It was a cold night last Friday when the Mexico varsity football team hosted Southern Boone in the district semifinals.
Very cold. So cold, in fact, that when the Bulldogs found themselves down 31-21 after the Eagles Cooper Mange ran left for a touchdown with 7:39 remaining in the fourth quarter, the end of the road seemed closer than it had all season long.
So, when quarterback Jonathon Grubb hit Cameron Holman with a 63-yard scoring strike at 6:05 to close the gap to 31-27 after a missed extra point, it didn't take Mexico's fans long to see what was coming. In fact, that big break came on the very next play when Southern Boone wasn't able to hold on to the ensuing kickoff and instead fumbled at it's own 21 yard line.
One pitch to the left later and Holman was once again in the endzone. That gave the Bulldogs a 33-31 advantage at 5:53 after another missed PAT, and after several close calls in both directions, that's how it ended.
"(Southern Boone) thought were were going to kick the ball onsides, but instead we pooched it like we had been all game long. When it bounced and their guy kind of fumbled it, we recovered it. It was a good play for us," Mexico head coach Steve Haag said. "That might be the difference in the game. Both teams made mistakes. It was just about who made more plays. We may have made one or two more plays than they did and came out on top."
Mexico's initial score came at 4:45 of the first quarter on a pitch to the right to Holman on third down and eight. Shortly there after at 3:06 the Eagles responded with a 21-yard scoring sprint by Jackson Sartian, only to then witness Dillon Nichols breaking free for a 40-yard touchdown run at 1:49 to put the Bulldogs up 14-7.
"Holman did a great job. He's our playmaker. We see that every week," said Haag. "He loves to make plays and we love to watch him make plays. He does a lot, playing both sides of the ball and all special teams. That's why he's an All-Conference player and will probably be an All-Diistrict player later on. Hopefully he'll eventually get All-State recognition, and that's what you expect from that type of player. They make plays for you."
At the start of the second Mexico was once again knocking on the door with a first and 10 at the Eagles 18 yard line. When that drive sputtered into a fourth and four and then turned into a fourth and nine because of a false start penalty, the Bulldogs changed strategies and sent out the field goal team, which missed at 9:57 to keep Southern Boone trailing by seven.
What that led to was a six-yard scoring jaunt by the Eagles Tristan John at 5:45 that tied the score at 14-14. Mexico, in turn, made another threat to reach the endzone that quickly morphed into a fourth and goal at the five yard line with 1:04 left in the first half, and while Grubbs pass to Nichols was true, he simply couldn't pull it in.
"I'm sure (Grubb) is upset and I'm sure I'm going to get on him tomorrow when we watch film, but he was trying to make a play," Haag said. "That's just kids playing hard. We've got to clean that up and be a little bit smarter."
The third quarter didn't really get rolling until 6:25 when the Bulldogs held on a fourth and one at their own 17 yard line. When the next play proved to be a three-yard loss for Mexico, Tyler Tally decided to break wide on second down and didn't stop until he had run 86 yards to put his team back in the drivers seat 21-14.
"I just wanted to do the best for my team. I knew we had to play our game, and we did," said Tally. "(Moving forward), if we're tight with our pass coverage, we'll be fine."
Southern Boone response to all of this was to hit a field goal at 2:48 to make it a four-point game. When Jasean White then returned the ensuing kickoff inside the Eagles 10-yard line, the fans weren't shy about showing their displeasure that the play was allowed to reach its conclusion before the officials ruled that, because the possession began in the endzone, it was Mexico's ball at its own 20-yard line.
"We just had to step up and finish in order to earn this win. I'm feeling a lot of pride right now. We're all very happy," said Mexico defensive back Avion Williams, who teamed up with Tally to chart an important sack late in the game. "The team stepped up. We did have a bad practice on Tuesday, but Wednesday went well and we worked pretty hard on Thursday. That helped us get this close victory."
The final session didn't start out well for the Bulldogs because Holman was tackled deep in his own territory trying to get the punt off on a fourth down and three that gave Southern Boone the ball at Mexico's 22-yard line at 11:39. The Eagles then gained 11 yards on the next play before quarterback Sam Stichnote ran up the middle for another 11 yards to claim a 24-21 advantage at 10:20.
"Southern Boone has a good scheme. They ran a lot of good counter plays that were really messing us up," said Haag. "They pulled their guards and tackles and their running backs ran hard. We just weren't doing our job filling the holes. Eventually we did that and it forced them to pass. That's when things got a little bit better for us because I don't think they throw the ball as well as they run it."
While this game was so cold even Southern Boone went directly from the handshake to the team bus with no stops in between, the Bulldogs now advance to the Class 3, District 6, championship game this Friday at Blair Oaks, 11-0 overall.