Going into Saturday's game, both the Cassville and Rogersville fans felt strongly that this was the state championship game. The 2009 season came down to this: two evenly matched teams, both 11-1 with their only loss to a Class 4 school and both considered prime candidates to win a state title, meeting in the quarterfinals for a second straight year.
In the 2008 quarterfinals, Cassville defeated visiting Rogersville handily, 26-14. Did anyone really believe that revenge played no part in the pregame motivation for the maroon-clad Wildcats? Even the Rogersville cheerleaders led the team onto the field with a banner proclaiming, "This year, it's OUR turn!'
The 21-20 outcome was a bitter pill for Rogersville to swallow.
Rogersville watched Matt Angel's opening kickoff sail into the endzone for a touchback and then Colton Dill led his team on an 80-yard, 14-play scoring drive that consumed 6:54 of the first quarter clock. Grant Clouse scored the game's first points on a short run, and Gabe Zapata's PAT gave the home team a 7-0 lead.
Cassville answered with a long drive, moving 64 yards in 12 plays to set up fourth and 1 at the Rogersville 16-yard line. The Cassville coaching staff eschewed the field goal possibility and kept the offense on the field. Joseph Gouvion lost a yard on the attempt to advance the chains, and Rogersville took over on downs, still leading 7-0 as the quarter expired.
The Cassville defense gained in efficiency and confidence as the game progressed. Rogersville would not penetrate the Cassville 40-yard stripe again in the first half. The black-and-gold Wildcat offense sputtered for most of two quarters. The Rogersville defense was clearly the best team Cassville had faced all year. There were no gaping holes to run through, no big plays and no continuity of drives.
Zapata kicked out of bounds at the Cassville 30 with 2:42 to play in the first half, and suddenly the visitors came to life. Running from a split back set for the first time in the contest, Cassville ground out a quick first down at its own 41. On second and eight, Trevor Tanner lined up in shotgun formation with an empty backfield and executed the quarterback draw for an 18-yard gain down to the Rogersville 31.
Gouvion scooted out of bounds at the 21 with a dump pass for another first down as the clock eroded. Tanner threw incomplete on the next play, but on second down found Ricky Nichols running a skinny post route deep in the secondary. Nichols caught the ball in traffic and went down in a heap just short of the goal line.
The 'Cats hurried to the line, and Gouvion crashed into the end zone with 25 ticks left before halftime. Angel pumped the PAT through the uprights to tie the score at 7-7.
The touchdown, while it only tied the game, obviously revitalized the Cassville offense. After Josh Lewright returned Zapata's offering out to the 24-yard line to begin the third quarter, the smoldering fuse to the big play offense suddenly caught fire.
Three plays yielded a first down at the 34.
"Cassville lines up in the power I behind Tanner, he fakes the inside handoff, and throws long for Lewright. He's got it behind the safety at the 30, cuts left toward the flag to elude the tackler, touchdown, Cassville!"
Boom! Silence replaced the cacophony of the cow bells in the home bleachers in an instant. Rogersville had not trailed in the second half of a contest since losing to Bolivar, 20-17, in week three of the season.
Angel's second PAT of the game upped the unanswered point total to 14.
The teams traded three-and-outs, and Travis Northern pinned Rogersville deep with a punt that skipped out of bounds at the 5. Colton Dill grabbed his helmet and went to work.
"Our game plan was to not let him (Dill) beat us with his legs," recalled Cassville's David Large after the game. That was assuming he didn't beat you with his arm.
Dill threw to Ben White for 20 yards to start the drive and escaped the shadow of his own goal posts. The quarterback then found White open over the middle for 17 more yards, and Rogersville had a first down at its own 36.
Dill scrambled for seven yards and then flipped a second-down pass to Clouse while eluding the pass rush. The runningback turned receiver broke a pair of tackles and escaped down the sideline for a 57-yard score with 5:04 to play in the third quarter.
Zapata tied the score at 14-14 with his PAT.
After holding Cassville without a first down, Rogersville started a long drive following a 36-yard punt from Northern. Dill directed an 11-play, 56-yard drive, which was capped by a 26-yard scoring strike to Sam Zimmer. Rogersville had reclaimed the lead, 20-14, on the second play of the fourth quarter.
Zapata came on for the PAT, but Devin Linenbrink knifed through for a clean kick block.
It was an epiphany for everyone in the stadium: players, coaches, and fans alike. The scenario lit up on the scoreboard was too obvious to miss: a Cassville touchdown and successful kick after would earn a one-point lead.
