The Wildcats dominated special teams play and snuffed out the Mountaineers' last gasp when Stone Phelps returned an interception inside the Mt. Vernon 5-yard line in the final minutes.
It was an emotional night for the young men wearing the road whites and black helmets. The team's season-long battle with injuries reached a somber height at Aurora on Oct. 12, when senior Garrett Kirk was knocked out of the game and required season-ending emergency surgery.
But Mt. Vernon had their own plans for this final regular season finale, and Ozzie Riley's troops took the field expecting to win.
"This was a typical, tough Big 8 game," said Cassville's defensive coach Lance Parnell. "Mt. Vernon was more physical than our kids expected."
The Mountaineers answered early in the second quarter. Then the game took a bizarre turn.
Freshman quarterback Jacob LaSalle bolted into the end zone on first and goal from the 5-yard line but fumbled, and the ball was covered with white jerseys. The officials ruled the play a touchdown.
The stunned Wildcats regrouped on the sideline under the leadership of coaches Parnell and Clay Weldy.
Large's dismissal lit a fuse under his team. Prater blocked the PAT attempt, and the Wildcats remained in front, 7-6.
The officials spotted the ball at the Cassville 30-yard line for the kickoff, giving the Mountaineers an opportunity to try an onside kick. Instead, Devin Morris boomed the kick through the end zone, and the Wildcats started the drive at their own 20-yard line.
Gabe Kirk led the Cassville offense on a 13-play, 80-yard drive, and Chase Jackson finished the assault when he took a direct snap and scored from the Mt. Vernon 4-yard line. Bradley Lueckenhoff's PAT gave the Wildcats a 14-6 lead with 4:44 left in the first half.
Cassville's special teams unit blocked another Mt. Vernon punt before halftime. But the Wildcats could not capitalize, and the teams adjourned with the score remaining at 14-6.
Both teams fought through a scoreless third quarter. Cassville took the kickoff and could not move the chains, but Phelps pinned the Mountaineers with a punt that died at the 2-yard line. Mt. Vernon drove to the 24-yard line, and then Shane Williams escaped with a screen pass for an apparent 76-yard touchdown. The score, however, was negated by a holding call.
The Wildcats drove deep into Mt. Vernon territory in the final minute of the period, but Kirk was sacked on fourth down at the Mountaineers' 25-yard line.
The teams traded fumbles on the first two drives of the final quarter, and then LaSalle found tight end Zane Phillips for a 31-yard scoring strike that cut Cassville's advantage to 14-12. On the two-point conversion attempt, Kayman Walker tipped LaSalle's pass away to protect the scant lead.
Cassville desperately needed first downs, both to chew up the clock and also to rest the defense. Instead, the Mountaineers held the Wildcats to a three-and-out, and Phelps trotted in to punt on fourth down with the ball spotted at the Cassville 40-yard line.
Phelps launched a rocket that drove Williams back inside the Mt. Vernon 10-yard line. Craig dropped Williams in his tracks, but the Mountaineers had the ball and controlled their own destiny.
On third down, a holding penalty negated a LaSalle-to-Williams completion for a first down.
"There are only three things that can happen when you pass the ball," Darrell Royal used to say, "and two of them are bad."
LaSalle dropped back on third and 13 and threw over the middle into a crowd. Phelps gathered in the tipped pass and fought to the Mt. Vernon 5-yard line. Three plays later, Prater scored, and Lueckenhoff's crucial PAT gave Cassville a two-score lead at 21-12.
The Mountaineers turned the ball on downs on their final possession, and the Wildcats left the field with the victory.
The unexpected defensive battle left both teams with unimpressive offensive statistics.
The Mountaineers managed 157 rushing yards against the Cassville defense. Williams carried 19 times for 77 yards to lead Mt. Vernon, and Jacob LaSalle had 55 yards on 11 carries.
LaSalle completed six of his first seven throws and finished with 10 for 17 with one interception for 90 yards and a touchdown.
"Our kids did a great job of recognizing formations all night," said Parnell. "We worked all week on getting lined up right."
The Mountaineers were flagged seven times for 80 yards in the game.
Cassville rushed for only 139 yards against the tough Mt. Vernon defense. Gabe Kirk had 61 yards on 12 carries to lead the team, and both Prater and Chase Jackson scored on the ground.
Kirk completed five of his nine passes for 47 yards.
The Wildcats excelled on special teams with two blocked punts, a blocked PAT kick, a denial of a two-point conversion attempt and two punts that pinned the Mountaineers deep in their own territory.
The only Cassville penalties of consequence were the two that led to Large's ejection. By rule, Large will have to miss Cassville's next contest, the home district playoff game against East Newton.
Regular season wrap
The Wildcats finished the regular season with a perfect 9-0 record and won the Big 8 Conference with a 7-0 mark for the fourth consecutive season. Cassville's last Big 8 Conference stumble was the 13-7 loss to Monett on Oct. 17, 2008.
The Cassville defense posted three shutouts in the nine victories this year, allowing only 84 points total. The Wildcats scored 312 points with a high of 48 in the opener against Branson.
The final Big 8 Conference standings:
* Cassville (7-0)
* Lamar (5-2)
* Monett (4-3)
* Seneca (4-3)
* Carl Junction (3-4)
* Mt. Vernon (3-4)
* Aurora (2-5)
* East Newton (0-7)
With the conclusion of the regular season, the district playoff seeds are set. They are as follows.
The first round district playoff matchups to be played on Thursday, Oct. 25 are as follows.
|* East Newton at Cassville|
* Hollister at Reeds Spring
* Aurora at Monett
* Mt. Vernon at Seneca
All games are set to kick off at 7 p.m.