By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Joplin’s dream start turned into a nightmare on homecoming.
The Eagles bolted to a 21-0 first-quarter lead, but scored just three points the rest of the game —while Lebanon star running back Brock West ran wild — and dropped a key 28-24 Ozark Conference decision to the Lebanon Yellowjackets on Friday night at Junge Field.
“Homecoming night, as a senior, this is an emotional loss all around,” Joplin linebacker Lane Freeborn said. “It’s the same as the Parkview and Hillcrest games. The games we have lost, we had our chances, we just didn’t make plays when it mattered. It’s something we’ve been struggling with all season.”
Joplin definitely had its chances.
The Eagles led 21-0 and had all the momentum with 2:15 left in the first quarter. And even after Lebanon rallied with 21 unanswered before halftime, the Eagles took a 24-21 lead with Brock Renken’s 41-yard field goal in the third quarter and didn’t trail until Lebanon took advantage of a short field and scored the game-winner on West’s 2-yard run with 3:24 left in the game.
“It’s tough. We gave it away,” Joplin coach Chris Shields said. “You’re up 21-0, you can’t give it away.
“And they’re a great team. We were telling our kids at the time, even though we are up 21-0, they’re a great offensive team and they can always come back.”
As effective and efficient as Joplin’s offense was in the first quarter, its failure to make plays in the second half was key.
Joplin scored 21 points and racked up 237 yards in the first quarter. The Eagles scored three points and managed just 55 yards the rest of the way.
Chris Payton-Barba had 104 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries in the first quarter before finishing the night with 119 yards.
“It doesn’t matter what we see on film, teams are going to blitz the house and try to stop Chris and play man-to-man,” Shields said. “It seems like the first drive they come out and play their base and we move the ball with Chris. Then they load the box and come after us and take him out of the game. We have to have other guys step up and make plays when that happens ... and we didn’t tonight.”
Payton-Barba’s 14-yard touchdown opened the scoring early. Joplin recovered an onside kick and, on the next play, Gabe Sachetta hit Adam St. Peter for a 49-yard touchdown that made it 14-0. Joplin forced a three-and-out and — powered by Payton-Barba’s running and a 45-yard pass from Sachetta to Gavin Jones — went 86 yards on eight plays, taking a 21-0 lead on CPB’s 16-yard score with 2:15 left in the first.
But Lebanon began chipping away immediately.
West — who finished the night with 236 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries — went 65 yards untouched for a score on the next play from scrimmage.
Joplin punted but stopped Lebanon at its own 44 on the next drive, forcing a punt.
But the punt appeared to graze a Joplin player and — after a lengthy discussion — officials awarded the ball to Lebanon on its own 26. The Yellowjackets cashed in to make it 21-14.
“The whole momentum swung on that play,” Shields said of the punt. “We get a great stop on defense and it’s still 21-7 and we give it back to them. You can’t do that.”
After an interception the Yellowjackets tied the game with West’s 14-yard score on 4th-and-4 with 46 seconds left in the half.
“We’ve been in holes before and we’ve faced adversity in several games this year,” the 5-foot-7, 175-pound West said. “We couldn’t be moping on the sideline with our heads down. We had to keep our heads up and keep pushing.”
Joplin’s defense stiffened in the second half, forcing a fumble on Lebanon’s first drive and — after Renken’s field goal made it 24-21 with 8:48 left in the third — forcing four straight punts.
But Joplin’s offense punted four straight times too. All of the punts came after 3-and-outs and the last came on 4th-and-16 from the Eagle 1, giving Lebanon possession at the Joplin 26 with 5:54 remaining.
Five plays later West scored from 2 yards out to make it 28-24 with 3:24 left.
Joplin fumbled three plays later but the Eagle defense held on four straight plays, giving the offense the ball at its own 25 with 1:56 remaining. The Eagles moved to the 40 before a deep Sachetta pass from picked off to end it.
“Credit my assistant coaches ... we made some great defensive adjustments and played well in the second half,” Shields said. “But we have to make plays on offense. We had a couple dropped balls when we were wide open, we fumbled ... we can’t do that against good teams.”