown pass and provided the go-ahead score on a 31-yard run with 5:50 left. Hauger made an interception when Calvert threatened to blow the game open early and had big catches on three touchdown drives, including a veteran move on a comeback 33-yard reception.
“Ideally, any coach would say they don’t want to have a young man jump from middle school football to Friday Night Lights because there’s a change in the speed and physicality of the game,” Spitler said. “I’m a believer that talent and football intelligence and work ethic doesn’t have a grade (attached) to it.
“You’re talking about two young men who are extremely football savvy. They’re 4.0 students, extremely intelligent, and two of the best people on the planet. The stage on Friday night is not too big for them, no matter their age.”
Grover and Hauger are wingbacks in Lucas’ wing-T attack and perfect complements to Galco, who is closing in on a 2,000-yard rushing campaign. On defense, Grover has been mostly an outside linebacker, but he played cornerback and some safety Friday. Hauger, the free safety in the Cubs’ 3-3-Stack defense, leads the team with five interceptions.
“For me, it’s exciting to see them get in and do their thing,” Luna said. “I know those guys especially are good athletes, and we’ve got a lot of guys who aren’t seniors who play big roles.”
A small school like Lucas can’t bank solely on upperclassmen to get the job done. Everybody has to be “all in” even if it means leaning on somebody like Grover who was playing middle school ball last year.
“Our senior class is one of the biggest we’ve had here, and it’s only 11, so you can’t just have seniors and juniors starting,” Luna said. “There were five of us (seniors) who played as freshmen. It’s definitely hard because everybody’s bigger than you, but that year of experience has really helped.”
Luna went from playing special teams and kicking as a freshman to starting on defense and serving as a backup quarterback as a sophomore. He’s been the starting quarterback and a linebacker or cornerback the last two years, a period in which the Cubs have gone to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in school history.
“These seniors are great leaders and they make me feel like we are all brothers and they give me confidence,” Hauger said. “Starting last year when I was a freshman (at safety) gave me the drive to go harder in the off-season and to do better than I did last year.”
Although they are predominantly a run team, the third-seeded Cubs were able to flip the switch on their passing attack with no problem against Calvert. It was a career night in that respect for Luna, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 246 yards and the TD strike to Grover. Hauger was a favorite target, but Galco and 6-6 senior tight end Aaron Scott also had big catches.
“We practice (the passing game), but it’s not the same as game reps,” Luna said. “So my hat’s off to those guys. They played really good.”
The Cubs went back to what got them here — their pulverizing running attack — to finish off Tiffin Calvert. After the Senecas rallied from a 10-point second half deficit to take a 28-24 lead, Grover gave the lead back to Lucas for good with his 31-yard burst up the middle.
It was a clutch run by a freshman who felt accepted by his older teammates almost immediately.
“The second week of mandatory practice guys really started opening up to me,” Grover said. “It’s a great group of guys and they’re fun to play with. They made it pretty easy to fit in.
“I was nervous until about the third game in, but by then I got a little confidence in myself and felt like I could actually hang with the varsity.”
The challenge now for Lucas is hanging with the region’s top-seeded team. Spitler said McComb, averaging 265 pounds across the offensive front, is the biggest team the Cubs have faced all season, including Danville, No. 1 in the state rankings when it handed Lucas its only loss, 41-0 on Oct. 23.
McComb’s dominance is reflected on the All-Blanchard Valley Conference team, where it swept individual honors. Kris Alge was Coach of the Year, 260-pound guard Noah DeLaCerda was Lineman of the Year, junior quarterback Malachi Abbott was Offensive Player of the Year and junior linebacker Jake Crouse was the Defensive Player of the Year.
Crouse had 27 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during the regular season and, as a running back, rushed for 1,016 yards and 14 touchdowns. Abbott threw for 1,773 yards and 24 TDs and rushed for 483 yards and four scores. The Panthers led the league in scoring (43.3 ppg) and total offense (450.9 ypg) and was No. 1 in fewest points (6.2) and yards (113.8) allowed.
It’s worth noting that McComb, in the postseason for the 19th time, trailed at halftime in their first two playoff games, so the Panthers are not invincible. And maybe they don’t have the same bond that has carried Lucas to unprecedented heights.
“I’m sure a lot of coaches talk about their team being a family, but it’s 100 percent true here … we’re a big family, extremely tight-knit,” Spitler said. “All of our kids, from freshmen to seniors, hold their teammates accountable.
“The goal is that Lucas gets the win, Lucas gets the touchdown and the Lucas defense gets the stop. It’s not about individuals.”
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