Ricky Nichols ran for three touchdowns and passed for another to lead the Cassville Wildcats to an exciting 28-14 victory over the visiting Branson Pirates on Friday night.
Just as they did against Mountain Grove in the season opener, Cassville stormed to an early 14-0 lead. But Branson fought back to achieve a 14-14 tie before the Wildcats surged to a pair of touchdowns in the late stages of the fourth quarter.
A little shower lacked the power to dampen the enthusiasm of the Wildcat Nation as they awaited the start of the contest between Branson and Cassville at Wildcat Stadium. No longer considered a size mismatch between schools of different classes (Branson is Class 5 while Cassville is Class 3), this football game has grown to one that captures the imagination of southwest Missouri fans.
KY3 in Springfield designated the Cassville-Branson match-up as its focus game of the week, and sportscaster Joe Hickman and weatherman Ron Hearst and their crews broadcast live from Cassville. KY3 also aired a prerecorded piece honoring the history of Wildcat football.
But while Nichols was the man of the hour, Kyle Brattin was "The Beast." After getting knocked out of the game early with a nasty cut inside his mouth, Brattin returned to gain 48 rushing yards in the second half on just four carries. His back-to-back 18 and 16 yard runs set up the Nichols-to-Phelps connection that gave the Wildcats the lead for good.
The Pirates won the opening toss and deferred. Senior kicker Carlos Mena nailed a touchback and the Wildcats started at their own 20-yard line. Brattin tested the line twice, gaining seven yards total.
"Cassville football, third down and three yards to go on their first possession. Nichols is under center, Brattin and Myers are split behind him. Nichols takes the snap, he wheels and runs left on the option . . . he's got a lane down the sideline . . . Nichols gets past the safety and he's gone . . . 73 yards. Touchdown Cassville!"
The Wildcats took a 7-0 lead with barely a minute off the first quarter clock, covering 80 yards in just three plays. Late in the second quarter, Nichols sneaked in from a yard out to give Cassville a 14-0 lead, but the Pirates stormed 89 yards in just four plays. Malachi Daniels scored on a 29-yard run to cut the lead to 14-7 with 3:48 left in the half.
The Pirates seized control of the line of scrimmage and field position during the third quarter. Cassville's defensive line fought to contain Daniels, but Branson enjoyed repeated running success on first down and fashioned an 11-play drive that ended with a punt to the Cassville 24-yard line.
The Wildcats were held to three and out, and Phelps punted back to the Pirates with 2:33 on the third quarter clock. This time, Branson put together a 15-play drive that stretched into the fourth quarter and ended with Isaiah Daniels crashing into the end zone with 7:30 remaining in the contest. Mena's PAT tied the score at 14-14.
After Nichols ran the kickoff out to the 38-yard line, a penalty and a six-yard Nichols' run gave the Wildcats a second and long situation at their own 39-yard line. Brattin, back in the game, broke loose for 18 yards on the toss sweep to gain a first down and then picked up 16 more on the following play to move the ball down to the Branson 27-yard line.
"Cassville football, first and 10 at the Branson 27 following the Brattin run. Nichols has the snap . . . he drops back and throws a rainbow to the corner of the endzone for Phelps . . . touchdown Cassville!"
Phelps ran a perfect out route to the back pylon against single coverage, and Nichols delivered with a big-time throw to regain the lead for Cassville. Garrett Barnes connected on the PAT to give the Wildcats a 21-14 lead with 6:01 to play.
The Pirates gained one first down on the crucial next possession. On third and 12 at his own 30-yard line, junior quarterback Chandler Hall hit Keaton Knudsen with a slant pass. Knudsen fumbled in the secondary, and Cody Frana returned the ball to the Branson 44-yard line.
A Kreg Myers carry and a quarterback sneak set up third and seven, but Nichols pulled the Branson defensive line offsides with a hard count to create a more manageable third and two situation.
"Less than three minutes to play here at Wildcat Stadium . . . Nichols takes the snap and keeps off right tackle . . . he bursts through a hole on the hashmark . . . and he's gone. Touchdown Cassville!"
Nichols won yet another race to the end zone to propel the Wildcats to a 28-14 lead with 2:31 to play.
Hall was sacked inside his own red zone on a desperation fourth and nine in the final two minutes, and the Wildcats went to the victory formation to run out the clock.
Branson's gem of an all-purpose back, Malachi Daniels, finished the night with 96 yards on 19 carries and one touchdown.
Besides Nichols' stellar stats, Brattin finished with 77 yards on 10 carries, and Kreg Myers gained 73 yards on nine attempts. Nichols threw for 57 yards, completing six of nine passing attempts with no interceptions.
The Cassville defense came up with crucial stops behind the inspired play of senior lineman Justin Pflug and junior linebacker Cody Frana.
"This was a great, great win," David Large told his huddle of players after the contest, "just a great football victory.
"We struggled a little bit at times, but we came through when we had to," he added.
The Wildcats, now 2-0 on the season, will face their first road test of the season on Friday night, when they travel to Prairie Grove, Ark., for a 7 p.m. clash. The Tigers are 1-0 after winning their home opener against Lavaca, 41-6.