Comeback heartbreak

Wednesday, December 2, 2020
Zach Coenen prepares to lay a stiff arm on a pair of would-be tacklers, breaking away from both en route to gaining a first down Saturday. Kyle Troutman/

Wildcats’ resiliency on display

After a furious comeback to gain a 4-point lead with a minute to go in Saturday’s state semifinal against Maryville, jubilation turned to despair by the final horn and the Wildcats were left with long hugs, wet shoulders and red eyes.

Cassville trailed 17-0 at the end of the third quarter, but the Wildcats’ resiliency was all full display with a four-touchdown fourth quarter. Maryville was forced to drive 80 yards in the final 1:07, and the Spoofhounds found the end zone on a 12-yard pass with 11 seconds left to seal the 30-28 title game berth.

Cassville Coach Lance Parnell, in yellow in middle, hugs his 2020 seniors after a 30-28 loss to Maryville in the state semifinals Saturday. Kyle Troutman/

After the game, Cassville Coach Lance Parnell said the biggest emotion he felt about his Wildcats was pride.

“What competitors to be down 17-0 and find a way to come and fight back, making two big special teams plays late in the game then scoring to go ahead a minute left and give ourselves a chance,” he said. “I’m heartbroken for them right now — that’s the best way to put it. What a great group of seniors and they are leaving a legacy. They have won a lot of ball games. Honestly, I feel like I let them down in the last minute.”

Seniors on the field after the contest said the emotion was difficult to put into words.

Hernan Hernandez (No. 17), Zach Coenen (No. 23) and Brett Cooper (No. 11) celebrate after Spencer Moeller recovered the Wildcats’ second onside kick of the game against Maryville on Saturday. Kyle Troutman/

“I don’t even know how to explain it,” said Zach Coenen, senior running back. “I don’t know if it’s quite set in yet, just knowing it’s our last game and I’ve been playing here my whole life.”

“It’s hard to comprehend,” said Jericho Farris, fellow senior running back. “We were expecting to go back to state. It just didn’t go our way.”

Hayden Sink, senior quarterback, minced no words about his feelings.

“They are my family, and I’ve known them my entire life,” he said. “It’s hard to know that we aren’t going to play together again as a team. I’m going to miss them. They are my brothers, and this just sucks.”

Cassville’s point-scoring began on the first play of the fourth quarter, a 1-yard Sink keeper.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Wildcats were called offside and moved back 5 yards, but kicker Drake Reese executed a perfect onside dribbler to recover the ball himself 12 yards from the tee.

Cassville took advantage, with Coenen breaking a 36-yard run and Farris bobbing and weaving his way through a handful of would-be tacklers for a 34-yard touchdown to bring the score to 17-14.

Maryville then extended the lead again, going 80 yards on the next drive to score from a yard out with 3:50 to play.

Cassville was undaunted and continued its comeback, with Reese pulling in a Sink pass on the sideline and tip-toeing his way to a 51-yard touchdown.

Reese then executed another perfect onside kick, topping the ball into a Spoofhound blocker on the return and allowing Spencer Moeller to recover.

“Special Teams Coordinator Josh Schmitt pulled the trigger on both of those [onside kick calls] and did an outstanding job, and Drake is an excellent kicker and executed both of those perfectly,” Parnell said. “It’s something that we work on quite a bit, but you still have to execute it.”

After moving the ball over midfield, the Wildcats threw in a dash of magic to take the lead. Reese took off on what looked like a jet sweep, but he pulled up for a throw and found Brett Cooper for a wide open 47-yard touchdown pass to go up 28-24 with only 1:07 to go.

“[That’s] something we missed earlier in the game, and what a great play call by [Offensive Coordinator Clay] Weldy to take the lead,” Parnell said. “[The whole comeback] says what kind of character this team has. At halftime, when we were down 10, I said to them multiple times that character is not made in times of adversity, it is revealed.

“Our kids’ character was revealed [Saturday] through adverse situations, being down 17 and down late in the game, and they just kept fighting and fighting.”

Sink said no matter how long it took to find the scoreboard, he knew his team was never down and out.

“I knew that we were never done,” he said. “We scored [the first touchdown] and I told them, let’s get a stop and score again, and we did that. I told my team I knew we were not finished, and we worked too hard for this and weren’t going to put our heads down. I just wish we had done it the entire game, but it is what it is.”

Farris said the types of plays on which Cassville scored — a QB sneak, a 35-yard tackle-breaking run and two long pass plays — shows how powerful the Wildcats have been with the ball in their hands.

“Our offense can do basically anything,” he said. “We run the ball, but we proved we can throw it today and score in just a matter of seconds. It’s just a dynamic offense.”

Farris said the plays were a credit to the team’s toughness.

“We just weren’t going to quit,” he said. “There’s no quit in this team — that’s why I love playing with these boys. We came back like we said we would in the locker room at halftime.”

Parnell said despite the pain of the loss, the Wildcats’ heads remained upright.

“Life doesn’t always go your way, but we will walk out of here with our heads held high because we played with great effort, great heart and competed our tail ends off,” he said. “We’re not going to duck our chins. That’s a very good Maryville football team that battled us tooth and nail and I tip my hat to Coach [Matt] Webb and what a great program, facility and community they have out here.”

Looking back on the season, the Maryville game was a reflection of the hardships the Wildcats have endured all season long.

“As a whole, we overcame so much adversity,” Parnell said. “From early season injuries, we saw a ton of new faces and kids that developed and grew, and the whole team just kept working and getting better and better and better to put us in this position.”

Sink said a big moment in the season was the 40-20 loss to Lamar in Week 5 — the last time the team had lost prior to Saturday.

“The team’s highlight [this season] was not stopping after Lamar,” he said.

“After we got beat, we kept practicing week in and week out. We beat Monett 50-0, and we kept going and kept going. With all this COVID stuff it was hard, but we kept going and played every game we had the chance to play.”

Sink said this season was even more special for him, as it was his first as a Wildcat since his freshman year.

“For me, personally, [it was a highlight] having the chance to play here again,” he said. “I moved my freshman year and have watched [Cassville] play ever since, then I came back and they welcomed me with open arms. The entire season has just been a blessing.”

Coenen said it’s difficult to accept that his prep career has come to an end.

“I’ve been with [this senior class] my whole life, since we were 9 years old, so we go way back,” he said. “It’s going to be weird not playing with them again.”

Parnell said the senior class is the epitome of what he hopes his program produces in the long run.

“It’s outstanding leadership,” he said. “I look [on this field after the game] and see guys like Zach Coenen and Jericho Farris and guys like that who have been the heart and soul of this football team. They do so much on the field and off the field for us, and with the way they carry themselves in their daily lives — they are good young men.

“I’m very proud of them, and they are going to go on to be successful in life, I truly believe that. This whole senior class is a high-character group.”

Cassville ends the season at 10-3 and has reached the Final Four in two consecutive seasons.

Juniors returning next season include: Cutter Hicks, Ethan Fuchs, Wyatt Cochran, Garrett Kritz, Eli Pickett, Michael Corn, Jason Jacobson, Michael Morgan, Landry Mills and Garrett Keith.

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