By Jason Hoekema
WILLOW SPRINGS – Last Friday’s football game between rival Bears was hard-fought after the Willow Springs High School football team decided to make Ava work for the SCA Championship.
The Ava Bears did win, topping Willow Springs 54-32, but Ava found a few hard lessons learned from the fight.
BEARS’ OUT OF THE BAG
As the season has progressed, teams have gathered or share intelligence on rivals to help them perform as the season has progressed. Friday, the Ava Bears defense found themselves missing counters and were at times out-witted when Willow Springs played some school-yard ball.
With the Bears facing Mountain Grove again in the first round of the Class 2 District 11 Championship bracket, it would not be a surprise to see the Panthers add a few of Willow Springs’ plays to their book in their bid to upset the Ava Bears in the post season.
Last time the Bears and Panthers met the Ava lines did not do as well as Coach Dan Swofford had expected.
Ava was kept out of the endzone on two-point conversion attempts and the Panther offense stunned Ava with a 46-yard touchdown rush by quarterback Rhett Wakefield.
In the first half of that game the Ava offense converted to first down only once, on a carry by senior Kayden Myers. The Ava offense was eaten alive by their own actions by giving up 65 penalty yards and didn’t pull away from Mountain Grove until the second half.
With 226 combined rushing and passing yards, the Panthers had held Ava to the second lowest offensive gains in the 2019 season. The number lowest offensive yards were the 182 made against the Thayer Bobcats in Week 7. Comparing the two opponents, the lead shouldn’t have been so narrow.
Last Friday the Ava Bears rushed for 346 yards and passed/pitched for another 192 yards totaling 538 yards against Willow Springs. They were hard-fought.
Myers carried 21 times against the Bears for 226 yards with a long touchdown carry of 53 yards. This brings Myers to 1187 yards on the season over 166 carries with 20 touchdowns.
Ava picked up their first possession after Willow Springs gave up ten yards on a failed 38-yard drive, punting to Ava who fielded the ball at their own 16.
The Ava Bears played through an 84-yard drive for a touchdown by Spencer Skyles, who made the 49-yard pass reception on third-and-one for six points. Myers ran it in again for an additional two opening the game 8-0 over Willow Springs.
The Willow Bears failed in their second possession with a fumble recovered by Josh Bray on the Willow Springs’ 26. With the advantage of field possession Ava attempted a pass play on first-and-ten, but the ball fell in the attempt to Spencer Skyles.
Nate Swofford found a lane on second down and ran the 26 yards for Ava’s second touchdown in as many possessions. Bray made up for the incomplete pass with a quick sprint for two extra to open the Ava lead to 16-0.
The Willow Springs offense was successful on their third drive of 66 yards. Starting on their own 34, the Maroon Bears converted to first on three occasions. Two were on passes from Brady Walton to Tryton Henley and the third was from a 15-yard spot penalty called on Myers for allegedly targeting (intentional head-to-head contact) during his tackle.
The three conversions accounted for 53 of the 66 yards leaving an easy go for Willow Springs from the Ava three. Henley carried the ball and found the pay dirt for six points, but their two-point conversion was foiled with an interception by Zach Mendel.
The kickoff ensued with a 31-yard kick by Simeon Dashkevich which was picked up by Swofford who took a big hit and was stripped of the ball for a fumble recovered by Willow Springs on the Ava 29.
This brings Ava to ten fumbles this season, three of which were forced by Mountain Grove in Week Three.
The Ava defense seemed to be holding the Willow Springs offense with the down marker moving to fourth-and-six as the clock ended the first quarter.
Instead, Chris Miller came up with 14 yards for a fresh set of downs at the Ava 11. Henley made a catch for 11 yards which included a leap over Ava defenders into the endzone to earn six more for the Maroon Bears.
The conversion was no good and the kickoff resulted in a touchback starting Ava on their own 20 with 4:51 left in the half.
Skyles tried the first rush but was stopped for no gain followed by Myers who rushed for 38 yards cutting down Tristan Stetina on his way to the Willow Springs’ 32.
Two option pitches and a shuttle pass collected nine yards for the Ava offense who now faced a fourth-and-inches situation. Ava converted fourth downs on four occasions Friday tying themselves from the game against Thayer.
They succeeded finding the end of the chain with a three-yard keeper by Swofford who earned the first-and-ten at the Willow Springs’ 20. Myers carried four times for 14 yards to convert to first from fourth a second time, this time on the Willow Springs’ four.
Who else to do the leg work than the senior who rushed for 226 yards on Friday? Myers took the ball in and Swofford made the two extra to put the board at 32-12 before the halftime break with just 10.8 seconds left for Willow Springs to do something with.
They gained one yard at the beginning of the possession but settled for the clock expiring to halftime.
GAINS AND SETBACKS
Willow Springs had found a weapon to use against the Ava Bears and they ran misdirection and counters to eat up the Ava defense in the third quarter. Ava fielded the ball for a start at their own 32.
It took seven minutes and 18 seconds for the Ava offense to find the pay dirt again. A hard-fought 68-yard drive which consumed the most of the third quarter. Eating up the clock was beneficial for Ava, but the offense had to earn yards on the way as they gave up 30 yards on penalties along the way.
Myers was stuffed on his first carry, which picked up just over a yard, He carried again for two, but the offense needed to go airborne on third-and-seven if they wanted to keep the drive alive.
