Some of the greatest sports stories see an underdog overcome many obstacles to reach their ultimate goal, whether it be winning a championship or beating the team’s greatest rival. Although the Mt. Vernon football Rams have struggled in recent years – since their last postseason appearance in 2015, the team has a combined record of 6-30 – the 2019 edition of this team sees themselves as more of a sleeper pick than an underdog.
“Going to the playoffs will always be a goal every year now,” said Rams head coach Jerod Kessler. “We have a possibility this year to achieve that goal, and the players and coaches have dedicated themselves to give ourselves a shot.”
But first, the Rams must start winning games. Through the first two weeks, they have been on the wrong end of 28-24 and 56-26 losses to the Taylorville Tornadoes and the Mascoutah Indians respectively. These first few games saw the Rams hit the road to open up the season, a struggle for any team no matter their skill level.
“Starting off the season with 2 road games is definitely tough, especially against Taylorville and Mascoutah,” said Kessler, “but the players know that they can win every week.”
The Rams have not won a game during weeks 1 or 2 since 2015, when they defeated Charleston 40-6. Every season presents a new opportunity to change that narrative, but this would not be that season.
The opening contest of the new year saw the Rams come up just short, walking off the field in Christian County with a 28-24 defeat on their record courtesy of the Tornadoes. Given 2018’s 40-8 clobbering at Ken Hunt Stadium that cost Rams quarterback Hunter Simmons, ‘21 his season, 2019’s effort displayed a massive improvement in the state of the team.
Immediately, the Tornadoes drove down the field; in one passing play, Taylorville traveled 52 yards. In any other year, Mt. Vernon might have quickly given up a touchdown and fallen behind before ever possessing the ball.
This Rams team is different, however, as they were able to hold the Tornadoes to zero points due to a missed field goal attempt. As if symbolic of the team itself, Mt. Vernon continued to employ this “bend but don’t break” philosophy throughout the night.
After falling behind 14-0 in the second quarter, MV’s Simmons tossed a 49-yard score to Evan Leake, ‘21 to cut the lead in half, and Leake himself rushed for a 33-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14 in the third quarter. The teams traded scores the rest of the way – Landon Simpson, ‘22 kicked a 25-yard field goal, the Tornadoes passed for a 39-yard touchdown, and Simmons rushed for a touchdown inside the 5-yard line – before Taylorville returned the ensuing for a touchdown, gave them the game-clinching score in a 28-24 result.
The second week of the season was largely forgettable for anyone sporting the orange and black, as the Rams saw their squad drop a 56-26 thrashing to the Mascoutah Indians, a new opponent on their schedule for 2019.
“We need to take care of the ball and execute better than we did last week,” said Kessler on the performance. “Defense needs to be able to stop the running game this week and create more turnovers.”
Despite the rough start, the Rams have plenty of reason for optimism. The team is performing much better than in years past, especially in their opening contest in Taylorville. The team is also beginning conference play soon, and will have home-field advantage more often through the rest of the season.
If anything, these first few games were meant to test how good this team could be at their best. Given the program’s recent history and reputation, establishing a winning culture would be the first step in the right direction.
“We have been trying our best as a coaching staff to create positive young men, to create unity within the team,” said Kessler. “The players have spent a lot of time together and will sacrifice for each other.”