By Jason Hoekema
LAMAR – The football senior class of 2020 has cast a shadow upon future players as they travel uncharted territory into the Missouri State Class 2 State Championship.
Not an entry in the local records book ever followed the title “State Semifinalist.”
That title never existed in Douglas County before Saturday, November 23, 2019, and on that date the Ava Bears football program made history.
In the Ava records – organized and tracked since 1948 there are:
11 South Central Association Conference titles.
12 District Championship titles.
Eight appearances in the State Quarterfinals.
Now, a State Quarterfinal contest won for the Bears’ first-ever appearance in the State Semifinal contest to be held on Saturday, November 30 at Silvey Field.
Third time was a charm versus the Lamar Tigers who have passed the torch to the Bears, one Lamar coach telling the Ava players, “Now go get your ring.”
No one could have predicted that the Bears would be up, 6-0, within the first minute of play. The Tigers won the toss and elected to defer to the second half, putting the pigskin in Nate Swofford’s hands.
Settled on their own 25, Swofford led the first snap for no gain on the play as the traveling fan base grimaced at the idea of a three-peat loss to Lamar.
Then out of the woodwork appeared Swofford carrying the ball up the left side for an out-of-the-box 75-yard touchdown quarterback keeper with 11:05 left on the clock.
From the three the Bears were kept out of the endzone, limiting their points to six.
No one could have predicted that the Bears would have done it a second time, either.
With 8:07 left in the first quarter the Bears’ squared off on their own 35. Swofford picked up the first yard putting the offense in a long second down situation.
A pitch to the right side and into the hands of Spencer Skyles moved the chains forward for Ava after the 10-yard rush. The logical move was to let Kayden Myers loose on the Lamar defense to see what he could do.
On their own 46 the Bears’ handoff went to the senior running back but he was sniffed-out early by the defense who kept him at no gain on the play.
Another long second down situation loomed over the Bears offense until a pass scheme put junior Zach Mendel wide open on the flat.
The catch came over the shoulder as Mendel’s eyes widened to the realization that he was unabated with a clear shot to the pay dirt. 54 yards later the Bears picked up another six.
“It was crazy,” said Mendel. “I caught the ball and I saw the end zone. I just ran as fast as I could, and it was like I was moving in slow motion. I really wasn’t expecting to be that wide open in this game. A great throw by Nate (Swofford).”
Lamar had one answer before the clock dried, putting up eight of their own to keep within striking reach of the Bears’ lead.
The Bears picked up a turnover possession after the Tigers failed to convert the fourth down at the beginning of the second quarter.
The Bears started off well and converted on third down, but a pick intended for Josh Bray wound-up in the hands of Austin Wilkerson, a six-foot-tall freshman.
The Tigers couldn’t hold on to that momentum shift. Instead, they punted the pig away with 7:42 left in the half after the Ava defense held them to a four-snap possession, stopping Lamar on fourth-and-two.
Bray took the first carry up the right side of the formation for a gain of five. Swofford tried the keeper again but was stuffed at the line putting the Bears at third-and-five.
On the third snap Swofford faked the pass play action as Skyles made off toward the home-side sideline with the ball for a gain of 13 and a fresh set of downs.
Swofford was pulled down for a loss of one on the Bears’ first-and-10, but he made up for it with a 10-yard gain on the option keeper up the right side. The ball was set to end up in the arms of Myers, who just needed to make the yard for a conversion.
Instead of one, he picked up four to place the ball on the Ava 49. Then trouble reared its ugly head.
A foul start from an otherwise disciplined offense cost Ava five yards for a first-and-15 first down replay. Swofford figured out how to weave through the Lamar defense for a gain of 22, more than making up for the offensive blunder on the previous snap.
The Bears’ offensive and defensive lines were disciplined this game and gave up a season record-low of 10 yards on penalties through four quarters.
Swofford picked up another four before Myers trucked through the line for seven and a new set with just 2:52 left in the half.
Burning the clock down to just 20 seconds before the horn, Ava took a timeout to regroup and figure out how to make the final four yards for another touchdown.
The Lamar defense had made them work to get that far with the longest play at 13 yards on a pitch to Bray.
The snap and less than four seconds later Myers was in the endzone screaming in celebration as the team came up to congratulate him on a touchdown rush.
Lamar didn’t have time to do much with the ball after the kickoff, so the clock blanked before the marching band took to the field.
Saturday the Bears put up 617 rushing yards and another 66 passing over 46 snaps. The offense maintained possession of the ball for roughly 24 minutes, or half of the total game clock.
Overall the Bears’ offense was managing to average 14.85 yards per carry but performed below their average for yards made on first downs. This year they have averaged 13.37 yards on the fresh set snap but were held to just 2.52 yards average on first down against the Tigers.
This game did not see as many turnovers as the match against Thayer when the Bears gave up the ball eight times in their 12-6 overtime win. The Bears were unable to make it to the other end just five times against a state-renowned defense.
Myers was put into his secondary role as the plow ahead of the runner once Lamar got a bead on him as Ava’s go-to running back. Saturday, he carried for just 33 yards over 12 rushes, but he still put six up on the board for the Bears.
“As long as we’re moving the ball consistently, I’m good,” said Myers. “I don’t need the touches and carries or yards. I know my role in this offense and (it’s to) get the ball downfield no matter how.”
