The Central Football League semifinals are this weekend and the 9-1 Joplin Crusaders are looking to get redemption against the only team that’s beaten them in 2017 – the Northwest Arkansas Battle.
The Battle ran away with a 26-6 win over the Crusaders on April 8 to drop Joplin’s record to 5-1.
“Our team speed is pretty good and we are so young,” Crusaders head coach David Pitts recently told Developmental Football USA. “When we played them, they got off the ball early and smacked us in the mouth and we turned the ball over a couple of times early. Once we settled in, it was an even game and now our guys know what to expect and know they are more physical than what they’re accustomed to.”
In the second half, each team scored six points, but the Battle’s 20-0 first half was too much for the young Crusaders team to overcome. Two months have passed since then and each team has had some time to work out their kinks in hopes of putting their best product on the field this weekend.
“Our offense is starting to gel,” Crusaders head coach David Pitts recently told Developmental Football USA. “Our defense is slowly catching up to what we normally do. We turned our team over in the last two years. A lot of our veteran players retired and now 80 percent of our guys are 21 or 22 years old. It’s been kind of a rebuild year.”
Offensively, look for the Crusaders formidable backfield to get things going for them.
“Our quarterback is Tevin Gibson, he’s played with us quite a few years,” Pitts said. “He’s just an athlete. He runs the ball well and the passing game is getting better. Elliott Hawkins is our tailback and he’s about 240 pounds and he is a load. He’s a kid right out of college and he’s a good ball player, I mean really good.”
Anchored by two veterans, the Crusaders offensive line has steadily improved all season long.
“We still have Chris Lock, who’s been with us for years, as well as Anthony Aust,” Pitts said. “They’ve been doing what they’ve always done, doing very well. We’ve had three other first-year players that have stepped in and are growing in their positions.”
On defense, the Crusaders are led by veteran middle linebackers Ryan Lankford and Antwan Dyer.
“Our linebacking core is the strength of our defense,” Pitts said. “We run a 3-5 and they’re two of our stacked inside lienbackers. They’re physical and aggressive to the ball. Ryan never says a word, he just leads by his play. Antwan is very versatile also and they both lead by their play.
“I’ve got two outside linebackers that are first and second-year players with us that are coming around. Deondre Coleman is our safety and he’s come up very big for us this year as well.”
No stranger to deep post-season runs and league championships, the Crusaders need a win to advance to the CFL Championship Game against the winner of the Enid Enforcers and the Tri-City Panthers.
“One thing that we pride ourselves in is the fact that – we have good players, don’t get me wrong – we don’t have many of the Division I type guys or guys that drop down from the NFL and things like that,” Pitts said. “We pride ourselves in being a family and we’re a tight knit group and that’s been the core of our success over the years.”