Fairmont faces St. James for homecoming

FAIRMONT – Thunderstorms with an 80 percent chance of precipitation.

Despite a dismal forecast for tonight’s 7 p.m. kickoff at Mahoney Field, Fairmont football mentor Mat Mahoney and the Cardinals look to not allow either the impending rain or the vastly-improved St. James Saints to dampen their homecoming week.

“We (coaching staff) told our players to enjoy all of the activities throughout the week, but when Friday night under the lights rolls around, we have to stay focused on the task at hand for all four quarters,” said Mahoney, whose lineup transformed a pair of second-half turnovers into a 21-18 comeback victory over St. Peter at Floyd B. Johnson Field a week ago.

While the Cardinals erased an 11-point halftime deficit to improve to 3-2 overall and 1-1 in South Central Conference action, second-year St. James head coach Jeff Whitney and the Saints slammed the brakes on the football program’s 29-game conference losing streak last Friday night.

Both senior running back Ryan Menssen and senior quarterback Walker Froehling, who had suffered injuries during the two previous weeks, returned to the gridiron during Week 5 to help engineer the Saints’ 30-14 triumph over New Ulm.

“I was happy that St. James got their first conference win in almost six years,” said Mahoney. “Coach Whitney and his coaching staff have done a nice job of turning things around there.

“They’re definitely a much-improved team.”

Indeed. The Saints, who were winless in nine games a year ago, enter tonight’s conference clash with a 2-3 overall record and 1-1 league mark.

One reason behind St. James’ incredible turnaround can be seen in the points scored/points allowed statistical category.

The Saints have generated 23.2 points per outing this fall, compared to an average of only 8.6 in 2012. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, St. James’ 4-4 defensive alignment has given up a clip of 23.0 points per game this season, compared to a whopping 34.8 a year ago.

“Menssen’s a hard-nosed player on both sides of the ball,” Mahoney said in reference to the Saints’ 6-foot, 185-pound running back and inside linebacker. “He runs hard out of the backfield, and has a nose for the ball from his linebacker spot.

“Froehling is an athletic quarterback, and he likes to throw the football, so we’ll have to be prepared to defend the pass.”

Ironically, the same can be said for St. James’ defense as Fairmont junior quarterback Spencer Chirpich already has thrown for an incredible 1,010 yards and 13 touchdowns through five games.

Senior wideouts Luke Becker and Josh Eversman have been the main good-hands recipients of Chirpich’s spirals, making 37 catches for 401 yards and three TDs, and 23 receptions for 422 yards and five TDs, respectively. Ironically, senior tight end Jay Ruen has made seven catches for 117 yards, but four have been for scores.

“We’ve gone to the air quite a bit this season, but our running game has started coming around the last couple of weeks with Eddie (Derek Edman) running hard out of the backfield,” Mahoney said in reference to his senior running back, who’s averaged 73 yards rushing over the last three games. “If it rains, it’s the same playing conditions for each team, so we’ll see what happens.”