If there's ever a time to either go big or go home, it's the Missouri State High School Athletic Association varsity football quarterfinals.
That's why, on third down and goal from the nine yard line at 8:07 of the first quarter in its playoff game Saturday at Clark County, North Callaway tried to chart the initial score of this contest with a pass after Adam Reno had run roughshod over the defense for most of the drive. What followed was an interception in the end zone by the Indians that turned the tide of this matchup for good and eventually forced the Thunderbird's onto the wrong side of a 33-7 decision.
"The defense was keying on Reno, so we made that play call. We were hoping to draw them in, but they did a good job of reading what we were trying to do" said North Callaway coach Kevin O'Neal. "(Clark County) made a play when it had to. The flags didn't go our way today, but I felt our kids did a good job moving the football early in the game. We just didn't finish off drives. Hats off to Clark County. They came up with big plays when they had to."
In an effort to buck that trend and take back the momentum Tully Thomsen threw a swing pass to Austin Edwards that resulted in a 10-yard touchdown for North Callaway on the very first play of the second quarter. When that score was called back because of a penalty, the end result was a fourth down and 10 at 10:58 that saw Mason Wortmann take the hand off and then get tackled for no gain shortly-there-after.
"Our defense played really well. Our linebackers and defensive line did a good job stopping the running game," said Clark County head coach Ethan Allen. "Our guys on the edge have some speed and I felt they were getting off blocks and making plays like we needed them to do."
The rich then got richer just one play later when Clark County's Caleb Lapsey took the handoff up the middle and sprinted 90 yards to give his team a 7-0 lead at 10:46. Just under three minutes later that advantage grew to 14-0 on a 28-yard run to the left by Lapsey, and considering he also made both of the extra points, a theme began to emerge that the Thunderbird's didn't want any part of.
"I'm proud of all of these young men. They worked very hard to get to this point," O'Neal said. "This wasn't by accident. We advanced as far as we did because of the work these guys put in during the offseason."
In response to Lapsey's rushing prowess, North Callaway began to employ an incredibly aggressive defensive approach that yielded a fumble recovery by Edwards at 3:45 on its own 38-yard line. It wasn't enough, though, as the Indians scored with four seconds left in the first half on a pass from London Brunk to Zeb Riney in the right corner of the endzone on fourth and goal from the five yard line to go up 21-0.
"Our offensive line played really well and Lapsey is able to get into space and he's hard to bring down. He's got some speed to go with it, so he's a pretty dangerous player," Allen said. "(Brunk) was poised in the pocket and I think he feels most comfortable behind our offensive line and fullback Garrett Brammer, who's really an extension of our line. He's able to get things under control and lead us where we need to go. He's done a great job for us and has been an excellent leader."
The Indians just kept rolling in the third quarter starting at 9:06 with another trip to the endzone by Lapsey on second down and three followed by an interception by Riney on a fourth down and 17 at 4:41. Because he returned that pick to the Thunderbird's 26-yard line, Brunk was able to post Clark County's final touchdown on a four-yard jaunt on third-and-goal at 2:27 to take its largest advantage of the game at 33-0.
Things began to look up for North Callaway at :34 when Thomsen connected with Dawson Wright on a 21-yard pass on fourth down and six at its own 33-yard line. While Brunk did intercept the ball for Clark County on the opening play of the fourth, fast forward to 7:37 and Reno broke free for the Thunderbird's lone touchdown on first down and goal from the four yard line.
"Reno is a phenomenal player. Really hard to tackle. He proved that today and North Callaway proved that its run game is solid," said Allen. "Their guys up front make holes for him and their fullbacks work hard to spring him from the linebackers. We knew we were going to have to get off of blocks, fight hard and tackle Reno low. He's a really strong kid. I don't know if he was 100 pecent today. It looked like he might have been a little bit banged up. You can tell by watching him play how strong he is."
North Callaway ended the season with a record of 11-2 overall. The Indians, 9-4 overall, next play at home on Nov. 18 at 2 p.m. against Lafayette, which defeated Holden 34-14 to qualify for this class 2 semifinals contest.
"We have to clean up our offense. In the first quarter we weren't executing like we have been," Allen said. "Then, in the second quarter e had that fumble. That stuff has to get cleaned up in order for us to be effective and productive as we can be."