Some of his contributions besides running the ball up the middle included blocking for Swofford who rushed for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Swofford also threw for 66 yards over four attempts, with the one pick in the second. One pass found Mendel perfectly up the middle which resulted in a 54-yard touchdown pass completion.
Pinch Me, I’m Defending
After the break the Bears came back out and put another eight on the board bringing them to 26 points scored on the three-time season ending team.
Swofford found the pay dirt after he broke loose for a 45-yard touchdown rush. This was after Mendel picked up a dropped ball for a momentum swing against Lamar.
Swofford wasn’t stopped for the two-point conversion putting Ava up over Lamar, 26-8, the greatest lead between these two State Championship showdown rivals.
Lamar needed to make up ground, and fast but Bray became a major problem for the Tigers in the second half. In the third quarter alone, he made no less than four defensive plays. In the fourth Bray came back up with another three big plays.
The first was on the Tigers’ second-and-six where Bray found a slot through the offensive line and straight to Donte Stahl for a six-yard sack, forcing Lamar to punt.
On the Tigers’ next possession, a turnover from the Ava offense, Bray came up with a big tackle on a toss between Cody O’Sullivan and Cade Griffith for a loss of a yard.
It took a passing play to neutralize the senior linebacker where the Tigers picked up 13 yards to their own 37. On the very next snap Bray came out hunting for the carrier, Griffith, and took him down behind the line for a loss of five.
“They are just so big up front,” said coach Swofford. “We take our little guys and we go out up against them. People make fun of me about how we play defense, because our guys go after their legs and we take a little guy (and put him) on a big guy. I either get made fun of or people are in awe. Today, you need to be in awe on because it was great. It was just a great scheme and the guys worked it to perfection. Josh did happen, he absolutely took over the fourth quarter. Every time we had to have a big play, he had a big play out back there in the backfield.”
After two offensive foul starts against the Tigers, they were forced to kick it away after the big plays made by Bray on defense.
The fourth quarter was spent with the Tigers making short gains. They started their final drive of the competition on their own 35 with just 1:06 remaining in regulation.
“It took us three years to figure this one out: Don’t look at the quarterback,” said coach Swofford. You look at a few guys running around, and they’ll take you to where you need to be. That’s what Josh, I think that’s what Josh’s deal was. He keyed the right guys that we talked about and it worked out.”
Swofford had the ball pop loose near the Tigers’ 35, providing Lamar with one final shot to get the last word in a game led by the Bears, 26-14.
At this point of the game clock management was a concern for both teams. Lamar could score and squib the kickoff in hopes of a fumble recovery. Or Ava could force the turnover and walk away with the win.
The Tigers pulled out the stops and went almost exclusively to their passing game. An 18-yard pass to JD Bishop put the Tigers across the 50-yardline on the Bears’ 47. A short toss for three moved them up some more before Stahl had nowhere to go on third-and-one.
The sack cost Lamar five yards, placing them in a fourth-and-six situation. With all the cards on the table the punt was out of the question. Instead, Stahl found Alex De La Torre-Patrzalek on the flat for a nine-yard first down conversion.
Now on the Ava 40, the Bears went into pass defense mode.
First down, incomplete.
Second down. Incomplete with no one there.
Third down, no gain.
Finally, on fourth down the Bears made the stop and Lamar turned over the ball.
The possession meant the Bears were going to kneel and run the clock out for the long-awaited victory.
It’s crazy,” said Mendel. “I can’t even comprehend it all.”
“I’ve been chasing this win for (three) years now,” said Myers after the win. “I think it means more now that I’m a senior and I’ve been playing with these guys for three or four years. I just couldn’t help but start crying. It’s just so… I can’t really explain. I don’t know how to explain it. You know, it’s the most meaningful thing in my life at this point.”
The Bears are stacked up against the Clark County Indians in the MSHSAA State Class 2 Semifinal contest. The game will be held in Ava on Saturday at 2 P.M. at Silvey Field.
There is no history on these two teams meeting in recent years, then again, the Bears are in the process of writing this new chapter.
The Bears do have a statistical edge over the Indians with an average of 37.5 points per game over Clark County’s 35.7.
However, the Indian defense may prove to be a challenge for Ava. Clark County has averaged an allowed 9.5 points per game whereas the Bears have allowed an average of 14.6 point to slip by this year.
The Indians are the Class 2 District 6 champions three years running and have one state title under their belt from 2008 before the program went into a rebuild until 2012, then again until 2017.
They come to the Bears’ den with an overall record of 12-1 and have a 4-1 road record this season. Ava has been perfect at Silvey at 5-0 this season.
The winner of that contest will go on to the State Championship which is scheduled for December 6 at 3 P.M. at Faurot Field in Columbia, Missouri.
On the other end of the bracket is Lutheran North High School. The Crusaders are undefeated this year and have blanked three of their four playoff opponents. They advanced over Scott City with a 57-8 win.
They will face Lathrop in the State Semifinals. The Mules advanced to this next round with a 38-6 win over Summit Christian Academy. However, they nearly had their postseason cut short with a 29-28 win over Maryville on November 15.
“I’m happy for these boys,” said Ava R-1 Superintendent Jason Dial. They’ve worked so hard. Coach Swofford and his staff worked hard every day. Swofford works with the kids year-round and talks to his seniors every year about what leadership means. That’s evident out here. We made it to this level three years in-a-row and people didn’t think we could win this game. But those kids believe in (coach) Swofford. They believe in the staff. In-turn, those coaches believe in those boys. They never let their heads down. I’m proud of them.”