By Lee Stubblefield
The Cassville Wildcats overcame an early 6-0 deficit and fought to a 20-6 victory over Logan-Rogersville in their Class 3 quarterfinals game at Cassville on Saturday. It marked the third-consecutive year that Cassville has faced -- and beaten -- the maroon Wildcats in the playoffs.
Last year's epic struggle at Rogersville earned superlatives from both sides with many in attendance calling it "the best high school football game I ever saw." After losing a 21-20 heartbreaker to the eventual state champions, Rogersville graduated a host of players and was not expected to advance in this year's postseason.
But a stout defense and the power running of Dylan Cole kept Doug Smith's team in contention. His team lost only twice during the regular season, dropping games to state-ranked Springfield Catholic and to Class 4 Bolivar. A late season switch at the quarterback position gave the Rogersville offense a more diversified attack and led to the first-round playoff upset of Springfield Catholic.
Cassville, riding a 27-game winning streak, returned from their playoff victory over Holden to play a final home contest. The main concern for the home 'Cats was the growing injury list. Just when starting tailback Kyle Brattin returned to the active list, Cassville lost speedster Garrett Kirk for the Rogersville game.
The weather also promised to play a role in the game. A cold front overran southwest Missouri overnight, greeting the teams and fans with temps in the mid to upper 30s on Saturday morning. A stiff northwest wind threatened the kicking and passing games as well.
Cassville's diehard fans shrugged off the weather and showed up early for a 40-acre tailgate party. When the gates opened, the home stands filled in less than four minutes.
Rogersville won the toss and deferred. Cassville elected to receive at the south end, saving the wind advantage for the second quarter. The strategy had no effect on the initial drive as the black-clad Wildcats struggled to a three-and-out. Stone Phelps punted down to the Rogersville 23-yard line with 11:04 on the first quarter clock.
The maroon-clad visitors mounted a nine-play drive that reached the Cassville 38-yard line and ate over four minutes of the first quarter. On third and 11, Trey Rose snatched a tipped pass and returned it almost to the original line of scrimmage. But then on first down, Cassville fumbled the ball right back to Rogersville.
From there, Rogersville ground out 39 yards in eight plays, scoring on an 8-yard swing pass from Evan Gruener to intimidating tailback, Dylan Cole. The maroon 'Cats tried a trick play out of kick formation, but Josh Lewright tackled Brandon Scroggins short of the goal line to keep the score at 6-0.
With 3:26 remaining in the opening quarter, Cassville trailed for the first time since an early 7-0 hole against Bowling Green in the 2009 Class 3 championship game.
With the overflowing home crowd roaring in approval, the black and gold 'Cats answered. Rose returned Derrion Donson's kickoff out to the 29-yard line, and the Cassville offense went to work.
On the very first play of the drive, Ricky Nichols ran the option off left tackle. He broke one tackle to reach the sideline, skipped away from another and raced down to the Rogersville 12-yard line before the pursuit caught him. Trenton Tanner gained six yards on two carries to set up third and four at the 6-yard line.
With split backs behind him, Nichols reprised the option left and scored to tie the game with 2:18 still remaining in the quarter. But the relentless west wind pushed Garrett Barnes' PAT wide right, and the score remained tied at 6-6.
Rogersville gained one first down as the teams traded ends, and Jesse Underwood punted from his own 49-yard line. Rose returned the ball for only two yards, and Cassville started its first drive of the second quarter at its own 23-yard line.
Operating his team from a dizzying variety of offensive sets, Nichols drove the Wildcats 77 yards in 16 plays, and Tanner rolled into the end zone from eight yards out to extend the lead to 12-6. Phelps nailed the PAT, and Cassville held a 13-6 advantage with 4:52 to play before halftime.
Logan-Rogersville wasn't done. After the teams traded three-and-outs, the maroon 'Cats started at their own 26-yard line with 1:54 to play before intermission.
