WILLARD — The Neosho Wildcats improved to 5-3 overall and Central Ozark Conference with a gritty 21-14 victory Friday night over the Willard Tigers at Tiger Stadium.

That’s five wins for the Wildcats against teams it lost to during last season, and the Wildcats assured themselves of their third winning regular season record in the last four seasons and first under second year head coach Leon Miller.

A win next week in the regular season finale against Republic and the Wildcats guarantee their third winning season overall in four years.

Neosho remained No. 2 in the Class 4, District 6 standings and the Wildcats will most likely face Monett first in the district playoffs.

Neosho and Willard were tied at 14 at halftime, and the Wildcats managed to keep Willard out of the end zone in the second half and Cade Lyerla scored the winning touchdown on a 13-yard run with 11 minutes, 2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

On a night when Neosho quarterback Gage Kelley only attempted two passes, nothing unusual for the Wildcats offense, a 21-yard pass and catch with skilled tight end Tre Letts down the Willard sideline to the Willard 13 put the Wildcats back in business after Willard controlled possession for the vast majority of the third quarter. Two plays later, Lyerla found the end zone.

On their next offensive possession, after forcing Willard into its second consecutive turnover on downs, the Wildcats looked as if they could make it a two-score game after Donnie Fox’s 32-yard burst on the first play and a Lyerla 8-yard run down to the Willard 9. A holding penalty derailed this promising drive for the Wildcats and then Willard sacked Kelley on fourth down.

Neosho forced a Willard fumble on the subsequent drive and then stopped the Tigers on the game’s final possession.

Senior running backs Lyerla and Fox scored on 30- and 63-yard scoring runs in the first quarter, while Willard’s Garrett Rice scored the Tigers’ first points on a 4-yard run.

Reece Dawson and Ethan Thompson connected on a 32-yard touchdown pass late in the second quarter for a tie game at halftime.

Neither team scored in the third quarter, but Willard had a promising drive on the opening possession after the first 10 plays set up a fourth-and-5 for the Tigers at the Neosho 28. On this play, Dawson and Thompson connected on a gain more than good enough for a first down, but the Tigers were guilty of a 15-yard personal foul penalty and this negated the first down and pushed the ball out to the Neosho 43 for a fourth-and-20. Willard elected to punt.

Unofficially, Fox led Neosho with 120 yards rushing on 11 carries and Lyerla added 47 yards and two scores on 13 carries. Letts caught the only Neosho pass completed for 21 yards.

Dawson passed for 142 yards and one TD on 9 for 18 accuracy and rushed for 45 yards on seven carries. Rice carried the load with 94 yards and one TD on 21 carries. Maurice Grayer made five grabs for 85 yards and Thompson came up with the 32-yard TD for his only reception.

Neosho moves onward and forward against Republic in Week 9.

Neosho and Republic (coached by former Neosho head coach Dustin Baldwin) split their two meetings last season, with Republic victorious in the regular season on a touchdown on the game’s final play and Neosho victorious in the district playoffs.

The Tigers own a 2-6 record and they come off a 42-26 loss to Carthage, showing a more respectable effort against 7-1 Carthage than Neosho did earlier this season.

Louis Wallace rushed for 100 yards and one TD on 11 carries against Carthage, while Riley Sigman added 98 yards on 10 carries and Lucas Hayes picked up 69 yards on 17 carries and he found the end zone three times.

Turnovers and penalties have been Republic’s weakness the past two seasons, including the games last season against Neosho.

The Wildcats have been very opportunistic this season, in their victories, with cashing in on turnovers and not only during Letts’ 96-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Ozark and his 17-yard interception return for a TD against Carl Junction, both games victories at Bob Anderson Stadium.

Neosho’s defense has played its best football the past four weeks and it has not surrendered more than two offensive touchdowns in a game since a 49-7 loss to Carthage in Week 4. Joplin, Carl Junction, and Willard each scored two offensive TDs, and Joplin’s third TD came on a long interception return.