Gouvion inadvertently slipped to a knee while fielding the kickoff, and Cassville opened the most important drive of the season at its own 14-yard line with 11:18 to play in the ball game.
The Wildcats advanced to their own 32 with a nice mix of power running from the I, and simple line reads by Tanner from the Wildcat formation. A pass interference penalty against Rogersville moved the ball out to the Cassville 47.
Two plays later, Cassville was flagged for holding, to set up second and 13 at the 44-yard line. Gouvion carried twice for 12 yards, and Cassville faced another fourth-and-one situation. This time, Gouvion responded with a two-yard gain for the necessary yardage, rolling over the back of a Rogersville defender to squeeze out a few more precious inches.
Trenton Tanner carried for three yards in a cameo appearance at runningback, and then Gouvion creased the line for seven more and another first down at the Rogersville 32-yard line as the clock reached 5:20.
Three ineffective plays left Cassville staring at fourth and seven at the 29 with only 3:30 left. The 'Cats had to go for the yardage, as there was likely not enough time to punt, hold and drive the field again in the time remaining.
"We kind of rolled the dice there," said Coach Large in describing the fourth-down play call.
"It's fourth down for Cassville with the season on the line on this play. Tanner takes the snap, retreats to the pocket. He pumpfakes and throws long for Travis Northern in the endzone! Pass interference on Rogersville!"
Tanner eluded the rush and pumped toward Northern on the sideline. The Rogersville cornerback bit on the fake, and Northern broke for the end zone on the hitch-and-go route. The safety raced over to cover, but Tanner never hesitated to throw into the double coverage.
"Sometimes you just have to let athletes be athletes," is one of Coach Large's favorite sayings, and it was put to the test on this play.
Tanner put plenty of air under the ball so Northern could run under it, and both defenders panicked and tackled him in the end zone before the pass arrived. The half-the-distance penalty gave Cassville new life with a first down at the Rogersville 14-yard line. The clock showed 3:07.
Lewright crashed into the line for three yards out of the I formation. The 'Cats brought in more blocking power with the wishbone set on the next play, and Lewright ran the power sweep down to the one-yard line. Trenton Tanner sneaked into the end zone on first down, and Cassville had tied the game, 20-20.
Incredibly, Cassville had driven 86 yards to tie the game against the #1 team in the state with a 20-play drive that chewed up 9:24 of the fourth quarter. The kicking team trotted onto the field for the critical extra-point try for the lead. Angel chipped the PAT between the uprights, and Cassville had reclaimed the lead, 21-20.
After Angel buried the kickoff in the end zone for another touchback, 1:54 remained to play in the contest. Dill grabbed his helmet and went to work.
Fighting the clock and the Cassville defense, Dill completed two passes while leading his team to the Cassville 40-yard line. With no time outs remaining, Rogersville spiked the ball to kill the clock with 33 seconds remaining. A six-yard scramble and an incomplete pass on third down stopped the clock with less than nine seconds to play.
The line of scrimmage was the Cassville 34-yard line. The 50-plus yard field goal was out of Zapata's range, and Rogersville had to try the Hail Mary on fourth down. Dill's pass fell incomplete far short of the goal line.
Tanner took a knee in the victory formation, and Cassville improved to 12-1 while earning a berth in the Class 3 semifinals next Saturday.
Rogersville ends the 2009 season with an 11-2 record, after climbing to the #1 ranking during a stellar season.
Large paid tribute to Rogersville, describing them as "very good, very tough." He said in the week leading up to the game, "You'll see a very good football team and a great quarterback, Colton Dill."
"Playing in these kinds of big games last year is an advantage for us," said Large. "Our kids know it's a long game and that one play or one drive doesn't determine the game. I can't give enough credit to the way our kids played. They persevered and found a way to win."
It was truly a great game. There were no turnovers. There were a minimum of penalties, and those few incurred no serious disagreements from the respective benches. Both teams showcased their great defenses, and both offenses performed well at times. It all came down to special teams play.
Angel was perfect on his three PATs. Linenbrink made sure that Gabe Zapata wasn't, and for that, Linenbrink is this week's Cassville Democrat Player of the Game.
The Cassville Wildcats will host O'Hara at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in one Class 3 semifinal. Priory will host Bowling Green in the other semifinal. The winners will advance to play in the Class 3 championship game at 3:15 p.m. on Nov. 28 in the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.