By Pat Dailey (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
AVA — Nate Bray’s glory days as a running back and linebacker for Ava ended five years ago. But his cleats might now have a place in the Bears’ trophy case, perhaps next to a Class 2 state championship trophy.
Josh Bray wore his older brother’s cleats for the first time Saturday and didn’t want to take them off after catching a game-winning 23-yard touchdown pass in Ava’s 20-14 state semifinal triumph in overtime over Clark County.
Josh dug his brother’s cleats out of a closet earlier in the week in anticipation of playing on a muddy mess of a field.
“We knew it would be muddy, since it rained here all week,” Bray said. “I put big spikes on the cleats and they worked pretty good. On one play, I slipped and fell. I tried to keep my feet under me and not make too many cuts, just try to run straight.”
Looking ahead to Ava’s matchup with Lutheran North in the Class 2 final at Mizzou’s Faurot Field at 3 p.m. Friday, Bray wondered if he should continue wearing his brother’s cleats.
“I might just have to, they might be lucky,” he said.
Bray was an unlikely hero in that Ava (14-0) barely went to its passing game through the first three quarters. In fact, Bray was one of the few players on the field not covered from head to toe in mud.
But with the Bears trailing 8-0 in the fourth quarter, quarterback Nate Swofford went to Bray for a 40-yard pass that set up a seven-yard scoring strike.
After Clark County went back up 14-8, the Bears called for a buck-sweep, which Bray turned into a 37-yard touchdown run.
In overtime, Bray was all by his lonesome at the goal-line when Swofford hit him with a pass to his chest.
“I don’t know why, but nobody likes to guard to him,” Swofford said. “But I like going to him because I know he’s going to come down with it.”
“I didn’t think I would be that open, but there was nobody around me,” Bray said. “I was thinking, ‘Man, if I drop this I’m not going to be able to live with myself.’”
Ava coach Dan Swofford went to the passing game after he and his staff recognized Clark County (12-2) was all but daring the Bears to go to the air.
“Our offense wasn’t clicking. We couldn’t get anything going,” Bray added. “We weren’t getting anything on the ground. We tried (passing) once and it worked, so we kept going back to it.”
“We made a lot of preparations (to pass) at halftime because we saw how they were guarding our A-back and receivers,” Nate Swofford said. “They were sending three ‘backers in every time to stop the inside run. Our inside running is ‘our game.’ But we adjusted and definitely knew we were going to pass more in the second half. On the first couple passes, I overthrew the ball or we didn’t connect. Then, all of a sudden, we got it going.”
Ava even went to its passing game without Nate Swofford in the backfield on what arguably was the biggest play of the game. With four-plus minutes remaining in regulation and Clark County up 14-8, Swofford lined up at wide receiver as Kayden Myers presumably prepared to punt on fourth-and-10 near midfield. Instead, Myers rifled a pass that a diving Swofford reeled in for a first down.
On the next play, Bray ran in for the tying touchdown.
The reception was the first all season for Swofford, a running back prior to this season.
“We tried that against Thayer and it didn’t work,” Swofford said. “I knew I was going to catch it this time, no matter what. They had controlled most of the game. But once that play happened, you could feel that it was our game.”
“We hadn’t completed that pass hardly at all, even in practice, but we always practice it,” Dan Swofford said. “We thought that was the time to do it. It was the play of the game and gave us a lot of momentum. I was proud the boys were able to execute in that situation.”
Myers purposely threw the ball sidearm.
“My shoulder was messed up a few years ago, so I can’t throw overhand,” Myers said. “I messed my rotator cuff up. It doesn’t hurt when I throw, (but) the injury messed my throwing form up.
“I was so excited when Nate caught that pass and everybody went bananas.”
Myers might not have been able to break free offensively, but still made his final home game one of the best in his career. In addition to his pass, he scored on a two-point conversion run, recorded a quarterback sack late in regulation and was seemingly in on every Ava tackle.
“He does a little bit of everything, that’s how he is,” Dan Swofford said. “He’s a special player.”
Ava received a scare when Myers was called for a helmet-to-helmet penalty during a tackle on a kickoff, after the Bears tied the score at 8-all. Officials have the option to eject a player for targeting on such a call, but deemed Myers’ intentions were not to make such a hit.
“In high school, you don’t get that very often,” Dan Swofford said of targeting and an ejection. “It wasn’t a situation in which he ever should have been ejected. That shouldn’t have even been a thought. Let the players play. When you have aggressive players and football is a physical sport, you have those things once in a while. We don’t want them. But you’re going to have a penalty like that every once a while. You get over it and move on.”
“I didn’t feel like I hit him with my helmet,” Myers said. “I think it just happened on the wrong side of the field. I’m pretty sure I hit with my shoulder pad. So, I wasn’t really worried.”
Myers was strong to the finish, helping Ava’s defense stop Clark County on its possession in overtime.
“My legs kind of got wore down because my feet feel like 10 pounds apiece because mud is all clanked in them,” Myers said. “But I’ve been doing this all season. I don’t come of the field. I think that’s actually helped me a lot here late.”
Myers was mobbed by friends and family, none of them hesitating to hug him even while he was draped in mud.
“The town is behind us,” Myers said. “That’s why I love small-town football. I wouldn’t give this up for anything in the world. (These memories) are going to last until the day I die.”
Ava 20, Clark County 14 (O.T.)
Clark County 8 0 0 6 0 – 14
Ava 0 0 0 14 6 – 20
CC – Caleb Lapsley 15 run (Lapsley run)
A – Josh Bray 7 pass from Nate Swofford (Kayden Myers run)
CC – Connar Mack 44 pass from Lapsley (run failed)
A – Bray 37 run (run failed)
A – Bray 23 pass from Swofford (game over)