Swofford found Mendel who caught the ball on a leap with a defender attached to his hip. The catch was worth 17 yards and a fresh set of downs for the Ava offense.
The Ava offense struggled to make yards after Myers picked up the first five. A pass to Josh Bray fell incomplete and Myers only made three more making it a fourth-and-two situation. Again the Ava offense would convert to first down, but this time at the charity of Willow Springs.
An encroachment penalty moved the chains forward to the Willow Springs’ 34. It seemed certain that Ava would score again.
Then the yellow litter fell on the field, officials calling a block in the back against Myers for a loss of 15 yards. The offense occurred behind the line of scrimmage which turned a first-and-ten into a first-and-27 for Ava.
Myers picked up the first five before Nate Swofford was put under immense pressure on second down. The senior scrambled and read the field to find Myers up field for a 16-yard gain to bring up third-and-five.
A pitch to Bray was read by the Willow Springs defense who stopped him for a loss of three. Fourth down and eight to go.
Blake King made it into the books for a second consecutive game. He made a passing gain of three against Cabool and made the reception for 30 this past Friday, putting Ava on the Willow Springs one-yard line.
First-and-one turned into first-and-six after Ava committed a foul start. Followed up with another shot in their own foot, the Ava offense was set back another ten yards on a holding call.
Still first down, Skyles made a catch for 13 yards back to the Willow Springs’ two. Myers was denied the endzone, making it third-and-inches.
Swofford found a gap and ran it in for his third touchdown of the game but Ava came up short on the conversion with movement everywhere across the endzone.
What should have been a 68-yard drive turned into a 98-yard push considering penalties against Ava. The offense spent more than half of the quarter on the field on that one drive alone.
Willow Springs again surprised Ava with a 62-yard rush by Kyle Wood on a counter which was not read by the Ava defense. A big gap gave Wood room to maneuver and out pace the secondary for the touchdown. Willow Springs picked up the extra two, closing the gap on Ava, 38-26, after the Ava Bears failed on their following possession, resulting in a punt.
A HALLOWEEN SCARE
Although it is a week before witches, ghouls and goblins take to the streets asking for candy, it felt as if they had all descended on the Ava Bears to deliver a trick instead of a treat.
Willow Springs had just scored thanks to a 25-yard punt fake by Henley and a 29-yard rush by Brady Walton for six. The kickoff afterward went deep into Ava territory and looked as if it were going to find the endzone for a touchback. Josh Bray was tasked with returning the ball but was confused on what to do in the situation.
A pack of Willow Springs Bears came clobbering down the field and piled on the ball as the group slid into the endzone.
A line judge’s hands went up signaling a touchdown. Near disaster for the Ava Bears as it would have made the game 38-32, a one possession game.
Luckily Ava special teams dodged the Death Knell when the officiating team concluded that Willow Springs had no control of the ball to determine possession.
The pigskin, which had stopped at the three yard line, was treated as a touchback. Understandably, the call upset many in the stands while relieving the other half of the spectators from a tense momentum-stealing occurrence.
Myers closed the gap back up with new life in the fourth quarter and a 50-yard carry where he stiff-armed Avery Stolba into the dirt after breaking out of a tackle. Skyles took the ball in for the extra two points putting Ava up 46-26.
After the scare and recovery by the Ava offense for eight points, the Willow Springs offense was deflated after the turned over call earlier. Losing the call and having Ava score on top of that was likely a blow to the Willow Springs team.
With 9:43 left in the game they took to the field and pushed themselves back 15 yards on penalties. A 31-yard pass helped Willow Springs recover to their own 49 with a fresh set of downs. Adding a 35-yard rush by Wood on a counter play Willow Springs moved up to the Ava 16 with four new downs to play with.
They converted to first down again at the Ava five, but a momentous sack on Walton led to a fumble recovered by Ava on their own 11. 89-yards later Ava scored again on a six-snap drive to make the game 54-26.
The Ava junior varsity got more playing time with the more-than-double lead. Walton found Justin Caney for a touchdown but Willow Springs failed to convert for two points.
Ava got the ball back with 1:42 left in the game and plenty of play clock to cover the game clock. Zach Richards carried for six yards before Mendel took knees into fourth down where the clock ran out.
At the end of 48 minutes, Ava had topped Willow Springs 54-32 and seized the SCA Championship outright for a third consecutive year amid scares and some doubts on the field.
HERE WE GO, AGAIN
Ava’s lackluster performance against Mountain Grove in Week 3 was brought back up this week because of the seeding in the Class 2 District 3 Tournament.
Ava will play the Panthers for a second time this season on Friday, November 1st at Silvey Field. At this point in the season a single loss means an elimination from the MSHSAA Tournament. On paper, the Panthers are completely outmatched by the Ava Bears.
However, the 20-6 result in Week 3 was from an Ava Bear underperformance (or an overperformance from Mountain Grove) in a heated conference rivalry. Whether it be devotion or detestation, the Panthers bucked the Ava Bears and kept them to 20 points.
That win was the second lowest-scoring success Ava has had this year, the clash against Thayer (12-6) being the least number of points Ava has scored all season.
It isn’t secret that Ava has enjoyed success these past three years and have come to be comfortable with large-margined wins.
That comfort should have been shaken in Willow Springs last week and could have an impact on Friday’s rematch. An 0-7 record isn’t a pushover when that team held Ava to 20 points.