MOWEAQUA -- There's plenty to read in Central A&M's history books.
It might have been hard to see that after the past few seasons. But after taking a step forward as a program last year, the Raiders took another significant jump on Saturday's season opener.
Against last year's state champions Arcola, Central A&M controlled both sides of the ball for a convincing 34-14 win. It dovetailed right when the Raiders honored the man responsible for so much of that history, Mark Ramsey.
With players now in their second year with coach Brent Weakly -- who played and coached under Ramsey -- the coach saw his team better adjusted to his system and able to pick up the nuances more quickly.
"I’ll be honest with you, I thought we almost had too much in this first week," Weakly said. "I felt like we’ve been as well prepared the first week as I’ve ever been around."
"We really prepared for this game," Keaton Garner echoed.
A big part of that comes from Jameson Smith. A year ago, he filled as a sophomore in the middle of Week 1's game when Garner went down with an injury. With virtually no practice at the spot, it took a couple weeks to find his footing.
Now with a year of varsity experience, Smith's butterflies are temporary.
"I have to say I’m a little more prepared, but I was still nervous before the game," he said. "Once I got on the field everything was cool. But you can ask anyone on the sidelines, when I had to go in (last year) I was a nervous wreck."
Smith deftly spread the ball around A&M's offense in quick fashion. Four players had at least four carries and he completed a pass to five different receivers, finishing 10-for-15 for 100 yards. Garner, Smith and Jackson Bugg all rushed for touchdowns as well.
"It’s night and day," Weakly said. "You no longer need to have the training wheels on him. You just turn him loose and let him go. Couldn’t have been prouder with him to be honest with you."
It helps that Riley Black, the second-leading rusher, and Garner, the second-leading receiver are back. It helped A&M's offense move quickly, and that speed threw off an Arcola team that replaced nearly the entire starting group from last year.
"God bless them, they’re experienced, they play fast, and it looked an experienced team playing fast against a team that’s trying to learn the varsity speed," Arcola coach Zach Zehr said. "More than physically, I think that messed with us mentally.
"I think we were trying to catch up, trying to catch up, we were trying to get lined up and once we got there it blew our minds."
A&M's defense pounced on Arcola's mistakes as well. In his first start, Conner Strader finished a solid 10-for-15 passing, but three of those misses were interceptions. Garner returned one of those for a pick-six, and an Arcola fumble made it four turnovers on the day.
Add in Luke Schinzler turning four sacks, and A&M contained Arcola's speedy backfield as well.
"That’s what we worked on," Schinzler said about keeping the Riders' speed under control.
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"I know No. 21 (Mario Cortez). I raced him in track – he’s probably one of the fastest guys out on that field today."
The 20-point win made the dedication to Ramsey, the 30-year coach at Moweaqua and Central A&M, a little sweeter. But the Raiders are also hopeful it's a signal to end the playoff drought since Ramsey' departure.
"We’d like to bring back the tradition that we had here in the past, and I think we took a step in the right direction," Weakly said.
It's hard to understate what Ramsey means to the Raiders' program and those that passed through it. The amount of former players and coaches who showed up to thank the coach nearly extended from one end zone to the other.
During halftime, the Raiders unveiled a sign on the press box which read 'Mark Ramsey Field,' and there's a nearly six foot tall marker that lists Ramsey's accomplishments with the program, including 30 seasons, a 179-63 record, four state finalists and the 1997 state championship.
His speech was short, sweet and heartfelt. Ramsey thanked fans for their generosity, the chance to coach his sons and his wife's support. When he started telling how his daughter told him 'Good luck, Dad' before every game, he choked up a bit before pausing and finishing with, 'Go Raiders.'
He might have had more to say, but he didn't need to say it. Those who played under him already understood.
"One of my really, really good friends," Weakly said. "If I ever have a question about coaching, I call him. Obviously, he’s been in that situation.
"He was a guy that never really showed a lot of fire and enthusiasm. He did, he had it, believe me it was churning in his belly."
Weakly's favorite moment was during a game against Carterville his junior year. After A&M ripped off 35 straight points, his emotions burst through.
"And I tell you what, we got a recovery there and, believe it or not, he started jumping up and down and started fist-pumping, I couldn’t believe it," Weakly said with a smile. "We saw it on film and had to rewind it a few times with the coaches."
Arcola's debut after a state championship was an understandably rocky one, but there were plenty of positive parts to mine.
Daniel Mendoza emerged as a capable receiver (165 yards) and rusher (38), and Strader was pinpoint with quick passes. The defensive line held strong against much of A&M's inside rushes.
"I thought our interior line did well," Zehr said. "That’s where we’re most experienced, especially in the second half. That’s something to have to build off, for sure."