By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Dylan Leach caught the ball with a running start; when he was finally brought down the Willard Tigers were just 28 yards from the end zone.
The onside kick recovery had given new life to the Tigers, who trailed 29-13 at Joplin with 8:38 left in Friday’s season opener.
Or had it?
After a brief huddle of the officials, they concluded the football hadn’t gone the necessary 10 yards before Leach grabbed it out of the air. Joplin got the ball at midfield and later tacked on another touchdown to win 36-13 at Junge Field.
For the Eagles, the win was simply taking care of business. After a 10-3 campaign in 2018 and a trip to the state semifinals, Joplin entered Friday night ranked fifth in Class 6.
With high expectations again, the Eagles didn’t disappoint.
Senior Isaiah Davis, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound running back went for 127 yards and three touchdowns. Senior Zach Westmoreland returned a punt for a score and ran for another. The Eagles amassed 391 yards of offense.
“Willard’s a good team, a real good team,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “They’ve got size, they do a lot of things really well. We had to fight our tails off for this one. I feel like our guys had a lot of resiliency. We got some guys a little nicked up along the way and we fought through. Guys that needed to go in for guys went in and made plays. I’m just proud of my guys for the way they fought and played tonight.”
The visiting Tigers, meanwhile, could take solace in that they remained within striking distance well into the fourth quarter. They were also left wondering ‘what if?’
“We played right with the Class 6 fifth-ranked team in the state who was in the final four last year,” Willard coach Brock Roweton said. “It was our ball with eight minutes to go down two scores. Sometimes funny calls happen and a funny call happened. I’m really proud of our kids’ effort tonight. We missed a wide open touchdown in the first half and we gave up a punt return. Otherwise it’s a very close ballgame.”
Joplin moved the chains on the first four snaps from scrimmage but led just 14-0 at the half after the Eagles had some trouble deep in Willard territory. Joplin missed a 30-yard field goal on its first possession and got as far as the Willard 28 on its second before stalling and turning it over on downs.
Westmoreland’s punt return finally put Joplin on the board with 3:40 left in the first quarter. Davis later walked in for a 6-yard touchdown to cap a 72-yard drive.
After a Westmoreland interception put Joplin at the Willard 28, the Eagles got as close as the 11 before fumbling.
Jasper acknowledged the Eagles had left some points on the field.
“We have some things to fix,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that. It’s week one and we’ve got to get a lot better. A lot of the credit for that goes to Willard. We have things we definitely need to fix.”
The Tigers finally got their offense going to start the second half with an 80-yard scoring drive capped by a 17-yard run by junior Marshall Swadley.
Joplin countered with a 73-yard scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard Davis touchdown. Quarterback Blake Tash, a senior, connected with Westmoreland on a two-point conversion to make it a 22-7 game.
Willard again moved the ball but turned it over on downs in Joplin territory late in the third quarter. Westmoreland scored on an 18-yard run with 11:52 left in the game and Joplin led 29-7 after Garrett Landis’ extra point.
The Tigers answered an eight-play drive and a 2-yard Swadley touchdown. A Reece Dawson-to-Maurice Grayer pass for 46 yards was the big play on the drive. After a bad snap on the point after, Willard trailed by 16 with 8:38 remaining. That set up the onside kick.
Joplin’s Davis added a 2-yard touchdown with 1:46 to play.
Roweton wasn’t dwelling on the apparent missed opportunity of the onside kick. He struck an upbeat town when addressing players after the game.
“We return 18 starters and we are very excited about this group,” he later said. “I loved their effort and I loved their toughness. Things were not necessarily going our way all night and we didn’t back down so I’m very proud of them for that fact and I look forward to the rest of the season.”
He attributed the offense’s sluggishness early to first-game jitters, and the opponent.
“We misaligned a time or two and just some execution stuff that happens all the time in week one games,” he said. “The difference is we’re playing a Class 6 fifth-ranked team in the state. They’ve got a thousand more students than us, maybe more than that. They’re obviously very, very good, their kids are very, very good and you can’t make mistakes against great teams. It was just little execution stuff, nothing major but you expect that in week one games and I thought we fixed a lot of that and came out and had a strong showing the second half offensively.”
The Tigers totaled 313 yards and 16 first downs; Dawson completed 15-of-26 passes for 183 yards and an interception. Swadley accounted for 102 of the team’s 130 rushing yards; he had two touchdowns. Grayer had six catches for 83 yards.
Joplin’s Tash completed 10-of-16 passes for 111 yards. Davis ran for 127 yards and junior Nathan Glades added 114 yards of the team’s 280 on the ground.
Westmoreland had four catches for 55 yards.
“I was really pleased with the way the defense played,” Jasper said. “We gave up a couple plays but all in all I thought our defense played really well the whole night.’