The Cassville Wildcats went on the road and handed the Indians only their second loss of the season and captured the Big 8 Conference championship and the Class 3 District 11 crown with a 35-21 victory on Thursday night. The Wildcats earned a home berth in the sectional round of playoffs and will host Pleasant Hill at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 3.
David Large's club capped an undefeated regular season with the win and ran their undefeated streak to 24, a record for Big 8 Conference schools. But it wasn't easy.
Cassville was playing without the services of defensive back Chris Smith and running back Kyle Brattin for another week. Brattin was actually in uniform and was playing catch with Ricky Nichols at halftime during the warmup session but did not see any action.
Seneca, the #5 school in the most recent Class 3 state rankings, gave the top-ranked Wildcats all they could handle in the first two quarters.
Cassville took the opening kickoff and drove 70 yards in six plays with Ricky Nichols keeping off right tackle for a touchdown with 10:11 on the first quarter clock. Garrett Barnes added the PAT for the early 7-0 lead.
On the second snap from scrimmage, Nichols was decked in the backfield on a slow-developing screen play and was slow to get up. But the junior signal caller shook off the cobwebs and marched his team down for the score.
The vaunted Cassville defense held the Indians to a three and out on their first possession, and the Wildcats started again from their own 40-yard line.
Nine plays later, Cassville faced a third and two at the Seneca four-yard line. The Wildcats fumbled in the pile, and the Indians recovered to keep the deficit at only 7-0.
The turnover gave Seneca new life, and momentum swung in favor of the home team. Jacob Rhodes led his team on a 12-play drive that ate up the final 3:53 of the first quarter and the first 1:38 of the second quarter. Although the Indians were finally forced to punt, the Marcus Carruthers kick died at the Cassville 19-yard line, effectively flipping the field position.
The Wildcats earned one first down but then Stone Phelps punted away on fourth and three, and Eric Esposito executed the fair catch at the Seneca 27-yard line.
On the following possession, Seneca saddled up their big horse and rode him home. Senior running back Allen Frost carried five times on a 73-yard, seven-play drive that was aided by a facemask penalty, and his 12-yard touchdown run at the 5:35 mark of the second quarter pulled the Indians within a point. Thad Foley supplied the PAT to tie the score at 7-7.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we've got a ballgame," boomed the Seneca public address announcer.
Trenton Tanner bolted out to the Cassville 46-yard line with Foley's kickoff and the Wildcats went back to work.
The Cassville offense bewildered the Indians with a variety of misdirection and counter plays throughout the first half. Nichols executed his reads with finesse as Tanner and Kirk found running room outside.
For their part, the Indians were focused on preventing the big play. Josh Lewright found himself double-teamed all over the field and caught only one pass for 10 yards in the first half. With Lewright commanding so much attention, the Wildcats were forced to run the ball even more than usual. While there were no long gashes for touchdowns, Cassville knicked Seneca again and again with short gainers.
Nichols directed the Cassville offense 54 yards in eight plays, taking just 3:16 off the clock. The only play of the drive that accounted for over 10 yards was Tanner's 14-yard sprint draw into the endzone. Barnes converted again, and Cassville led 14-7 with halftime in sight.
One of Cassville's few weaknesses this season has been kick coverage. That flaw bit them in a big way as Barnes kicked off and Esposito broke down the sideline all the way to the Wildcat 40-yard stripe.
With the Wildcats keying on Rhoades and Frost, Seneca unveiled a sneaky counter play. Marty Mailes took a direct snap and streaked 33 yards to the Cassville seven-yard line. As the clock wound down, Seneca ran three dive plays to reach the Cassville one-yard line, and the Indians called their final timeout with just four seconds remaining in the half.
On fourth and goal, Frost hurdled into the line and was met head on by the Cassville linebacking crew. Frost flipped head over heels and broke the plane of the goal line for the touchdown. Foley's true kick tied the score at 14-14, and cell towers across the state lit up as word of the halftime score spread.
On this first really cold night of the 2010 football season, the third quarter action heated up in a hurry. Seneca's Mailes bobbled the kickoff, and the Indians started with poor field position at their own 15-yard line. Rhoades escaped for a first down on third and four from the 21, but the Wildcats stiffened. Rhoades' pass for Frost on third and 11 sailed incomplete, and Carruthers punted away.
Trey Rose settled under the kick at the Cassville 39-yard line and charged up the field, finally going down at the Seneca 32-yard line.
The Wildcats converted in just four plays, continuing a season-long propensity for scoring on their first possession of the second half.
"Cassville football, second and twp at the Seneca 10-yard line. Nichols calls signals from the I, he hands to Vititoe off left tackle, he's got a crease, Touchdown, Cassville."
Barnes converted again, and Cassville owned a 21-14 lead with 7:38 on the third quarter clock.
Esposito hauled in the kickoff at the Seneca 20-yard line, but his momentum carried him out of bounds at that spot. Frost pounded off left tackle for a first down on second and six, but a holding call set up first and 24 back at the Seneca 16-yard line. A short run and two incompletions later, Carruthers launched a punt that died at the Cassville 37-yard line with 4:52 left in the third period.
Nichols then led the Wildcats on a signature drive to take control of the ballgame. Tanner swept around left end for a dozen yards before stepping on the sideline chalk just short of midfield. Lewright took an inside handoff from Nichols in the pistol formation and slashed for another first down at the Seneca 41-yard line. Then Nichols kept outside on the option for a slick 22-yard run and was rewarded with 10 more yards when the Indians were flagged for an illegal hit.
"Cassville football, second and goal at the Seneca six-yard line, Nichols keeps right on the option, there's a late pitch to Tanner, he slides just inside the pylon. Touchdown, Cassville."
Barnes scored for the fourth time in the game, and the Wildcats led 28-14 with 3:32 to play in the third quarter.
The Indians started at their own 27-yard line following the kickoff, desperately needing a score to get back in the contest. Rhoades and Frost carried Seneca down the field, gaining three first downs on a drive that stretched into the fourth quarter. But on fourth and 11 at the Cassville 29-yard line, the defense flushed Rhoades out of the pocket, and Devon Linenbrink and Stanton Stringer hauled him down short of first-down yardage.
The Cassville offense responded with a 13-play, 74-yard scoring drive to ice the game. Nichols ran the play clock down on every snap, bleeding the clock and Seneca's faint hopes with it. Kirk knifed into the end zone from three yards out to complete a drive that erased 6:18 off the fourth quarter clock. Barnes converted again for the 35-14 lead.
Seneca started its final possession at its own 22-yard line with less than two and a half minutes to play. Rhoades, who had completed only three of his seven previous passes in the game for 11 yards, hit seven of nine attempts on the final drive, adding 71 yards to his resume as the Indians reached the Cassville one-yard line.
Rhoades sneaked in for the touchdown with just four seconds remaining in the game. Cassville was only too happy to take the 35-21 final to the dressing room.
"They were a great team," Cassville's David Large said of Seneca.
The Wildcats (10-0) move on to play Pleasant Hill (4-6), the District 12 runnerup, at Cassville on Wednesday night. Seneca (8-2) must travel to play at Holden (6-4).