Film study took on a whole new angle for the Willard Tigers this past week.
A four-game losing streak - including a disappointing effort in a 40-14 loss at Republic last week - led WHS coach Brock Roweton to include something besides game film in his club’s preparation for Branson.
“For a change coach played a video for us,” said sophomore defensive lineman Forrest Merrill. “It was ‘I am a champion’ and it was very inspirational.”
The impact of that video was evident, as the Tigers pulled away from the Branson Pirates for a 28-7 victory Friday night.
“On Monday, as coaches, we were unsure what might happen,” Roweton said. “We talked to them sternly, but also explaining that we are capable of doing some really good things. We had a great week of practice and tonight we showed up and did the things we’re capable of doing. We had some big-time plays by some guys tonight, and that’s what we’ve been looking for over the past few weeks.”
It was a 7-all game after one quarter, but the Tigers stuck twice in three minutes to take control. First came a 25-yard pass from Justin Atchison to Z Barr, on a 4th-and-5. Barr slipped behind the secondary and Atchison arced a perfect strike to him right at the goal line.
Merrill got the ball back for his offense in one fell swoop, stripping and stealing the ball from Branson quarterback Chandler Hall at the Pirates’ 25. Five plays later Tanner Moore plowed through the line from 2 yards out to put Willard in control, 21-7.
“We’re just not a team that can be down 14, or 21 points,” said Roweton. “We got into a ballgame in the second quarter and we gained confidence from being even with (Branson). As our confidence grew we continued to do great things and our kids really performed tonight.”
Luke He’s 3-yard run late in the third quarter provided the game’s final score for Willard (3-5 overall, 2-4 Central Ozark Conference Large). He rushed 17 times for 76 yards and a score. Atchison finished his night 4-for-10 passing for 68 yards.
Barr had the Tigers’ first score, a 46-yard touchdown scamper on Willard’s first drive of the game. The junior running back/safety has had an evolving role in Roweton’s offense, getting several carries in the second half against Republic last week before finding himself a big piece of the gameplan against Branson.
“I love (running the ball),” said Barr, who finished with 103 yards and a TD on 10 carries. He also caught 1 pass for 25 yards and another score. “With the holes my line opens up, I can run anywhere I want. It‘s amazing. We stepped it up in practice this week and we were ready to hit them.”
“We knew he could do that any moment,” said Roweton. “We’ve been working him in here and there. Tonight he was a big part of our plan and he really performed well.”
And not just on offense. Roweton noted that Barr - at safety - is one of the team’s top two or three tacklers.
Branson (3-5, 2-4) struggled to get any traction offensively, scoring its only touchdown of the game late in the first quarter. The Pirates marched 52 yards in seven plays, getting a 1-yard dive from Isaiah Daniels to knot the score at 7.
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But that was all they could muster against an aggressive Willard defensive front.
“I thought our kids competed hard. We did some good things tonight, we just couldn‘t match their size and strength,” said Branson coach Steve Hancock. “They just overpowered us. They were good at what we tried to do. We didn’t have time when we needed to pass and we couldn’t move the ball consistently on the ground.”
And Merrill had a lot to do with that.
“We were strong up front, we played lower than we have been and I feel like we came out and dominated on the line,” said Merrill. “The losing streak we had got us down. This is a big confidence-booster.”
“Forrest is a sophomore, but as time goes by everybody in the area’s going to know who Forrest Merrill is,” said Roweton. “The great thing about Forrest is that he works hard every day, and he’s going to continue to improve to where he is special someday.”
Hall was 13-for-20 passing, for 111 yards. Jordan Bailey had 65 yards on 15 carries.