The Cassville Wildcats rolled up over 400 yards of offense and shut out the Branson Pirates for 47 minutes before yielding a score in Friday night's home opener. The Wildcats extended their home winning streak to 21 games with the 48-7 victory.
While the Wildcat Nation expected a victory, the margin took many by surprise.
"It was a great all around game," said Cassville coach David Large. "When you play as a team, guys will make plays."
Early on, it was the defense of both teams that made the plays and set the tone.
The Pirates were stymied on the game's first possession, and Cassville's Cody Frana blocked a punt to punctuate the three-and-out effort of the Wildcat defense. But Branson held on downs at its own 11-yard line as Hayden Prater came up one chain link short on a fourth and 3 carry.
The Wildcats held the Pirates without a first down again and took possession in Branson territory at the 48-yard line after a short punt. Gabe Kirk led the Cassville offense to the 24-yard line in five plays, but Branson stiffened again. The Wildcats turned the ball over on downs again deep in Branson territory, and the scoreless tie continued.
Branson senior quarterback, Chandler Hall, then led the Pirates across midfield for the first time. On second and 9 from the 25, Hall cut off right tackle for a 17-yard gain. Then on third and 8 from the Cassville 44-yard line, Isaiah Daniels took a screen pass all the way to the 35.
Cassville's mammoth line of Logan Scott, Drew Henbest, Jake Sizemore and Braiden Vaught rose up to quell the threat. Daniels gained three yards on first down, but a draw, for no gain and two incompletions by Hall turned the ball back to the Wildcats as the first quarter ended.
Enter Brent Thompson.
Cassville's junior running back was likely not mentioned in Branson's scouting report. He will be a marked man from now on though. Thompson entered the game to give the Wildcats fresh legs in the backfield. He carried twice for 13 yards on Cassville's first possession of the second quarter and helped loosen up the Branson defense.
Gabe Kirk played with more confidence at the quarterback position, leading the Wildcats on a 12-play, 69-yard scoring drive. Chris Dunker bulled into the end zone from a yard out to give Cassville a lead at the 8:07 mark of the second quarter. The Wildcats missed the extra-point and the score remained 6-0.
From that point in the game, the Wildcats seemed a step ahead of the Pirates on almost every play. Cassville took over possession at its own 38-yard line with 4:15 to play in the half following a 36-yard Pirate punt.
"Cassville football, first and ten at the 38-yard line. Kirk lines up in the Wildcat formation, there's a direct snap to Dunker. He breaks through the line and he's gone! SIXTY TWO YARDS! TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
A lot of misdirection in the Cassville backfield, coupled with the direct snap to Dunker caught the Branson defenders in a "Where's Waldo?" conundrum. By the time the Pirates identified Dunker as the ball carrier, it was 62 yards too late. Stone Phelps nailed the PAT, and Cassville's lead increased to 13-0 with 4:04 on the clock.
The Pirates tried to mount a drive to end the half, but Sizemore planted Hall with a second-down sack at the Branson 33-yard line. Hall's pass was incomplete on the ensuing down, and the Pirates punted with just over a minute remaining. Coach Large elected to run out the clock, and the teams adjourned to the locker rooms with Cassville holding a 13-0 lead.
Third quarter heroics
Cassville has a reputation for making great halftime adjustments and dominating the third quarter of most games. The continuity of the coaching staff, the system and the commitment of the players to conditioning and play execution all contribute to that well deserved reputation.
Coach Large downplayed the halftime strategy session, saying, "It was more motivation than adjustments."
The Wildcats sank the Pirate ship with four third-quarter touchdowns and then scattered the lifeboats with a fifth score in the final period despite a running clock. Thompson ran wild in the third period, gaining 96 yards on 10 carries and scoring two touchdowns.
Cassville extended the lead when Thompson found a convoy of blockers on a sweep and scored from the Branson 14-yard line to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive. Phelps added the PAT for a 20-0 score.