On second and nine at the 27-yard line, Cole swept around left end, only to find himself cornered by the Cassville defense. He reversed field, cutting back to the hashmark,and then reversed again to find running room outside. Forty yards later, Cole finally went down at the Cassville 33-yard line. The officials marked the ball at the Cassville 18-yard line after walking off 15 more yards for a horse collar tackle.
A first down pass to Brock Buzbee moved the ball down to the 14-yard line, but Gruener threw incomplete on second and third downs. On 4th and 6, with time running out in the half, Gruener's pass was batted away by big Garrett Mahurin.
The teams adjourned at halftime with Cassville holding a 13-6 lead.
Rogersville took the field for the third quarter fight and came out swinging. Starting from their own 20-yard stripe, the maroon 'Cats wore out the Cassville defense with a balanced and varied attack. Cole and Joe Zimmer crashed the line often, and Gruener completed timely throws to keep the drive alive. Twice, Gruener's third-down passes found his receivers to move the chains against Lance Parnell's defense.
On the 13th play of the drive, Cole bulldozed off right tackle to establish a first and goal situation at the Cassville 9-yard line. Zimmer gained two yards on two carries, and Rogersville faced third and goal at the 7-yard line.
Devin Linenbrink broke through the Rogersville protection on the critical pass play and smothered Gruener for a loss of 12 yards, all the way back to the 19-yard line.
It was too far for Rogersville's placekicker and no one punts inside the 20-yard line. No one doubted that Rogersville would go for the score on fourth down. Under heavy pressure, Gruener threw a prayer into the back corner of the end zone that barely eluded the grasp of Zimmer.
Rogersville came up empty after driving 73 yards and taking 8:29 off the 3rd-quarter clock, and Cassville took over on downs at the 19-yard line.
The home Wildcats responded with a 10-play drive that stretched into the fourth quarter. Just like the Holden game, Cassville slowly found superiority on the edge. Nichols and Tanner tested the corners often, and Lewright found success running an inside counter play against the over-pursuing Rogersville defense.
"Cassville football, second and nine at the Rogersville 24-yard line. Nichols takes the snap, fakes a handoff, he's got Bo Blisard wide open at the goal line, TOUCHDOWN, CASSVILLE!"
Blisard ran free through the secondary on a simple skinny post route, and Nichols delivered his best throw of the playoffs as Cassville opened a 19-6 lead. Phelps added the PAT to create a 20-6 score with 11:22 remaining in the contest.
Rogersville would not threaten again. Cassville would, twice.
After driving 75 yards in nine plays while burning most of the fourth quarter clock, Cassville was denied at the Rogersville 3-yard line when Lewright was tackled shy of the end zone on fourth down. The Wildcats fumbled away another opportunity to increase their lead when the visiting 'Cats failed to convert on fourth and five at their own 7-yard line in the closing minutes.
Linenbrink slammed the door on the final Rogersville possession, intercepting Gruener at the 46-yard line. Cassville ran out the clock, and the Wildcat Nation celebrated a satisfying home playoff victory.
Cassville outgained Rogersville 348-226 in the contest. Nichols rushed for 117 yards on 17 carries and a touchdown and completed two of his five passes for 32 yards, including the 24-yard scoring strike to Blisard.
Tanner gained 103 yards on 21 carries and scored a touchdown. As a team, Cassville rushed for 316 yards on 55 carries, averaging 5.75 yards per carry behind their impressive offensive line. The Wildcats lost two fumbles in the contest.
Rogersville gained 137 yards on the ground on 32 carries. Eighteen of Rogersville's rushing attempts gained two yards or less against Cassville's dominating defense. Evan Gruener completed eight of his 26 pass attempts for 89 yards and was intercepted twice.
Cassville, now 13-0 on the season, will go on the road once more to try to earn a third-straight trip to play in the Show Me Bowl in St. Louis. The top-ranked Wildcats will play at Richmond on Saturday. The undefeated and second-ranked Spartans advanced into the semifinals with a 49-14 win over O'Hara.