Matthew Connelly went from being under center to being the center.
A senior offensive lineman for the Kirkwood football team, Connelly played quarterback in middle school. Upon arriving at his first high school football practice, he took stock of the situation and figured he would be better served trying out at center.
He was right.
“Nobody told me to be center. I just saw the writing on the wall. I knew as a 5-foot-7 chubby kid I wouldn't be starting varsity any time soon,” Connelly said. “I had nowhere near the size to play high school quarterback. I went in first day of freshman year and I was able to get that job and haven't looked back since.”
His experiences at quarterback and then at center have contributed to Connelly's high football IQ. He knows what he's talking about. So when he hears someone say Kirkwood is going stroll to a seventh consecutive Turkey Day Game victory over Webster Groves, he couldn't disagree more.
“I think there's a lot of misconception around the community that this is going to be another Turkey Day game where we walk over them,” Connelly said. “It's not going to be that. It's going to be a tough game. We're going to have to play our 'A' game to give ourselves a shot.”
For the 112th time, Webster Groves and Kirkwood will play on Thanksgiving Day. Kickoff is set for noon Thursday at Lyons Stadium on the campus of Kirkwood High.
For the first time since 2014, Webster Groves won't enter the game after a visit from the injury fairy. The past four Turkey Day Games the Statesmen have patched together their offense because their starting quarterbacks have been on the shelf. It's contributed to their six-game losing streak — Webster's longest in the oldest rivalry game west of the Mississippi River. The simple fact the coaches don't have to scheme a new-look offense means more time spent preparing for an explosive Kirkwood.
“It's a lot of dominoes across the board that don't have to fall,” Webster coach Cliff Ice said. “We've had normal practices and normal preps. Just make minor adjustments here or there to slow them down a little bit.”
If Webster (5-5) is going to pump the brakes on Kirkwood (6-4), it's going to require a strong defensive effort across the board, but in the secondary in particular.
Kirkwood junior quarterback Kannon Nesslage has been prolific this season as he's slung the ball to his stable of playmakers. The 6-foot-5 and 185-pound Nesslage has completed 196 of 298 passes for 3,003 yards, 34 touchdowns and been intercepted eight times. In his first varsity start this season at Jefferson City, he tossed a school record nine touchdown passes and didn't have Missouri-bound receiver Jay Maclin, who was recovering from injury at the time.
The Pioneers are capable of popping off at any given moment.
“He is good,” Ice said. “It'll be a great challenge. Hopefully our defensive line can have a say in what's going on.”
Nesslage played one series in last year's 75-34 win at Webster's Moss Field. It was the most points scored by Kirkwood in a Turkey Day game while the 109 combined points were the most ever in the storied rivalry.
Nesslage is aware of the magnitude of the game but wants to take each play as it comes.
“It's a big game, but I try not to make it as big as it is in my head,” Nesslage said. “I try not to overthink things and just focus on what I need to do for the team.”
He'll have plenty help. Maclin is healthy. Connelly is another set of eyes to see what's going on and make adjustments at the line. That will be crucial as Webster will ask its defensive line to make Nesslage uncomfortable.
The Statesmen have Oklahoma-bound senior defensive end Noah Arinze on one side and senior Cole Schnettgoecke on the other. The two of them have combined for 30 tackles for loss and 15 sacks. They're going to bring the heat.
“I think Webster gets overlooked, especially this year, because of what happened last year. Even at 0-9 they came out and put it on us,” Connelly said. “You know we're going to get their best shot. Coach Ice always has a great plan, a great strategy to go at us.”
A significant part of that plan will be asking the defensive secondary to step up against the myriad of playmakers in Kirkwood's receiving corps. Maclin and juniors Will Lee, Jackson Fortner and Cole Johnson have been formidable with a combined 157 catches for 2,388 yards and 27 touchdowns.
“Stay true to our game, just play our game and don't get too hype,” Webster senior safety Jacobie Banks said. “Just come out and play football.”
That, ultimately, is what makes this game mean so much for the players. Yes, there is pomp and circumstance. On Monday night, the offensive lines from both teams had a pizza-eating contest. There's history and tradition, but it's one last chance for the players to pull on their pads, buckle their chinstraps and take the field with their friends.
“I am not going to be playing football in college. This being my last football game, having played football since first grade, it's a huge game to me,” Kirkwood senior linebacker Cameron Macon said. “I think that one thing I know is my other seniors, we don't want to have any regrets. We're going to give it everything we got.”
The Statesmen are on a mission to do the same. Webster has been without the prized Frisco Bell, the traveling trophy that goes between the two schools, for the longest stretch in its history. The Statesmen can't change the past but are ready to tackle the present.
“We don't really think about that honestly. We're just ready to go out there,” Schnettgoecke said. “We don't think about 6-0. That's not in our heads right now. We're just trying to win and bring it back to Webster and ring that bell.”