Following a three-and-out for the Pirates, Phelps gave the Wildcats a goal-to-go opportunity with a 46-yard reverse. Hayden Prater scored from the 5-yard line on the next play, and Bradley Lueckenhoff supplied the PAT for the 27-0 lead at the 4:56 mark.
The Pirates were mired deep in their own territory after the kickoff, and Garrett Kirk returned a short punt to the Branson 37-yard line.
Brent Thompson raced off tackle for 17 yards, and then Garrett Kirk swept left for 13 more and a first and goal. Douglas ripped into the end zone from seven yards out and Lueckenhoff added another point as the score grew to 34-0.
The Pirates' frustration grew as their punter slipped to a knee trying to corral a bad snap, and the Wildcats took over at the 25-yard line with 1:16 left in the third period.
Thompson cracked the line for four yards on first down, then Chase Jackson, a sophomore running back, popped loose for a 21-yard scoring run. Lueckenhoff returned to add another point, and the score grew to 41-0.
The Wildcats scored their final touchdown midway through the fourth quarter. The Wildcat defense held the Pirates on downs at the Branson 30-yard line, and Jackson took an option pitch from Marcus Weatherman and raced to the north end zone from 27 yards out. Lueckenhoff's PAT created a 48-0 lead.
Branson's head coach Steve Hancock refused to throw in the towel. With a long season remaining, Hancock left his starters on the field and challenged them to erase the goose egg on their side of the scoreboard.
Chandler Hall led the Pirates on a 10-play, 74-yard drive against the Cassville reserves. On third and six from the Cassville 46-yard line, Hall found Da'Quan Ervin with a strike over the middle, and the speedster cut across the field and raced inside the Cassville 5.
Even at that, it took Branson three snaps to score from 3 yards out. Jordan Bailey got the Pirates on the scoreboard with a three-yard touchdown run with 49 seconds to play, and Jorge Cedeno's PAT created the final score of 48-7.
The Wildcats rolled up 411 yards of offense against the Pirates, rushing for 402 yards on 46 carries and scoring seven rushing touchdowns.
Thompson led all Cassville backs with 123 yards on 15 carries after entering the game in the second quarter.
Chris Dunker ran for 91 yards on 10 carries and scored both first half touchdowns for the Wildcats.
Gabe Kirk ran for 56 yards on seven carries, and Chase Jackson ran for 51 yards and two touchdowns on just three touches. Stone Phelps had 46 yards on his lone carry of the night.
Hayden Prater scored once and gained 22 yards on nine carries, and Garrett Kirk added 13 yards on a single carry.
Gabe Kirk was very efficient in his first varsity start at quarterback. Besides rushing for over 50 yards while directing the potent Cassville running attack, he completed three of six passes for 15 yards and no incompletion. Kirk was sacked once for a loss of six yards.
Remarkably, the Wildcats committed no turnovers in the season opener and were charged with only three penalties.
"Our wing package worked well," said Large. "We were excited about Gabe protecting the football. He played great. Once he gets the mechanics down, he will be really good. He's only going to get better."
Branson's offense could never get untracked against the experienced Cassville defense unit. The Pirates gained 119 yards on the ground on 34 attempts. Hall completed five of his 17 passes for 86 yards and was sacked once. The Pirates lost one fumble, had one punt blocked and gave up a lot of real estate when their punter went down following a bad snap.
Running back/linebacker Isaiah Daniels suffered a shoulder injury before halftime and did not return. His absence hurt the Pirates on both sides of the ball.
"We returned a lot of speed on defense," Large noted. "The three linebackers (Dunker, Frana and Prater) are as fast as any we've had. You could see the dividends from that."
Cassville's domination of Branson was equaled by Mt. Vernon's stirring comeback upset victory over Monett as the Big 8 Conference rumbled through the first Friday night of the season.
The Wildcats travel to McDonald County for a nonconference tilt against the Mustangs next Friday before entertaining Lamar, the defending state champions from Class 2 in Week 3.
Lamar defeated McDonald County on Friday night, 49-21.