If there is any shred of credibility regarding the theory of karma, perhaps the Branson Pirates got a bit of what was coming to them on Friday.
If you’ve ever been suckered into one of those “get free Branson show tickets if you listen to our obnoxious timeshare sales pitch,” you know where this is going.
When it was said and done, the Pirates got to see their show in the form of a 44-35 victory, but they also sat through three hours of headache and frustration that perhaps took some zing out of the outcome because the Wildcats just wouldn’t go away.
“In my mind, this one’s a loss for us,” a frustrated Pirates fan said after Neosho drew within 38-35 late in the game.
In reality, the Pirates got what mattered the most, the win, and moved to 2-2 overall. But despite taking a 31-14 lead into halftime in the back yard of the Yakov Smirnoff Theatre, this one in no way ended up a laugher.
Neosho (0-4) made it exciting late while tormenting its opponent for the third week in a row. A pair of big play touchdowns, including a 50 yard hook-and-lateral from Austin Hailey to Bryce Murphy to Justin McKee, and a 49 yard catch and run by McKee drew the Wildcats within three (38-35) with 1:49 left in the game.
The ensuing onside kick eluded the Pirates’ hands crew, but squeaked out of bounds before Neosho could get a hand on it and gave the ball back to Branson at their 38 with 1:49 left. Neosho burned its final timeout on the first down play, then proceeded to hold the Pirates to 3rd-and-2 with 1:13 left when Branson’s Jordan Bailey found a lane and sprinted 54 yards to the end zone with 52 seconds left to ice it.
In the end the Wildcats went home unsatisfied. A few breaks the past three weeks could have had them at 3-1 rather than 0-4. Their focus, however, remains on the future and the work that is left to be done.
“Eventually you have to get there (and win),” Wildcats coach Dustin Baldwin said. “Look, it is what it is, and that is that we are not doing what we want to do to win a football game. Yes, you feel like (the recent play) is positive, but in the end, eventually you’ve got to get there. You’ve got to get it done.”
Allowing few big plays and a crucial turnover turned into the downfall for the Wildcats. Oh, and Bailey was an issue, too. The shifty senior back carried 13 times for a whopping 195 yards and two touchdowns. He also added an 89 yard kick return for a touchdown and had a key interception with 2:45 left in the first half that set up a Branson 37 yard touchdown strike one play later to make it 31-14.
Page 2 of 3 - Another key was Branson’s ability to hit the big play. After Da’Quan Ervin returned the opening kick of the game to
Neosho’s 32, Bailey scored from 31 yards out on the second play from scrimmage. That set up a run in which every Pirates scoring drive lasted four plays or less. In order, their scoring summary went: Two, four, kick return, one, one, three and three plays each.
“The problem is, even from us as a coaching staff we have to take care of the little things and paying attention to detail,” Wildcats coach Dustin Baldwin said. “We have to even pay attention to the little things we are doing and that shows up on the field. That’s the difference between winning and losing (Friday) is just a lot of little details that we didn’t take care of.”
There’s no questioning Neosho’s fight. While Bailey was leading the Pirates’ war cry, McKee was doing the same for the Wildcats. Despite playing the game with severe back pain, and having subsequently been pushed out of bounds and landing in a concrete drainage ditch that surrounds the field in the early stages of the game, McKee helped carry the Wildcats when the going got tough. The senior wide receiver finished with eight catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns.
“I cannot tell you the effort in which Justin McKee played with having a hurt back,” Baldwin said. “Some of the plays he made really showed a lot of character and, man, just toughness. He was hurting and made a lot of plays.”
Junior quarterback Austin Hailey also had a good night as he connected on 21 of 45 pass attempts for 274 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. He helped guide the Wildcats back in the second half as they capped the opening drive on a two-yard touchdown run by Dayton Bolton to make it 31-21. That drive set the tone for Neosho’s offense in the second half.
“Great possession to start the second half,” Baldwin said.
The Wildcats showed the type of balance on offense they’d been craving all season. While Hailey hooked up with Calvin Coon and McKee twice, senior Davin Bentz handled the load between the tackles as he rushed 19 times for 108 yards.
“It was probably the most proud I’ve been of them all year,” Baldwin said of the overall performance of his team. “(There’s) a lot of fight in them.
“We strive to be balanced and I thought we were tonight. It makes us tougher to cover when we are balanced.”
The Wildcats cut Branson’s lead to 17-14 with 5:59 to go in the half when Hailey hooked up with Coon on a four-yard strike. The Pirates would answer with two touchdowns in the final 3:26 of the half, as Ervin broke free on a 73-yard run following a Neosho punt to make it 24-14 and, following Bailey’s interception, Ervin again bit the Wildcats when he hit Isaiah Daniels on a 37-yard pass just before the half.
Page 3 of 3 - The Wildcats got back in it in the fourth quarter thanks to a little trickery. After Bentz recovered a fumble at the 50, the Wildcats called for the hook-and-lateral on the first play of the drive, and it worked to perfection as Hailey hit Bryce Murphy for three yards and pitched it to McKee for the final 47 as he broke a slew of tackles down the Branson sideline to make it 38-28. McKee would later add a 49-yard touchdown grab with 1:49 left.
The Wildcats are on the road at 7 p.m. Friday in Carthage.