By MARK F. GRAY, Special to the AFRO

Despite the upset in the 2017 Turkey Bowl respect around the District has been hard to come by for the Ballou Knights. They still hold the coveted championship trophy that H.D. Woodson held for a quadrennial, yet most experts feel that order will be restored once toe meets leather on Thanksgiving Day in the rematch with the Warriors to crown this year’s DCIAA football champion.

The absence of respect and the indifference towards them has fueled Ballou’s march back to the Turkey Bowl in defense of their crown.  Playing throne of underdog suits them perfectly heading into the game because with the stakes on the line, the Knights have already proven they can beat Woodson after losing during the regular season.

The Ballou Knights are headed to the 2018 Turkey Bowl on Thanksgiving Day. (Courtesy Photo)

“There haven’t been too many accolades that have come with being the reigning champs,” Ballou coach Minoso Rogers told the AFRO.  “Some people around the city have tried to downplay our championship from last year and we lost to them already this year. We’re only the number three seed so we are accustomed to be the underdogs and we’re fine with that.”

Ballou played Woodson tougher than anyone in the DCIAA this year.  The Knights pushed the Warriors before ultimately falling 21-18 at home on October 19.  They relinquished three big plays that were the difference and dramatically affected the game’s outcome.

Dual threat star Lavonte’ Gater, who remains verbally committed to the University of Maryland, has been Ballou’s playmaker all season.  A quiet leader by example according to Rogers, Gater set the tone in last month’s contest against Woodson.  His 80-yard touchdown reception was a wake up call for the Warriors that cleared their cobwebs after the intermission.

Woodson’s passing game literally went the length of the field for long scores that were momentum killers. Marquise Tucker opened the scoring with a 20-yard pick six interception return for Ballou in the first quarter. Jordan Sharpe brought the Warriors back by connecting with Mondre Lang for a 70-yard touchdown to respond.

However, the Knights led 18-12 at halftime after they found holes in the Warriors defense and exploited them for scores.  Jamal Speaks ripped off a 28-yard touchdown run.  Later in the second quarter Aaron Penny made a house call from 21 yards on a run that temporarily gave Ballou hope for what would’ve been a seismic upset in the city.  The Knights missed both two point conversions and they proved to be big.

Woodson woke from their early season hibernation to make one game winning play in the second half and they were a totally different team for their stretch run at the end of the season.  Sharpe’s 30-yard TD pass to Jahmari Harris was the only touchdown over the final two periods.  Since then both teams have been on a path to their Thanksgiving rematch.

“We’re going to keep things simple this time,” Rogers said.  “The mistakes that we made were because guys were out of position since they were forced to think too much.  We just want the kids to know their jobs and go out and execute.”

Publicly Woodson has the swagger of a team that has put last year’s loss behind them.  Their early season lethargy has been replaced by a seven-game winning streak, while Ballou has won three straight since the loss.  Both teams arrive to the showdown with confidence and the Knights relish the place as the underdog again.

“We don’t mind being the underdogs,” said Rogers. “I think that we’ll be well coached and will be prepared for them and there won’t be any surprises. It’s exciting to have another chance like this.”