It's hard to tell what stood out the most in St. Thomas More's 51-0 win over Hot Springs Friday night in the Class 11B season opener for both teams at Dutton Field.
1) Senior quarterback Ryder Kirsch had a career game, throwing for over 300 yards and seven touchdowns.
2) The STM defense held the Bison to just 84 yards of total offense — 73 yards on two long passes — no points, and had double-digits in quarterback sacks.
Big scores get noticed, but defense wins game, veteran STM head coach Wayne Sullivan said.
"This was a good one to get under your belt," said Sullivan. "You are always nervous in your home opener. I tell everybody that you prepare all summer, and then you prepare for Hell Week, then when they kick the ball you lose all control, you have no idea what they are going to do and what is going to happen. But I was very proud of our boys tonight."
In reality, the way the Cavaliers came out, Sullivan likely had a good idea on how his team was going to do. STM scored on its first five positions — all on TD passes from Kirsch — and led 35-0 at the end of the first quarter and 38-0 at halftime.
Hot Springs hung in there from the second quarter on, but it was just a matter of time before the Cavaliers would end the game.
"We're blessed to have everybody back, and even the guys who filled in, along with sophomores and freshmen who have played a ton," Sullivan said. "They did well and executed better than I thought. I liked our intensity. But give it to Coach (Ben) Kramer. He lost a lot, but he had his kids ready. They'll be better by the end of the year. Hot Springs will be somebody to deal with."
Kirsch looked as if he could do anything he wanted for much of the game, hitting long passes for scores and short passes that turned into long gains or scores. After an incomplete pass on his first try, he rattled off six straight completions, four for touchdowns.
He was 10-of-13 in the first half for 178 yards and five TDs and 13-of-17 overall for 319 yards and the seven scores.
"I was really excited to get back on the field after last year," Kirsch said. "I just wanted to give it all I got."
STM took the opening drive 70 yards on four plays, with Kirsch hitting senior speedster Grant Huber for a 59-yard TD pass. Sam Matthes caught consecutive passes of 24 yards and 25 yards — the latter for a touchdown, and it was 14-0 with 6 minutes gone.
After a Hot Springs fumble, Huber caught his second touchdown pass, this from 5 yards out. Andrew Smith then hauled in a 32-yard score from Kirsch with 2:22 left in the first quarter. After a Karson Jegeris fumble recovery a minute later, Jack Green, who also kicked six extra points and one field goal, caught a 3-yard score after Kirsch avoided a couple of Bison sack attempts about 8 yards deep.
It was 35-0 still with 1:35 remaining in the first.
"We wanted to come out strong and we wanted to send a message, and I thought we did really good," Kirsch said.
Things settled down for the Bison defense and STM's only points in the second quarter came on a 35-yard field goal from Green.
The Cavaliers' two scores in the second half came on a 61-yard TD pass to senior running back Ryan Wojcik and the game-ending 68-yarder to Skinner.
Sullivan said that when you have a quarterback who sees the field well (Kirsch is 6-foot-6) and weapons that he can throw to, good things are going to happen.
"He was on point in the first half and he did a great job," he said.
On the game's final play, Kirsch audibled to the short swing pass to Skinner, who did the rest.
"I think he threw three short passes that turned into touchdowns," Sullivan said. "I tell him to put the ball in the athletes' hands, and he was able to do that tonight."
STM had 75 yards on the ground on 19 carries, led by Wojcik's 30 yards and 26 from Nick Lembke.
It was a tough game for the Bison, who were hit hard by graduation after last year's 6-4 season.
"Our practice speed does not compare to game speed, and that is partially our fault," Kramer said. "That's why you play that first game to figure it out. A lot of these guys have never been on the field on a Friday night, and now they know. We'll do our part and they'll do their part and we'll come back better next week."
Hot Springs sophomore quarterback Brynn Thompson made his first career varsity start and was harassed all game by the Cavalier defense with at least 10 sacks. He ended up losing 23 yards on 19 carries and lost three fumbles. He did have two impressive pass completions and completed 3-of-5 passes for 84 yards.
"He was calm and he was composed. He just didn't have any time to throw the ball," Kramer said. "We have to get that stuff cleaned up and make sure he is holding on to the ball when he decides to turn it up field and run. He has to protect it. But for a first game for a sophomore, Brynn did a nice job."
Jegeris had an outstanding game from his linebacker position, as did several other STM defenders.
"We were super stoked to open here at home against Hot Springs," Jegeris said. "Blitzing up the middle, we're all about that and playing hard-nosed defense. We put the foot on the gas."
With the way the Cavs can score, Jegeris said that can help their defense play relaxed.
"We like to pass and we like to score, so that makes it a little easier for us on defense. We just go out there and lock down and don't let anything past us," he said.
Things will get much tougher for the Cavaliers, as they travel to Winner to take on the No. 3 Warriors, 49-0 victors over Stanley County.
"They are going to be good. This game showed us some stuff and we proved that we can power over them. We have to take that same strategy over to Winner," Jegeris said.
Hot Springs will be on the road again next week at Newcastle, Wyo.