Wildcats one score short at Branson
Three fumbles. Special teams. Early deficit. It all added up to a hill too high to climb for the Cassville Wildcats football on Friday night, as they dropped their season opener at Branson, 35-28 on Aug. 30.
Playing up in class against the Pirates has never been a big deal for the Wildcats. Last year, Cassville rolled to a 48-7 victory. The 2011 meeting saw a 28-14 Wildcat victory. It was 14-7 decision for Cassville in 2010.
The last time the Pirates won in this series was in 2009, when a good Branson team invaded Cassville and went home with a dominating 42-13 win.
Lance Parnell, beginning his first season as Cassville's head coach, knew this would be a tough challenge for his team.
Branson had an advantage that few Wildcat opponents have enjoyed in recent seasons: speed.
The Pirates' skill trio of quarterback Da'Quan Ervin, running back Isaiah Daniels and receiver David Arechiga presented a combination of talent that would test the Wildcat defense severely.
Not a blade of grass stirred under the merciless sun on Branson's home field as the teams prepared for kickoff. The Pirates won the toss and deferred to the second half. The Wildcats chose to defend the end zone nearest the new activity center. It offered the only shade in the 97-degree stadium.
Ty Craig accepted Jorge Cedeno's kickoff and handed the ball to Brent Thompson. The reverse fooled no one, and the Wildcats started their initial drive at their own 13 yard line.
Gabe Kirk led the 'Cats to one first down, but the drive fizzled soon after. Most significantly, Craig was injured on the second offensive snap, and the versatile senior would not return.
Bradley Lueckenhoff punted away to Ervin, and he broke loose all the way to the Cassville 30 yard line. A penalty moved the spot back into Branson territory, but the return showcased the speed differential Parnell had seen on film.
The Pirates then shocked the storied Cassville defense, scoring in just six plays. Ervin took advantage of a blown coverage in the secondary, throwing long to an uncovered Arechiga for a 50-yard scoring strike. Cedeno toed the PAT and Branson led 7-0 with 7:22 left in the opening quarter.
Hayden Prater accepted Cedeno's second kickoff of the evening and raced out to the 30-yard line.
Thompson slashed through the line for 20 yards to midfield to start the drive, but then fumbled on the next play. The Pirates recovered on their own 47 yard line.
The Branson offense scored again, covering the 53 yards in eight plays. The Wildcats forced a fourth and 7 at the 37 yard line, but Daniels converted with a screen pass that became a 34-yard gain. He scored with a dive off left tackle two snaps later. Cedeno's kick gave the Pirates a 14-0 lead at the 3:29 mark of the first quarter.
Thompson's kick return set the Wildcats up at their own 41 yard line. Two runs between the tackles gained six yards, and Kirk lined up in the shotgun on third and 4. Thompson took a direct snap, and the milliseconds saved on the maneuver gave him the corner on the sweep. The Wildcat Nation came alive as Thompson raced 53 yards for Cassville's first score. Lueckenhoff converted the PAT, and Branson's lead was halved, 14-7.
The celebration was short lived. Micah Daniels caught Lueckenhoff's kickoff inside the 15 yard line, He turned and tossed a soft underhand pass back to Ervin, who raced up the sideline untouched for an 89-yard special teams score. Cedeno added another point to build the Branson lead to 21-7 with 1:37 left in the opening period.
The track meet was not over.
The Wildcats got started as Prater returned Cedeno's fourth kickoff out to the 29 yard line. Kirk bolted off left tackle and eluded the Branson secondary for a 71-yard scoring romp. Lueckenhoff drilled the PAT to cut Branson's lead to 21-14.
The clock finally ran out on a wild quarter that saw the teams combine for 35 points in an exciting and entertaining 12 minutes of football.
The second quarter opened with the Pirates punting on fourth and 4 at their own 39. Daniel Scott's kick rolled dead at the Cassville 24 yard line.
Kirk directed the Wildcats to the Branson 43 yard line in six plays, but a mix up in the backfield resulted in a loose football. Branson recovered to stymie another promising Cassville drive.
The Pirates drove the field again. On second and 6 at the Cassville 31 yard line, Ervin heaved a long pass for Arechiga, and the senior wideout grabbed a tipped ball while falling on his back just inside the 5 yard stripe. Ervin sneaked into the end zone on second down, and Cedeno gave Branson a 28-14 lead with 4:29 remaining in the second quarter.
The weary Wildcats appeared close to being steamrolled at that point. But Kirk rallied his team for a 77-yard scoring drive before halftime.
A 17-yard screen to Thompson rescued the drive on 3rd and 12. Two snaps later, Kirk flipped a pass to Thompson that became a 39-yard scoring play. Lueckenhoff's leg provided the PAT, and pulled Cassville within 28-21.
Parnell had seen enough of the Branson kick return unit. The Wildcats attempted an onside kick, not so much with the intent of a recovery as much as denying the Pirates another special teams score. Branson recovered, but then went three and out for the first time in the game.
The Wildcats ran out the final nine seconds.
The second half saw the scoring torrent slow, but not the intensity of play.
Cassville opened the third quarter with another onside kick, covered by the Pirates at their own 49 yard line. The short field became the stage for an efficient, 11-play scoring drive. Ervin slid through the line to score on a read-option, and Branson claimed a 35-21 lead after Cedeno's fifth PAT of the game.
The defenses took control at that point, with neither team able to sustain drives. The third quarter passed and the clock slipped into the fourth as Cassville desperately fought to cut into the double-digit lead. Another defensive stop by the Wildcats led to a Branson punt, and Thompson called for a fair catch at his own 21-yard line with 7:35 left to play.
"Cassville football, second down and five at their own 26-yard line. Kirk back to pass. He throws long down the sideline. The pass is tipped by the defender and Zach Rabourn makes the catch! He turns up the sideline and he's gone! TOUCHDOWN CASSVILLE!"
The 74-yard gift plus Lueckenhoff's PAT brought the Wildcats within 35-28 with 6:46 to play. The Cassville defense rose up and held Branson to a rare three-and-out on the next possession, but a fumble on first down crushed the comeback hopes. The 'Cats did get one more chance in the waning minutes, but could not move the chains. Branson ran out the final 91 seconds to claim the 35-28 victory.
The wild first half scoring spree led to some gaudy stats for both teams.
Unofficially, Cassville's Kirk ran for 128 yards on 16 carries, completed 10 of 17 passes for another 173 yards, and finished with 301 total yards. Kirk ran for one score, and passed for another, the 74-yard toss to Zach Rabourn in the fourth quarter.
Thompson gained 87 yards on 11 carries and a score. He also scored on a pass reception.
Ervin was the star for the victorious Pirates. He ran 15 times for 48 yards and a touchdown, completed 6 of 11 passes for 114 yards and another score, and returned a kickoff 89 yards for another score.
Daniels led Branson's rushing attack with 93 yards on 23 carries with one touchdown
"What I'm going to take from tonight is our heart," Coach Parnell told his team after the game. "We stepped up and kept competing. We handled adversity well, we just came up short."
He paused and added, "We must get better."
The Wildcats play their home opener on Friday night when they host the McDonald County Mustangs. Kickoff is at 7 PM.
Big 8 summary
Lamar 75, McDonald County 0
Monett 28, Mt. Vernon 14
Aurora 19, Ava 12
Carthage 40, Seneca 33
Webb City 52, Carl Junction 29
Branson 35, Cassville 28
Springfield Catholic 35, East Newton 17