The Neosho Wildcats waited six fewer weeks this season to taste the thrill of victory than last by virtue of a dominating 35-0 victory Friday night over the Ozark Tigers at Bob Anderson Stadium.
Donnie Fox’s opening kickoff return into Ozark territory established a tone favoring Neosho and the Wildcats kept that tone reverberating through Ozark until the final gun.
Neosho’s offensive and defensive lines controlled both lines of scrimmage and the Wildcats imposed their will on the Tigers, gashing them for over 300 rushing yards and dominating time of possession. Meanwhile, Ozark did not have the ball in Neosho territory until the second half.
Making his first varsity start at quarterback, junior Gage Kelley rushed for (unofficially) 156 yards and four touchdowns and completed his only forward pass of the night. Kelley scored Neosho’s lone touchdown against Ozark last season and his first five varsity TDs have all been against Ozark.
With Ozark knocking on the door for the first time almost halfway through the third quarter, Neosho’s defense came through with a big play to not only help preserve a shutout but to close the scoring.
Neosho defenders Drayke Perry and Quincey Willis stripped an Ozark ball carrier of the football around the 5-yard line and senior linebacker Tre Letts rushed in to pick up the loose ball and he took off for a 96-yard fumble return for touchdown.
This play joins Adrian Hitchcock’s 91-yard blocked field goal return for a touchdown last season in the Wildcats’ football folklore.
Neosho — 1-0 overall, 1-0 Central Ozark Conference — hits the road in Week 2 to Branson. The Pirates won a 19-13 season opener against Republic.
“At our team camp and at jamboree, we noticed our kids are coming out ready to go and to play hard,” Neosho head coach Leon Miller said. “We hoped that it would carry over tonight and boy, it did.”
The Wildcats have T-shirts that say “Lineman Lead the Way” and they certainly did on both sides of the ball Friday night.
“Offensive line played well, really well,” Miller said. “Ozark does a lot of blitzing, we picked it up and hurt them. Defensive line played well. I thought Kipp Box, Sean Moran, Drew Osborn, those guys upfront, they controlled the line of scrimmage all game. It was huge for us.
“He (Kelley) made some nice reads and it’s easier to make them reads when you have a little cushion to do that. He made some nice plays with his legs and you know, he got the ball where he should for the most part. Thought he played pretty well for a first-time starter.”
Last season, with a varsity lineup mostly thin on varsity experience, Neosho opened with back-to-back road games. On Friday night, a raucous Bob Anderson Stadium crowd had plenty to cheer for and both the fans and the players seemed to feed off each other.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to describe,” Miller said. “We had a little bit of buzz this week. Our kids weren’t overconfident, they were just confident. They felt good about their preparation and their offseason work, that it was going to pay off. Think the student body picked up on that. We sure do appreciate the crowd support tonight. It was tremendous.”
Miller hopes the momentum from Friday night carries over into a week of practice and then into a game against Branson.
“It will,” Miller said, “with these kids. The thing about these kids is that they don’t get too high with the highs and too low with the lows. They just keep plowing, OK, and that’s what I like about this group.”
Overall, against Ozark, Neosho unofficially outgained its opponent 315-133 and controlled possession for 27 minutes.
In addition to Kelley’s 156 yards and four scores, Cade Lyerla added 73 yards, Fox 40, and Perry 21.
Ozark’s returning 1,000-yard rusher Ethan Sandoval was limited to 29 yards on 10 carries.
Around the COC
— Branson 19, Republic 13
So much for the Republic Tigers enjoying their new stadium in style and you can thank the Branson Pirates for relishing the role of the spoiler. Branson’s Jay Hill scored on a pair of rushing touchdowns, Britt Pierce intercepted a pair of Republic passes, and Colton VanderLaan’s fumble recovery set up Stephen Derks’ go-ahead 1-yard TD run late in the fourth quarter. Chase Moody led Branson with 128 yards on 19 carries. Jaden Duvall had both Republic scores.
— Carthage 38, Nixa 7
The Tigers dominated the visiting Eagles to the tune of over 450 yards of total offense for the Tigers compared to under 100 for the Eagles. Tyler Mueller had 113 yards and two scores on 13 carries, leading a host of Carthage ball carries. The Tigers won their first season opener since 2013.
— Joplin 41, Willard 18
The Eagles won their inaugural COC game in resounding fashion, especially in the second half after building a 14-7 halftime lead. Isaiah Davis scored three touchdowns for the Eagles, while Jake Flowers, Zech Stayton, and Zach Westmoreland each found the end zone once.
— Webb City 42, Carl Junction 9
Cade Beason rushed for 102 yards and three touchdowns on 10 carries in his first varsity start at quarterback, while Durand Henderson added 104 yards on 15 carries and Devin Weathers 60 yards and one TD. Beason threw two early interceptions and Carl Junction led 9-7 in the second quarter, but the Cardinals rattled off 35 unanswered points and kept Carl Junction out of the end zone in a second half that favored Webb City 21-0.