Nevada Daily Mail
The Nevada Tigers and Harrisonville Wildcats took to Logan Field Wednesday night with one goal in mind: Survive and advance. With the field dwindling down quickly into the true front-runners in Missouri state high school football, both squads came into Wednesday night's contest hoping to stay alive and move on to compete for a district championship.
Both squads came into the night with an overall record of 8-2 on the year and a win in the opening week of district play. The Wildcats knocked off Grandview last week by a final score of 49-12, while the Tigers opened district play with a 54-29 win over Warrensburg.
The Wildcats came into the night as a decided favorite on paper simply because they have much more experience on the big stage that is the playoffs than the Tigers as they have been in the playoffs every year since 2003, winning four state titles and making at least the quarterfinals every year in that span except 2008. On top of that, the Wildcats have played Nevada twice since 2004 and won both matchups by a combined score of 98-6.
Tigers head coach Wes Beachler didn't seem fazed by any of those factors, however, coming into the game with the belief that if his squad could win the turnover and field position battles as well as shut down Harrisonville's two key players, a win was far from out of the question.
Those two key players -- running back Mason Saffels and quarterback Zach Davidson -- had other ideas, however, leading Harrisonville to a 35-25 victory. "I thought we played well at times," Beachler said. "Too many mistakes early to overcome, but we felt confident we could play with them and I think we did that."
None of the Tigers' goals came to fruition early in the contest as the Wildcats got strong starting field position at their own 41. Davidson found Saffels wide open in the middle of the field just three plays into the drive for a 59-yard touchdown that put the Wildcats up 7-0 with 10:23 left in the opening quarter.
Jackson Rudell gave the Wildcats an even bigger edge in the field position game as he recovered a blocked punt and returned it to the Nevada 10-yard line after the Tigers were shut down and netted a gain of just 3 yards on their opening possession. The Nevada defense held this time, however, stopping Davidson on fourth down at their own 3.
The momentum swing created by that defensive stop didn't last long, however, as the Wildcats recovered a fumble in the end zone on the very next play, taking a 14-0 lead with 6:11 left in the opening period.
Just 4 minutes later, the Wildcats put together another strong drive, adding to their lead once again, despite having Saffels' 51-yard touchdown run called back by a holding penalty. Austin Hopper eventually took in the score that counted on a 19-yard run to make it 21-0 with 1:57 to go.
The Tigers finally found their rhythm on the ensuing possession, finally opening up the holes in the Harrisonville defense and mounting a long drive. Senior fullback Lucas Denman capped off the drive with an 18-yard touchdown run that made it 21-7 with 2:30 to go in the half.
The Tigers had the momentum and held onto it tightly from there, stopping the Wildcats and taking over at the Harrisonville 45. Dalton Hendren needed just one play to put the Tigers back in the game as he took a 45-yard run through the middle of the defense to make it 21-13 with 1:53 left in the half.
Just when it looked as though the Wildcats would be able to maintain their lead into halftime, Bradey Denney gave the Tigers a chance to cut into that lead even more when he recovered a Davidson fumble at the Harrisonville 18. Denney went on to cap off the Tigers' drive that started going backwards with a 31-yard touchdown catch to make it 21-19 with 40 seconds left on quarterback Alex Payne's only completion of the opening half.
Despite the Wildcats threatening in the closing seconds, that was where the scoring ended and the Tigers found themselves heading into the locker room, back in the game with just a two-point deficit.
"Our kids have showed good perseverance and ability to overcome adversity all year and that's something we talk about a lot. You know, life's not easy," Beachler said. "Sometimes things don't go your way and you've got two choices: you can bow your neck and keep going or you can put your tail between your legs. And I think our kids are just pretty good at bowing their neck and keeping going and I'm proud of them for that."
The Wildcats led nearly every statistical category in the first half as they finished with 221 yards of total offense to 169 for Nevada. Each team turned the ball over once, but what really helped the Tigers's efforts to stay in the game were the seven first-half penalties committed by Harrisonville.
The Tigers mounted a strong opening drive in the second half, only to fall victim to a far less than favorable spot after a fourth-down run by Denman. The Wildcat's wasted little time taking advantage of that momentum swing as Saffels took the first play 73 yards to make it 28-19 with 7:27 left in the third quarter.
The two squads spent the first half of the fourth quarter trading turnovers and defensive stops, but the Tigers put a stop to that with just over 5 minutes left in the game. Hendren capped off one of the strongest drives of the night for the Tigers with a 33-yard run that pulled Nevada within three at 28-25 with 5:04 left in the game.
Shortly thereafter, Davidson put the final nail in the coffin as he led a long drive of his own. Davidson called his own number to cap off that drive, leading to what ultimately became the final score of 35-25.
The Wildcats struggled throughout the second half with penalties with 10 -- bringing their game total to 17 -- but still put up a total of 428 yards of offense for the game with 308 of them coming on the ground. The Tigers only committed six penalties throughout the game and finished with 326 yards of total offense -- 262 on the ground.
Hendren led the way for the Tigers with 160 yards on 18 carries, followed by Denman's 54 yards on 10 carries.For Harrisonville, Saffels and Davidson had very similar rushing totals, but Saffels held a slight edge as he finished with 123 yards to Davidson's 118.
With the win, the Wildcats move on to the Class 4, District 7 championship game that is scheduled for Monday, when they will take on the Liberators of Bolivar High School, who beat Raytown South Wednesday night to punch their ticket to the next round.
The Tigers, on the other hand, saw their season come to an end with an overall record of 8-3, but all three losses came to ranked teams that are still alive in the playoffs. "I know our kids would like to play every one of those teams again and so would I," Beachler said.
As for the 22 seniors, Beachler couldn't say enough in praise to the high school careers they saw come to an end.
"I love them and they're going to be good young men. They've just done a heck of a job," he said. "They've just handled a lot of tough situations really well. So they're going to be successful in life, there's no doubt."