By Brock Sisney (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
MT. VERNON — The Mt. Vernon Mountaineers and the Cassville Wildcats, perennial powers in Class 3, started their 2020 season in classic style Friday night with a seesawing game finally being decided in the last 20 seconds.
With the score tied at 13 and the ball at the Cassville 38, facing a first-and-10 with time evaporating quickly, Mt. Vernon senior quarterback Mason Ballay and fellow senior receiver Rafe Darter lived out a play dreamed about by every kid who has ever picked up and thrown or conversely caught a football. Ballay aired it out for Darter straight down the middle of the field and Darter went up for it and came down with it over two Cassville defenders for the lead.
Pandemonium ensued at Mountaineer Stadium as Mt. Vernon earned a 21-13 victory.
At the end of the day, Mt. Vernon — led by the duo of Ballay and Darter — made more plays than Cassville … at least one more and that’s all the Mountaineers needed to come out victorious.
Mt. Vernon’s penultimate possession ended when a scrambling Ballay made a throw across his body and Cassville senior defensive back Drake Reese picked it off at the Cassville 29. The Wildcats subsequently converted a turnover into points and earned a 13-all score with 2:12 remaining in regulation.
The Mountaineers, with the situation favoring their strengths, drove 80 yards in seven plays and 1:59. Ballay and Darter connected five times for 72 yards on the game-winning drive alone. Ballay also successfully improvised a two-point conversion run.
“We have discussed it, discussed it, and discussed it,” Mt. Vernon head coach Tom Cox said of the interception thrown by Ballay during his first varsity start at quarterback. Ballay played receiver in previous seasons. “Over and over. Anyway, he’s going to make a play, that’s what you get from him. Maybe we’re going to have some bad plays, but he’s going to make a lot more (good plays). We felt like we had a chance to get down there and score.
“Really, what’s neat about these two guys (Ballay, Darter) is the chemistry they have between them. We actually called a different hitch route, but he made the adjustment. They took away the hitch. Rafe just took off and went to the post, and Mason laid it up there for him. We’ll put him (Darter) up there against almost anybody on a 50-50 ball.”
Mt. Vernon survived a first half that found Cassville dominating possession with their ball carriers benefiting heavily from their bruising, all-senior class offensive line. Both teams had three offensive possessions in the first 24 minutes: Cassville 31 plays for 190 yards and 17:05, Mt. Vernon 15 plays for 113 yards and only 6:38.
The Wildcats had the ball in Mt. Vernon territory all three possessions, but failed to score on their last two possessions after their precise opening drive. Cassville drove 92 yards in 12 plays that consumed the first 6:56 off the scoreboard.
Mt. Vernon tied it up about halfway through the second quarter by driving 80 yards in eight plays and 3:30. Ballay and Darter connected for their first TD of the evening.
“It was a rough first half and we felt that we were very fortunate to be tied up at 7 at half,” Cox said. “Thing about it is, we made a few adjustments defensively. Coach (Chris) Johnston did a great job there and the players did a great job of executing it. Offensively, we didn’t have many possessions and we made some mistakes behind the chains a little bit. We were never in panic mode or anything like that. We knew that we had the ball coming back out (second half) and we felt like we could do some stuff against them. They’re a heckuva football team and they controlled the clock. We were able to put it together second half and what a ballgame.”
Mt. Vernon gave Cassville a dose of its own medicine to start the second half, as the Mountaineers put together a 12-play, 80-yard drive in 6:13 and took a 13-7 lead.
All three Mountaineer scoring drives included critical third down conversions.
“Third down is key,” Cox said. “I don’t care what level it is, from the Mighty Mite to the NFL, you have to convert on third down. You’ve got to keep that defense out there and so Mason did a great job of running the ball when he needed to run it and they had five defensive backs, we were just trying to get into a rhythm. Their size is just amazing upfront, but the running that we got was from Mason and Justin Moore did a good job (running the ball).”
The Mountaineers’ first two scores also came down on similar third down plays. Darter and Moore both caught passes from Ballay and they performed the rest of the work avoiding Wildcat tacklers.
Both teams made their fair share of defensive plays, especially during the second half. Mt. Vernon defenders came through with back-to-back sacks to cut short one Cassville drive and force starting quarterback Hayden Sink from the game. Both quarterbacks threw interceptions and Cox wanted to discuss the play made against Sink and his intended receiver Brett Cooper.
“The neat thing about that interception was that it was two sophomores that were involved,” Cox said. “Dominick Harris and Alex Watts. It just shows you that things happen when you get around the ball. Dominick made a great play to deflect it and Alex just hustled over and caught it. That was huge.”
Watts caught the ball after it was deflected by Harris (first) and Cooper (second).
Cassville relied heavily on senior running back Jericho Farris and Sink to carry the load. Farris and Sink both generated over 100 rushing yards and Farris scored both Cassville TDs.
“What a game though,” Cox said. “I feel bad. They were without Zach Coenen, one of their top players, and they lost their quarterback toward the end. You just never know. I fully expect, if we do what we are supposed to do, we’ll see Cassville again.”
Mt. Vernon, 1-0, hits the road to Granby in Week 2 for a crossover game against Big 8 West foe East Newton. The Patriots opened their season with a 41-7 loss against Reeds Spring.
Cassville, state runner-up last season in Class 3, meanwhile, returns home in Week 2 and the Wildcats welcome a Marshfield team also looking for its first victory of the new season. Marshfield pushed Seneca to a 34-30 score Friday night.