Coaches often caution against making grand assumptions about teams based on their play in high school football jamborees. Rarely do teams tip their hand by showing much of the playbook, they only get 12 reps apiece on each side of the ball per opponent (drives start at the opponents’ 40), and first teamers usually don’t play all of those snaps.
There are caution points, yes, but most coaches tend to agree that the event is, in many ways, a good evaluation tool as teams prepare to enter the regular season. So while it might be premature for fans to call them contenders just yet, there’s no ignoring what the Neosho Wildcats showed everyone on Friday at JFK Stadium in Springfield, Mo.: They’re a team on the rise. Their arrow is pointed up. The Wildcats are making progress.
Ready to put a 0-10 campaign behind them, the Wildcats entered their jamboree at Springfield Parkview High School against Parkview, Willard and Cassville with a new attitude. Their first opponent, Parkview, bore the brunt of it all as the Wildcats pushed them around on both sides of the ball.
The Vikings began on offense, but could get little going against a stout Neosho defense that swarmed to the ball. The Vikings failed to move the ball more than 10 yards in any single stretch of their 12 offensive plays and came away with no points. After switching sides, the Wildcats made them pay when sophomore quarterback Kaden Roy flipped a screen pass to receiver Davin Bentz and watched him take it 40 yards for a Wildcats touchdown.
Neosho scored again on a 29-yard scramble by quarterback Landon Decker. 12 plays, two touchdowns. Progress.
The Wildcats’ test increased against Willard in the second matchup. The offense sputtered behind a host of penalties and a couple of mishandled footballs that kept them from getting much out of their 12 offensive reps. The defense, however, stole the show for the second time on the night.
The Tigers managed to find a hole in the Wildcats’ defense for the first time and moved the ball deep into Neosho territory. But just as the Wildcats needed a turnover, they got it when Bentz intercepted a tipped pass in the end zone to reset the drive. On the Tigers’ next play from Neosho’s 40, senior cornerback Justin McKee picked off a deep pass intended for the end zone for the Wildcats’ second takeaway in as many plays.
Following a fumbled snap, Neosho sacked Willard’s quarterback for a huge loss on the very next play. Three plays, two turnovers and a sack. Willard failed to reach the end zone. Progress.
Then came perhaps the toughest test against the likely state-ranked Cassville Wildcats. Neosho began the scrimmage on offense and wasted no time marching down the field. After reaching Cassville’s one-yard line, Roy sneaked across the goal line for a Neosho touchdown.
Page 2 of 2 - When Cassville took over, Neosho quickly forced a turnover and held the Wildcats at bay until the 11th play, when Cassville scored on an 11-yard pass. Versus a veteran team that’s expected to be ranked in the state when polls come out next week, Neosho played to a 1-1 touchdown draw. Progress.
“We were pleased with our effort,” first-year Wildcats head coach Dustin Baldwin said. “We have a lot to clean up … but, certainly, we saw a lot of bright spots, a lot of good things. If we line up right, know what we’re doing and give a lot of effort, we’ll have a chance to be successful.
“We certainly showed that we have enough physical ability to be a good team.”
Baldwin pointed to several positives, including play at quarterback, a position battle that has yet to be decided between the sophomore Roy, junior Austin Hailey and in some capacity Decker (all three saw action behind center in the jamboree), along with solid play by the defense as the bright spots on the night, among others.
“I certainly saw a better defense than what I saw on film from last year,” Baldwin said. “We’re running to the football for the most part. We still need to line up better, but I was pleased. I’m happy. The kids played hard and for the most part I felt like they’re playing hard, playing together and good things are going to happen.
“I think our quarterback situation still is just kind of neck-and-neck: Just waiting on one person to kind of take it over. But I was pretty happy with the defense based on the numbers we allowed last year, and I thought we were able to improve on that tonight. Hopefully we can transfer that into real Friday nights.”
When the night was over Neosho saw action in 36 offensive plays and 36 more on defense. They scored three touchdowns. Their opponents scored one. Progress.