"They came out and jumped all over us," was Cassville Head Coach David Large's assessment immediately following the contest.
Branson, which handed the Wildcats a season-opening loss last season, capitalized on turnovers, exploited weaknesses and displayed shocking speed in steamrolling the defending Class 3 state champions.
Just a few hours earlier, the Cassville crowd had started arriving well before kickoff, and not even overcast skies and an intermittent drizzle could dampen the enthusiasm of the Wildcat supporters. A hint of smoke drifted across the parking lots as seasoned tailgaters welcomed another season of Cassville High School football.
But Branson won the coin toss and proceeded to dominate the first half. Following Mahoney's early score, the teams traded punts and then Cassville surrendered the ball on downs at the Branson 40-yard line.
On third and eight, Pirate quarterback Cameron Chancey found Michael Spain with a long pass to the Wildcat 19 for the initial first down of the game for the visitors. Chancey rolled right and scored on a nifty bootleg, and Mahoney's PAT gave Branson a 14-0 lead with less than a minute remaining in the quarter.
Cassville hurried through three downs to reach fourth and 15 as the quarter ended. Tee Helsel fielded Travis Northern's punt at the Branson 42 and scampered across midfield to the Cassville 45 before being tackled.
Chancey led the Pirates on a seven-play drive to the end zone, flipping a four-yard slant to Mahoney for the touchdown. Mahoney added the PAT for a shocking 21-0 lead with 9:42 on the scoreboard clock.
There was no panic on the home side of the field. Not on the sideline, nor in the stands. If anything, there was a touch of impatience in the crowd, with a growing murmur indicating they were ready for some fireworks.
The explosion came immediately.
After nailing his first three kickoffs through the endzone for automatic touchbacks, Mahoney's kick went to Joseph Gouvion at the five. The Wildcat return specialist fumbled the ball, recovered and set sail for the right sideline. The Branson coverage unit had lost containment when they saw the ball on the ground, and Gouvion gained first the corner and then the endzone to put Cassville on the scoreboard. Matt Angel added the PAT, and the lead was cut to 21-7.
With the home crowd on its collective feet, Northern kicked off. With an effort as unscripted as a winning lottery pick, Branson's Malachi Daniels equaled Gouvion's feat, going the distance for the fourth Pirate touchdown of the first half. Mahoney's kick made it a 28-7 game. Three touchdowns had been recorded while only 28 seconds ticked off the game clock.
Trevor Tanner returned Mahoney's kickoff all the way out to the 36-yard line to give Cassville decent field position, but the 'Cats failed to move the chains. Taking over at their own 42 after a Northern punt, the Pirates moved 58 yards in only five plays, and Helsel scored from 35 yards out on a wraparound draw at the 6:05 mark of the second quarter. Mahoney booted the 35th point through the uprights.
Cassville lost a yard on the ensuing set of downs, and Branson marched deep into Cassville territory again, but Mahoney's 24-yard field goal attempt missed wide right.
With less than two minutes to play in the half, Cassville quarterback Josh Lewright finally got the offense untracked and led his team to the Branson 32-yard line, as Northern's circus catch set up the Wildcats inside the Branson 40. But Chase Shields intercepted a Lewright pass to stifle the scoring threat.
A somber mood filled the stadium during the halftime break. Branson was unexpectedly fast, and the Pirates were simply more physical than the host team, an issue that Coach Large emphasized as a point of concern after the game.
"We're going to have to make some changes," he said in retrospect. "We've got to get tougher and get more physical."
In the third quarter, the Wildcats used locker room adjustments and sheer mettle to gain momentum. The Pirates received to start the period, and Trevor Shumaker picked off a Chancey pass at midfield on Branson's very first second-half play.
The 'Cats could not score, but Northern nailed a punt out of bounds at the Branson 5 yard stripe.
The visitors managed one first down but then turned the ball over again with Cassville recovering a loose ball at the Branson 20. The Wildcats overcame two penalties to post their second touchdown, with Lewright throwing a perfect fade to Northern in the left corner of the endzone on a critical fourth and goal situation. Angel's PAT attempt veered wide, and the score stood at 35-13 with four minutes to play in the third quarter.
Neither team could score again as the game moved into the final period. Branson was content to stick to its power running game and milk the clock, and Cassville was inconsistent through the air when it needed quick strikes. With less than five minutes to play, the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs, failing to convert on fourth and 2 at their own 37.
The Pirates methodically ran the ball down the field on an eight-play drive that featured fullback Isaac Johnston. Tee Helsel scored the touchdown, bursting over left tackle for the final 10 yards. Mahoney booted his sixth PAT of the game to reach the final score of 42-13 with just over two minutes remaining.
The Pirates rolled up 366 yards of total offense with 266 coming from an efficient ground game. Helsel led all rushers with 105 yards.
Cassville managed 189 total yards with 144 of those on the ground. Joseph Gouvion ran for 60 yards on 15 carries to lead the Wildcats.
On defense, Devin Linenbrink, Lewright, Garrett Mahurin, Trey Rose and Chris Smith each recorded five tackles. Shumaker also had a good night with three tackles and one interception, and Bobby Joe Hartin tallied four unassisted tackles.
Mahoney was easily Branson's most outstanding player. His booming kickoffs pinned Cassville deep on several occasions, he connected on all six PAT attempts, contributed and scored on offense, scored the game's first TD with a fumble return and even sacked Lewright on a defensive blitz.
Joseph Gouvion is the Cassville Democrat Wildcat Player of the Game for his gutsy rushing performance and his exciting 95-yard kickoff return for Cassville's first touchdown of the season.
Cassville goes on the road next Friday, Sept. 4 for a Big 8 Conference tilt at Mt. Vernon. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Other photos of the Aug. 28 game are available in our Sept. 2 print edition.