68 / 45
      72 / 52
      82 / 61

      This could be something special

      Comparing these two players would not be comparing apples to oranges.

      It would be comparing an apple to the Big Apple.

      One was an All-American in high school and college, the fourth overall pick in the 2001 NFL draft, has been a five-time Pro-Bowler, and could be headed to the Hall of Fame.

      The other is a senior in high school.

      In this corner, you have Justin Smith. In the other, Hale Hentges.

      If you weren't sure, the Big Apple would be the former.

      "Hale would be the first to tell you that he has a long, long way to go to be compared to Justin Smith," Helias coach Phil Pitts said. "The career Justin's had after high school has just been incredible."

      Then again, there is a valid comparison.

      "In terms of dominating a high school game, I think they're very similar," Pitts said. "Both of them had the ability to take over games. They looked like men amongst boys out there."

      They stood/stand out like LeBron James at a kindergarten pick-up game.

      "Hale is extremely special ... he is a very, very good football player," Pitts said. "When you see him on the field, you can tell that things are easier for him, more natural for him."

      The 6-5, 230-pound Pitts has verbally committed to Nick Saban and Alabama.

      You may have heard of them.

      "When he's on the field, everybody is going to know where he is," Pitts said. "Every defense will be designed to stop him, every offense will key on him.

      'That's why we're going to need some other players to really step up."

      Hentges isn't the lone big gun the Crusaders can fire this season. The best, clearly, but he's not alone.

      Like Hentges, senior lineman Blake Wilbers is a returning All-State player. "It's been a long time since we've had two returning All-State players," said Pitts, who's entering his fourth season with a mark of 28-12.

      Then you have senior lineman Brody Buschjost, senior safety Todd Buschjost, and junior quarterback Alex Faddoul.

      "Our top-end players are as good as we've ever had," Pitts said. "We'd line those five players up against anybody."

      Faddoul will have some sizable shoes to fill with the graduation of two-year starter Wyatt Porter.

      "Obviously, when you lose the Class 4 Offensive Player of the Year, he's tough to replace," Pitts said. "But Alex has a lot of physical tools that give us the ability to a lot of different things."

      Faddoul threw for 347 yards and three touchdowns during the team's scrimmage last Friday.

      "He was just on-point," Pitts said.

      Faddoul is part of a massive youth movement for the Crusaders, who graduated a whopping 31 seniors.

      "That was a special class, not only on the field but off the field," Pitts said. "But we had a lot of kids who would have started for a lot of teams last year. I think they're going to open some eyes pretty quickly."

      They'll get tested quickly --- under the watchful eye of the nation, no less --- when they host Nixa on Sunday, Aug. 22 at 3:30 p.m.

      The game will be televised on ESPNU.

      "It's something the kids are super excited about it," Pitts said. "The high school game, as far as TV goes, has just blown up.

      "It's kind of crazy to think about people all around the United States watching a high school football game from Mid-Missouri."

      That's how Helias will start the season ... let's look ahead to how it might end.

      Rest assured, if the Crusaders make it back to the Dome, they won't have to face Webb City, which has beaten them in the last two title games.

      The teams would meet in the semifinals, instead.

      "We're thrilled about it," Pitts said. "We haven't had much success against them in state championship games, but I'm looking forward to playing them again --- and an opportunity to maybe play them at home.

      "But we know we have a long, long way to get there, first."

      First thing first --- DVR the Nixa game, then go to Adkins Stadium and make some noise.

      It could be the start of a very special season.