In a battle of evenly-matched teams, coaches will always tell you that the game usually comes down to turnovers.
And that was certainly the case at Thayer’s homecoming Friday night as the Bobcats, ranked 10th in the state in Class 1, fell to Ava, unranked in Class 2, 34-19.
Both teams entered the game with 4-2 records and both teams had lost to Mountain View-Birch Tree Liberty, the second ranked team in Class 2. Thayer lost 32-0 while Ava fell 28-20 and showed they’re ability to stay close with the state-ranked Eagles was no fluke against another state-ranked team.
The Bears never trailed against Thayer, getting a first quarter 63-yard run by Eli Maggard down to the Bobcat 10 yard-line to set up their first score. Fellow Senior running back Kelly McDonald then went the final five-yards to make it 6-0 after Ava missed the extra-point.
Thayer retaliated with a 65-yard drive with junior running back Garrett Young spinning-and-grinding his way on a key 13-yard-gain down inside the Ava one-yard-line where a quarterback sneak by Zyman Langley tied it up after the Bobcats failed on a two-point-conversion.
The rest of the half belonged to Ava. The Bears moved 55-yards on the ensuing drive, taking the lead for good when Maggard walked into the end zone untouched.
But the game-changer came in the final 30-seconds before intermission when Thayer was near midfield driving for a potential tying score. Instead, Ava defensive lineman Bailey Bewley picked off a pass and returned it 51-yards to the Thayer four-yard-line, where the Bears would add a touchdown to make it 20-6 at the break.
“It’s not very often I get my hands on the ball,” a smiling Bewley said after the game. “I guess I was in the right place at the right time.”
“It was big. It really was,” Ava head coach Dan Swofford said of Bewley’s interception. “He got him a new pair of shoes and I think that’ what happened. He found some speed, more than I thought he had. But that’s what kind of kid he is. He’s a playmaker. He can do things wrong and end up making great plays. He’s a nice player who gets better every week.”
While Thayer did manage to get within 20-13 in the fourth quarter, more turnovers would ultimately 0halt their momentum. There were two critical fumbles, one on a punt return, and the other coming 36-yards away from another potential tying touchdown. Ava turned that into a 47-yard quarterback keeper by Caleb Johnson for a touchdown that put the Bears up 27-13.
Following a Thayer interception, Ava capitalized with a 44-yard touchdown run by Steven Copeland for a 34-13 lead. A late Bobcat touchdown in the final 45-seconds on an 11-yard pass from Ayden Stone to Dillion Poulette accounted for the 34-19 final.
“When they had momentum going we were very nervous about the situation,” Swofford admitted after the game. “But if you start turning the ball over, it creates problems. We had our share of turnovers that we don’t like to have. But the turnover game was on our side tonight. And that was the biggest part of the game.”
Even with the win that improves his team to 5-2, Swofford knows the Bears have a tough task ahead in the district play as Ava’s Class 2 District 3 includes the likes of MV/BT Liberty and Mtn. Grove.
“Beating Thayer at Thayer is a pretty good accomplishment and something we can build-on confidence-wise,” Swofford said. “Hopefully we can just keep rolling and do our thing.”
Despite falling to 4-3, Thayer is one of the top teams in their Class 1, District 2 which includes Ash Grove, Cabool, Marionville, Miller, Pierce City, Pleasant Hope and Sarcoxie.
Thayer did lose one of its top offensive weapons during the game as wide receiver Clay Williams went down in the first half with an apparent knee injury. He was on crutches with his left knee in an ice pack in the second half.