The Richmond Spartans built a 23-14 advantage early in the third quarter and held on for a 23-21 victory over the two-time defending Class 3 state champion Cassville Wildcats at Tom Adams Field in Richmond on Saturday afternoon.
Cassville, the team that had only trailed for one series all season, led this game for exactly 20 seconds. In a contest between two evenly matched teams, Richmond took advantage of Wildcat miscues and made its own breaks when necessary to squeeze out the win and earn a berth in the state championship game at the Dome on Friday.
Keys to the game
* Cassville committed four turnovers in the game, three in the second half.
* The Richmond defense limited Cassville to 290 yards of total offense. The Wildcats rushed for 130 yards on 35 carries, gaining only 37 yards on the ground in the second half.
* Richmond took Ricky Nichols away from the Cassville running game. The Wildcat junior has carried the offense at times this year with his legs, and one of the keys to victory for the Spartans was containing the Cassville quarterback. Even though Nichols ran for an eight-yard touchdown on his first carry of the game, he finished with only 14 yards on eight carries.
* Gabe Vandiver, Richmond's tailback, rushed for 244 yards on 30 carries and scored twice against the Cassville defense.
* Trenton Tanner's fierce play kept the Wildcats in the game. The senior ran for 122 yards on 30 carries and scored a touchdown, caught a pass for another 20 yards, returned a punt and three kickoffs for another 91 yards and terrorized the Richmond offense all afternoon.
* Colby Bowles, Richmond's quarterback, hit Kane Southwick with a 60-yard bomb for a touchdown, rushed for 56 yards and finished the game despite being forced to the sideline twice with injuries.
* Both teams were affected by injuries. Cassville was without the services of running back Garrett Kirk again, while Richmond's all-conference running back Landon Walker missed the game with a separated shoulder.
The Spartans won the toss and elected to receive then drove 68 yards in six plays as Vandiver sprinted through the Cassville secondary on a 41-yard scoring run with 9:19 left in the quarter. Dial's kick gave Richmond a 7-0 lead.
The Wildcats answered, completing a 75-yard drive in 13 plays, with Nichols hurdling into the end zone from eight yards out with 3:43 on the clock. Garrett Barnes, who scored Cassville's only first quarter points last week with a 42-yard field goal, connected on the PAT to tie the game at 7-7.
Vandiver returned Barnes' angled kickoff out to the Richmond 22-yard line.
Bowles led the Spartans on another long drive, earning a first down at the Cassville 11-yard line. On the first play of the second quarter, Bowles threw incomplete on third down and then Dial nailed the 32-yard field goal to give Richmond a 10-7 lead.
Tanner returned Dial's kickoff out to the 33-yard line, and the Wildcats drove into Richmond territory. The Wildcats' drive stalled, and Vandiver fair caught the Stone Phelps punt at the Richmond 14-yard line.
Bowles threw incomplete on first down and then was sacked by the blitzing Tanner on the following down. An unsportsmanlike penalty on the Richmond bench set up third-and-forever back at the 11-yard line. Vandiver skipped for 16 yards on a safe draw play. His punt was returned to the Cassville 43-yard line by Trey Rose.
Tanner was thrown for a loss on first down, and a holding penalty cost Cassville more real estate on the following snap. Nichols handed to Tanner on the draw, and the senior picked up 15 yards to the 45-yard line.
Josh Lewright hauled in a screen pass from Nichols, found running room down the sideline and roared into the end zone. Barnes supplied the PAT, and the Wildcats led for the first time. The Wildcat Nation -- estimated at 1,700 to 2,000 strong by the Richmond radio announcers -- roared its approval.
Phelps dumped a little squib kick into Richmond territory to keep the ball away from the dangerous Vandiver, and the Spartans started at their own 41-yard line with less than 6:00 on the second quarter clock.
Vandiver was dumped for a one-yard loss by Lewright to start the possession. On second down, Bowles took the shotgun snap and tossed a rainbow to Kane Southwick behind the Cassville secondary. The senior wideout raced into the end zone to reclaim the lead for Richmond. Dial's kick was blocked, but the Spartans were back on top with a 16-14 advantage.
The teams traded three-and-outs with both Nichols and Bowles throwing incomplete on third-and-long situations. Tanner hauled in a Vandiver punt at his own five-yard line and returned it 43 yards to give Cassville exceptional field position with 3:04 left before halftime.
The 'Cats drove past midfield to the 40-yard line, but a Nichols lob for Lewright was picked off by Richmond's Tevin Robinson at the Spartans' 12-yard line to dash the scoring threat. The Spartans led at halftime, 16-14.
The second-half kickoff set the tone for the rest of the game. Dial's squib kick ricocheted off a Cassville player, and the kicker himself covered the loose ball at the Richmond 48-yard line. The Spartans then covered the 52-yard short field with a grinding 12-play drive, punctuated by Vandiver's six-yard scoring run up the middle. Dial's kick gave the Spartans a two-score lead at 23-14.
The Richmond drive drained 4:54 off the clock, and the Wildcats took the field with a sense of urgency after Rose covered the kickoff at the Cassville 35-yard line.
Nichols led the Wildcats on an eight-play scoring drive to answer the Richmond touchdown. Another effective screen pass to Lewright supplied the boost, as the 28-yard completion moved the ball into the red zone. On second-and-goal at the one-yard line, Tanner vaulted over the line for the score, and Barnes pulled the 'Cats within a deuce at 23-21.
Southwick slipped to a knee fielding the kickoff, and the Spartans' possession began at their own five-yard line. On third-and-three, Adam Prier blew up the Richmond draw play and threw Vandiver for a two-yard loss. Rose fielded the punt and went down at the Richmond 36-yard line with 2:46 to play in the third period.
Zach Vititoe bulled for nine yards on first down, but a fumbled snap gave Richmond possession at the 28-yard line.
The Spartans drove to the Cassville 35-yard line as the quarter ended. On third and seven at the Cassville 32-yard line, Bowles threw over the middle and was intercepted by Devin Linenbrink. The Wildcat linebacker raced up the sideline in front of the home bench and was finally tackled at the Richmond 26-yard line.
Nichols kept for no gain on first down. And on a second and 10 dive play, the Spartans recovered Cassville's third turnover at their own 20-yard line.
Richmond moved the chains twice with Vandiver racing for 22 yards on a third-and-19 draw, and the Spartans had a first down at their own 47-yard line. On fourth-and-3 on Cassville's side of the 50, Bowles' quick kick barely reached the end zone.
The Wildcats started the most critical drive of their season at their own 20-yard line with 3:03 left in the game. Nichols threw five completions as he marched his team deep into Richmond territory with Tanner picking up 20 yards on one screen pass.
On first down at the Richmond 23-yard line, the Wildcats lost two yards. Nichols rifled a quick out to Lewright on second down for a seven-yard gain. The clock showed 1:40 to play. A third-down draw saw Tanner gain only a couple, and Cassville's David Large called a timeout.
Trailing by 23-21, Cassville had decisions to make. Large rolled the dice and opted to go for the first down. Nichols kept left on the option play and was stopped by Richmond's Reny Reis short of the marker.
Vandiver broke loose for 33 yards as the Cassville defenders tried to strip the ball on first down, and then Bowles executed three consecutive kneeldowns to end the contest.
The district and Big 8 Conference champion Cassville Wildcats ended their season with a 13-1 record and set a school record with 27 consecutive wins.
Richmond (14-0) moves on to play against John Burroughs (14-0) in the Show-Me Bowl Class 3 championship game. John Burroughs nipped Bowling Green 17-14 with a late touchdown in the Class 3 east bracket semifinal.