The Cassville Wildcats entered regular season play on Friday night as the unanimous #1 pick in the Missouri AP High School Class 3 football poll. The Wildcats both thanked and rewarded the pollsters, handing the Mountain Grove Panthers their worst home defeat since 2005 in a 40-7 domination to start the 2010 season.
The Wildcats answered a lot of questions in the season opener. Ricky Nickols continued the steady play he showed at the Jamboree. The Cassville offense committed no turnovers, and the kicking game was excellent.
Kyle Brattin scored on a 49-yard burst in the opening period as Cassville jumped to an early 7-0 lead. Nichols found Josh Lewright behind the secondary with a 52-yard bomb early in the second quarter, and then the 'Cats ground out a nine-play, 70-yard drive to establish a 20-0 lead at halftime.
Andrew Cole hauled in a pass from Nickols, broke a tackle and scored from 23 yards out on the first possession of the third quarter to open a 27-0 margin. Then after Trenton Tanner returned a punt to the Mountain Grove 34-yard line, Cassville drove to the one-yard line in four plays. Tanner scored to increase the lead to 34-0.
The Panthers drove 80 yards against the Cassville JV defense and scored with 7:51 left in the fourth quarter to narrow the lead to 34-7. Then Cole Beagle led the Wildcat reserves on a 19-play, 71-yard drive for the game's final score with 3:27 to play. Kyle Dunivant carried on a one-yard plunge as Cassville upped the lead to 40-7.
The loss and the margin of defeat brought a grim reality check to the home side of Wilson Field. Mountain Grove had high hopes for this game.
"This is a big test for us," Coach Steve Ary said in his pregame interview. "Playing someone of this caliber right off the bat, you find out immediately where you're at as a team."
While Ary looked at the contest as a measuring stick, the Panthers were not overawed by the prospect of playing the defending state champions. Mountain Grove played two tough games against top-ranked Logan-Rogersville in 2009, losing 23-6 at home and 21-7 at Rogersville in the Class 3 playoffs. Then Cassville squeezed past Rogersville 21-20 enroute to winning the Class 3 state title.
Mountain Grove expects to win when they play at home. From 2004 to the end of the 2009 season, the Panthers lost only five home games. Two of those came in the state playoffs. The worst margin of defeat at home for the Panthers in that six-year span came in a 25-6 season-opening loss to Branson in 2005.
The Mountain Grove fans rolled into the aluminum home bleachers, and the Wildcat Nation filled the wooden planks across the way. The teams took the field in a loud and exuberant playoff atmosphere.
But when the whistle blew on Friday night, Mountain Grove was blown away by a superior team. The vaunted Cassville defense shredded the Mountain Grove line and forced Shaun Anderson into three costly first-half interceptions. The Panthers managed only six first downs in the entire first half, and three of those came on the final drive of the second quarter. That drive was also the only time Mountain Grove crossed midfield in the first half.
Meanwhile, Cassville's offense capitalized on both turnovers and superior field position to open an early lead. Mountain Grove's Anderson bombed down the left sideline from his own 24, and Lewright intercepted and went down at the Cassville 43-yard line.
Nichols, starting his first varsity game at quarterback for the Wildcats, handed to Tanner, and the senior running back gained eight yards on a sweep.
"Cassville football, second and two at the Mountain Grove 49. Nichols calling signals in the I-formation. Nichols hands to Brattin off right guard, he pops through the line and breaks into the secondary, HE'S GONE! TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
Junior placekicker Garrett Barnes connected on the PAT, and the Wildcats led 7-0 with 5:20 left in the opening quarter. Barnes then nailed a touchback on the ensuing kickoff, and the Panthers started at their own 20.
Garrett Eaton moved the chains for the Panthers with a 16-yard draw on first down. The Panthers tested the line again, and big Adam Prier knocked down workhorse tailback Preston Ary for a one-yard loss. On second and 11 from the 35, Mountain Grove fed Ary on a draw play, and Prier blew up the play in the backfield for a three-yard loss.
The consecutive losses that Prier pinned on the Panthers typified the play of the Cassville defense in the first half. By owning the line of scrimmage, the Wildcats took the running option away from Mountain Grove. More and more, Anderson found himself in the shotgun formation as the Panthers became a single-dimension offense.
The Mountain Grove running game slipped even more when junior tailback Ary was helped off the field in the final minute of the first period. Ary, who has a history of knee injuries, did not return to the contest.
When Nichols hit Lewright in stride for the 52-yard scoring strike in the second quarter, the air went out of the home side of the stadium. To that point, the Mountain Grove defense had played well, and kept their team in the ballgame. But giving up long scores on a twp-play drive, and then a single-play drive demoralized the home team.
Trailing by two scores, the Panthers tried a little trickery. Ary's team lined up in a tight I-formation and ran the same spinner series offense featured by the Lamar Tigers. But Lance Parnell's defense held Mountain Grove to a three-and-out, leading to a Brent Calhoun punt that rolled dead at the Cassville 30-yard line.
A 70-yard scoring drive followed with Tanner skipping out of a tackle and racing in from the nine-yard line. Tanner's TD run was set up by his own 20-yard scamper off right tackle on a wraparound draw that fooled the entire Panther defense. Barnes missed wide with the PAT attempt, but Cassville held a commanding 20-0 lead.
The Panthers mounted a desperate drive as the half wound down, but Trevor Shumaker intercepted Anderson at the Cassville 10-yard line to end the drive.
Mountain Grove had six possessions in the first half. The Panthers punted three times and turned the ball over three times on interceptions. The Wildcats owned the ball five times, scoring three touchdowns and punting twice. Cassville's Stone Phelps kept Mountain Grove pinned deep, booming kicks of 51 and 52 yards on his punts.
Cassville put the game away with the opening drive of the third quarter. After Lewright returned the kickoff out to the 42-yard line, Nichols drove the 'Cats 58 yards in just six plays.
"The Wildcats line up at the Mountain Grove 23 with a second down and nine. Tanner dots the I behind Nichols. Nichols drops a pass to Cole in the left flat, he breaks a tackle, stays in bounds on the left sideline, TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
Mountain Grove went three-and-out on the following series, and Cassville had a short field after Tanner returned the punt to the Panther 34-yard line. Mountain Grove jumped offsides to give the Wildcats the ball at the 29 and then Tanner scored on a one-yard plunge to cap a five-play drive.
Barnes nailed the PAT for a 34-0 score with 5:59 to play in the third period.
Coach David Large substituted liberally after that, and Mountain Grove avoided the shutout with an 80-yard drive against the JV defense. Beagle replaced Nichols at quarterback, and he led the reserve offense 71 yards in 10 plays to establish the final score of 40-7 late in the fourth period.
Mountain Grove drove inside the Cassville 10-yard line in the final minute, but Ricky Healey was swarmed by the Wildcats for a loss of four yards on the game's final play.
"You did what you had to do," Coach Large told his team after the game. "This was a good road win against a good football team."
The Wildcats won every phase of this game: offense, defense and special teams. The kicking teams especially answered the bell, as placekicker Barnes and punter Phelps performed superbly in their varsity roles.
The Cassville Democrat Wildcat Player of the Week is #7, senior Josh Lewright. Lewright recorded an interception and a touchdown in the victory and played a solid game in his various roles.
The Wildcats return to action next Friday night at Branson against a Pirate team that lost its opener to Carthage, 60-28. But Steve Hancock's team has beaten Cassville the past two years, winning 25-14 at Branson in 2008, and taking a 42-13 victory at Cassville last year.