By Brennan Stebbins (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
With his team clinging to a 27-25 halftime lead against the defending Class 4 champions, Joplin coach Curtis Jasper told his players to keep battling and keep chopping wood.
He also said this: “The best team will win.”
“And I told them I felt like we were the best team and they went out and proved me right so I can’t say enough about the guys right now.”
Jasper’s Eagles traded punches with Webb City in the first half and simply played better in the second en route to a 41-40 victory Friday night at Junge Field.
The victory snapped a 13-game winning streak for the Cardinals, who last lost in week two of the 2019 season against – who else? – Joplin. The Eagles are the first team in 17 years to beat Webb City in consecutive years; Kearney accomplished the feat in 2002 and 2003.
The Eagles, meanwhile, proved last year’s 13-1 season that ended with a loss in the Class 6 title game was no fluke.
Four times in the first half Webb City pulled ahead on the scoreboard. And every time Joplin had an answer.
After an interception on their first possession and a Webb City touchdown by senior Devrin Weathers, Joplin went 73 yards and tied the game on a short run by senior Nathan Glades.
Then Weathers returned the ensuing kickoff 97 yards for another score; Webb City missed the extra point.
Glades capped a 54-yard drive with a 5-yard score to make it 14-13 late in the first quarter.
After Webb City quarterback Cole Gayman scored on a 9-yard run, Glades returned the kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown and Joplin led 20-19 with 7:12 left in the half.
The Cardinals responded with a methodical five-and-a-half minute drive and another Weathers touchdown to lead 25-20 after a failed conversion attempt.
And then Joplin, after another good return by Bruce Wilbert, quickly covered 48 yards and scored on an Always Wright-to-Trayshawn Thomas pass for 28 yards in the final minute.
Webb City, after scoring on all four of its first-half possessions, blinked in the second half.
The Cardinals punted right after halftime, then drove to the Joplin 27 and turned it over on downs. Wright connected with Dante Washington on a 49-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to make it 34-25.
Weathers, a Kansas State commit, scored on a 30-yard run with 9:28 left in the game and Cameron Clark added the conversion run to make it 34-32.
But when Joplin gave the Cardinals a golden opportunity – a fumble inside the Webb City 10 with 7:34 remaining – the Cardinals couldn’t take advantage.
Gayman, the quarterback, fumbled the ball near midfield, but not before losing his helmet. That made the play immediately dead and the Cardinals retained possession.
The good fortune didn’t last.
Two plays later Weathers couldn’t handle a pitch and the ball bounced high into the air near the Joplin sideline. The Eagles recovered it and two plays later Glades broke free for a 41-yard score to make it 41-32 with 3:43 left.
Webb City did mount a 61-yard scoring drive, capped by a Cade Wilson touchdown from two yards out in the final minute, but Joplin recovered the ensuing onside kick and took a knee.
“Obviously we would have liked to not let them score there at the end, that would have saved me some years of my life, but again we battled, we made them take most of the clock to actually finally score and when they did we made the play we needed to on the onside kick,” Jasper said.
“We’ve played in close games like this against great teams and we found a way to win,” he said. “We did it again tonight.”
He described Joplin’s defensive effort as “unbelievable” and cited the team’s depth.
“I know we still have things to clean up. I know we’re going to feel really good about this tonight and then watch film and go, ‘man.’ I’ll take that. I can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow and I told them that’s one game. Hopefully we get to play another one. We’re going to work really hard and prepare the same way.”
Glades rushed 25 times for 168 yards and three touchdowns in addition to his return touchdown. And the team’s new starter at quarterback, Wright, completed 17 of 21 attempts for 174 yards and two scores. Washington hauled in six receptions for 71 yards.
As for Webb City, head coach John Roderique outlined a simple fix for his team.
“There’s really only three things we need to get better at,” he said. “Offense, defense and kicking game.”
Weathers rushed 21 times for 164 yards and three scores but was limited in the second half with leg cramps. He got one carry on each of the team’s two possessions in the second half, and only rushed a handful of times after that.
“They both were outstanding, no question,” Roderique said of the two feature running backs in the game. “I was very impressed with the Glades kid and we’ve been playing for awhile. We knew he was outstanding and he was certainly that way tonight.”
The Cardinals struggled to throw the ball in the second half; Eli Goddard and Gayman combined to complete one of six attempts for 33 yards.
Gayman added 111 rushing yards and a score on the ground, and Wilson rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown.
Webb City had the advantage in total offense, 418 to 359, but Joplin ran 20 fewer plays. The Cardinals gained 385 yards on the ground to Joplin’s 185, but the Eagles held the advantage in yards per carry, 7.1 to 6.3.
Jasper said Joplin talked all summer about starting the year with a win.
“Let’s work our tails off and pray to God we get to game one and if we get it we better be 1-0 after that night and we’re 1-0,” he said.