Pittsburg head football coach Tom Nickelson sums up the essence of tonight's high school district game between the 6-2 Purple Dragons and the 3-5 St. Thomas Aquinas Saints at Hutchinson Field.

Pittsburg head football coach Tom Nickelson sums up the essence of tonight's high school district game between the 6-2 Purple Dragons and the 3-5 St. Thomas Aquinas Saints at Hutchinson Field.

"This is a playoff game for us and for them," Nickelson said. "Lose and your season is essentially over. Win and you have the opportunity to play another week."

Pittsburg gave itself a shot at state last week against defending Class 5A state champion and then top-ranked Blue Valley, leading from stem to stern and defeating the previously undefeated Tigers 45-35 in Stilwell.

Senior running back Marcus Striplin scored three touchdowns — including a kickoff return off an onside kick — to boost his season total to 16 and senior receiver Jornell Fondren caught six passes for 109 yards and two scores.

The Pittsburg passing attack has made a radical progression from an opening game total of a single yard against Coffeyville, as senior quarterback Joe Wimmer connected with receivers like Fondren, Dillon O'Dell, Dylan Gromer and Spencer Bernhardt for big plays against opponents Fort Scott, Gardner-Edgerton and Blue Valley, including several third-down and fourth-down conversions.
"It takes time to get the chemistry of the passing game down," Nickelson said. "Ours is a lot of timing routes, so it has taken some time to get everybody on the same page at the same time."

With a veteran coaching staff and several experienced players, nobody's overlooked St. Thomas Aquinas given what's at stake and given that the Saints of Aquinas beat Pittsburg last year in football and in basketball substate at PHS.

"The boys have been focused and gone about their business as usual," Nickelson said. "They know we have a very good opponent coming to town Friday and we must be prepared in every aspect of the game."

After starting their season 3-0, the Saints have fallen on hard times, losing five straight games to high-quality opponents Blue Valley Northwest (42-10), Bishop Miege (48-24), Webb City (35-0), Blue Valley (14-0) and Gardner-Edgerton (27-18).

"They are a very good football team with great speed and size," Nickelson said. "They are very well-coached and have the ability to two-platoon. They run a similar defense to ours and a spread offense."

The Saints themselves are not mathematically eliminated from making the playoffs and do of course have the opportunity to relish the role of spoiler against Pittsburg.

If Pittsburg wins and Blue Valley loses against Gardner-Edgerton, Gardner-Edgerton will be the District 4 champ and Pittsburg the District 4 runner-up. If Pittsburg and Blue Valley both win by 13 points, Blue Valley and Pittsburg would advance on virtue of the district points tiebreaker. If Blue Valley beats Gardner-Edgerton by 8 to 12 points, then Blue Valley and Gardner-Edgerton would advance from a three-way tie at 2-1. If Aquinas and Gardner-Edgerton win, Aquinas would join Pittsburg and Blue Valley at 1-2 . . . and if Aquinas and Gardner-Edgerton each win by 13 points, Aquinas finishes as the district runner-up to undefeated Gardner-Edgerton.