Given the state of the Sumner Bulldogs’ football fortunes the past several years, Albert Thomas can consider himself lucky, or good. One month into the season, Thomas has already accomplished something his two predecessors couldn’t do and that was win a league game the first month of the season. For that matter, in 2012 the once-storied Sumner program didn’t win a game at any point.
But sparked by the big-play capabilities of senior Terry Evans on offense, defense and special teams, the Bulldogs outlasted the Cleveland ROTC Commanders 12-6 in Public High League action last Saturday afternoon at Southwest Field. to give former Sumner quarterback great Albert Thomas his first league victory. Sumner improved to 2-3, while ROTC dropped to 0-5.
“I probably had about 50 victories as a player,” cracked Thomas, whose Bulldogs had an incredible streak of consecutive league championships league championship stretch from 1983 to 1994, which includes Thomas’ time as a three-year starter through 1987. Thomas helped lead the Bulldogs to the Missouri Class 4A state championship game in 1987, where they lost to Camdenton 23-14. But the Bulldogs would go on to finish state runner-up again two years later in 1989 before winning back-to-back state titles in 1990 and 1991 under legendary coach Lawrence Walls who led the program to four state titles and nine state final appearances overall on the way to 248 victories and induction into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.
However, these days Thomas is simply trying to lead an undermanned program (they dressed out just 18 players for the ROTC game) back to respectability and redemption.
“Right now we’re young and hungry,” he said earlier this season.
But against the Commanders, Sumner struggled to sustain drives and put points on the board for most of the first half. Enter Terry Evans to eventually help save the day. He would counter ROTC’s only score, which was a first quarter fumble recovery in the end zone by Darius Jones less than two minutes into the second quarter, with two subsequent touchdown runs from scrimmage, a pivotal punt return and a key play on defense.
A 6-foot-, 170-pound senior, Evans was everywhere at the right time for Sumner-and the wrong time for ROTC. He scored on a 12-yard touchdown just 15 seconds before the half to tie the game at 6-6. He scored on a dazzling 15-yard run late in the third quarter to put the Bulldogs up for good, but only after he helped give his team great position with a punt return of over 30 yards. Then with just under five minutes to play in the game, he snuffed out an ROTC screen pass as the Commanders were driving beyond midfield.
“As a senior I know I have to step up as a player and do everything I can to help our team win,” said Evans. “We won but we know we have to improve and play better as a team.”
Considering Sumner’s roster shortage, Evans’ omnipresence came handy at a time of need. Corleon Thomas, Daniel Young and Demarcus Pierce were also among those making key defensive plays to stymie any late rally for the Commanders, on a day when the Bulldogs struggled to pass.or generate much consistency in their attack. Thomas and Young had huge sacks in the final minutes to take Cleveland out of Sumner’s red zone and way back to midfield
“Defensively we made the plays when we had,” said Thomas, whose record is “Offensively we struggled. But we’ll take it.”
Indeed, given the recent run of futility with the Bulldogs program, they will have to take a win anyway they can. The Bulldogs haven’t posted a winning season since 2008, which was also the last time they won a playoff game. J.V. Williams and Johnnie Randle have come and gone since then but didn’t win more than three games in a given season.
By the same token, the Commanders can feel the Bulldogs anguish, for they too have struggled to get above the three-win plateau in recent seasons, despite extra games because all Missouri teams are assured one playoff round now. Sumner beat ROTC by a touchdown last season as well, 28-22, so Commanders coach Louis Fidley has seen these losses play out before. No small lead is safe in a game.
“I told them at halftime if we let them stay in the game, they will find a way to beat us,” said Findley. “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We would come up with a first down, then make a mistake and lose the yards, or get a penalty. We can’t win games like that with our inexperience.”
Aside from his fumble recovery Jones was one of ROTC’s few bright spots on offense with first-down runs of 15 and 18 yards and added a sack on defense from his linebacker position. Fellow ROTC linebacker Fred Green was also productive with three tackles and two sacks. But in the final analysis, it was Sumner’s defense which limited the Commanders to just a few big plays and no offensive touchdown, much to the satisfaction of Sumner’s defensive coordinator Randy Caldwell.
“We didn’t give up,” said Caldwell. “We just kept making plays. We also minimize some of the mistakes we had been making. There was a lot less of the arm tackling today.”
ROTC, which also has a close league loss to Carnahan (26-24) in the books this season will attempt to secure its first win at PHL foe Northwest (1-4), this Saturday afternoon while Sumner may have its toughest league foe to date when it takes on top league contender Gateway (5-0) on the Jaguars’ home field. Both games are set for 1:30.