By Doug Gorman

Mt. Vernon head football coach C.E. Rhoades has turned the Crusaders football team into arguably the most successful gridiron program in Henry County.

In more than two decades as both an assistant and head coach, Rhoades has been part of three GCAA state titles, and numerous region championships.

Tonight the Crusaders play for another region title when they go up against Philadelphia, the only team to beat Mt. Vernon this season.

The game begins at 7:30 p.m. at Southern Crescent Baptist Church on Lake Dow.

Mt. Vernon kept its season going a week ago by beating People's Baptist in a region-tiebreaker.

The Crusaders are the defending GCAA state champions. The team's loss to Philadelphia was its first since losing in the 2001 state title game.

Rhoades has been at Mt. Vernon long enough to see the football team move from the more traditional 11-man game, to the eight-man version on each side of the ball it now plays.

He still has passion for the game.

"I have been very blessed," he said. "I can't keep up with the kids like I used to, but I have had great coaches helping me."

The Crusaders take a different approach to the game. Rhoades, his assistant coaches and players aren't afraid to bring up their personal relationship with Jesus Christ in conversation.

The deep-seeded faith is even visible on the football field. When a teammate or opponent gets hurt, the Crusaders bow their heads in a quick prayer.

Faith is the cornerstone of the team's life on an off the football field, but it doesn't stop the team from playing a competitive brand of football.

"One of the things that we emphasize on this team is God, team and me," said assistant coach Brendan Wilson, who will be leaving the program at the end of the season to move to Houston.

Football is a contact sport, and the Crusaders don't shy away from putting a lick or two on their opponents.

The Crusaders expect another physical game when they tangle with Philadelphia.

However, the Crusaders will be without Nathan Cook, the team's leading rusher, who suffered a broken leg in the game against Philadelphia.

Until his injury, Cook had regularly rushed for more than 100 yards per game.

"The key will be how we adapt to the loss, and how we make up for our first-game mistakes against Philadelphia," said Rhoades. "I look for another hard-hitting ball game. I feel like we can beat them."

Rhoades players agree

"We want to get back at them for beating us," said running back Kevin Hall. "It should be a hard-fought game, and we have players who are going to have to step it up, but in the end, I think we can come out victorious."

The Crusaders are trying to make another run at a state title with a new quarterback under center.

Clayton Fielder took over for long-time starter Keith Hall this season and has kept the Crusaders are the winning track.

"We have had to work as a team," said Fielder. "They had to respect me and I had to respect them."

The offensive hasn't missed a beat. Last week the team rolled up more than 500 yards of total offense.

Solid play by offensive line is one of the reasons the Crusaders rolled up so many yards.

"Our offensive line did a mighty fine job," he said

Terry White is one of the Crusaders' defensive standouts who will be asked to step it up and stop Philadelphia's offensive attack.

"We have been the underdogs all season, nobody thought we could do anything, so right now we are amazing ourselves, so we just want to keep going."

Winning a state title and finishing with an undefeated record last year has made the Crusaders the team to beat heading into the playoffs.

Chase Stowe is one of the seniors who wants to graduate with two straight GCAA crowns.

"We are the best so people want our title, so that kind of makes us the team to beat," he said

Offensive lineman J.D. Stowe points to an attitude of positive thinking as the biggest reason for the Crusaders' success over the past few years.

"One of our coaches Ronnie Wiseman said to us ?if we want to win, we have to believe', I think the seniors and all of the starters know we can win."

Robert Porter knows what it will take to beat Philadelphia in Friday's rematch.

"We have to stop their offense, they use that spread offense," Porter said. "They try to stop the ends from getting to their quarterback, so I've got to get in there quicker."

Mt. Vernon has won this season with a mixture of upperclassman and younger players.

Phillip Coursey is just a freshman, but is enjoy the experience of playing on a championship caliber football team. He should get plenty of playing time Friday night.

"We have to block and keep them from scoring," he said.