FLORISSANT — Carey Davis loves this time of year.
The air is cold. The days are short. Fall is in full effect.
“It's football weather,” said Davis, Hazelwood Central's second-year football coach.
Last season, the Hawks didn't get to experience much of it. Daylight savings time lasted longer than Hazelwood Central's season. Four days before Halloween, Hazelwood West put an end to its rival's season in a district quarterfinal game.
The way this season started, the Hawks appeared destined for another early exit. Hazelwood Central opened with a 35-0 loss at home to De Smet, then dropped four of its next five games. Hazelwood East and Hazelwood West both scored wins. McCluer got its licks in, too. The perennial Suburban North Conference champion was knocked from its perch and buried six-feet deep with a 1-5 record after the first week of October.
How the tables have turned.
Hazelwood Central (5-5) has ripped off four consecutive wins including a hard-fought 18-0 victory in a muddy, bruising ball game at arch rival McCluer North on Oct. 26. The Hawks opened up this year's postseason with a road trip to Hazelwood West last Saturday. Despite falling behind 14-0, Hazelwood Central rallied to secure a 21-14 payback win that was sealed when the Wildcats' Hail Mary pass fell just short of being caught as time expired.
“We kept fighting, kept pushing,” senior quarterback Kayden Jackson said. “We're a strong team that doesn't give up. It was real satisfying getting the win at the end.”
The reward was another week of practice and another game. This week's challenge will be as tough as any the Hawks have faced this season. The No. 6 seed in the Class 6 District 1 tournament, Hazelwood Central travels to No. 2 seed Francis Howell (9-1). Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. Friday.
It will be the first meeting in at least two decades between two of the most recognizable football programs in the area. Howell has won nine consecutive games after losing its season opener to Fort Zumwalt North at home on a wet, slick night.
Davis has watched hours of tape preparing for the Vikings. During his film study, he's come to appreciate what Howell does so well.
“They've got a stout offensive and defensive line. They're nice size kids,” Davis said. “I think they play football the right way. They tackle well. They block well. They catch. They do everything you want a football team to do and they do it pretty well.”
The Vikings will also be doing what they do on their home turf in front of a packed grandstand. Howell has one of the best home-field advantages in the area. The Hawks will be challenged on the field by the Vikings while also trying to ignore the noise and distractions off it.
“You can't worry about outside things,” Hazelwood Central senior safety Daniel Creighton said. “Just focus on your job and execute it to the best of your abilities.”
That message resonated with the Hawks as they started to emerge from their early-season funk. Davis said that once the coaching staff and players got on the same page, things started to come together. There weren't any drastic shake ups to the lineup or scheme. It was a change in the Hawks mentality that helped right the ship.
“Everyone understanding that things aren't going to be given to you. You have to put in a lot of work to get what you want,” Creighton said. “That's the biggest change. I feel we've had a talented team, it's not like a change in personnel. It's more of a change in the mental aspect.”
Those changes are most obvious at practice. The way Hazelwood Central goes about its business leading up to game day has earned the Hawks tangible results.
“We put in the work Monday through Friday leading up to that game,” Davis said. “That's one thing we've been preaching over and over again. Put in the work over the week and the game will take care of itself.”
Hazelwood Central enters Friday's showdown an underdog. Its record says its a .500 team. But when kickoff comes, records and seeds are irrelevant. Whoever makes the most plays that day determines the winner.
“They have been very good,” Jackson said. “It's nothing different. It's another opponent in our way and we're going to play them like we play everybody else.”