By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Joplin’s hopes for an outright Ozark Conference title are nonexistent.
A tie for the league crown would require all kinds of outside help.
But don’t tell the Eagles and head coach Chris Shields that their clash tonight at Camdenton isn’t a big game.
The Eagles and Lakers, both 4-3 overall and in Ozark play, kick off at 7 at Bob Shore Stadium.
“You get to this point in the season and every game is huge,” Shields said. “At this point, this is the biggest game of the year, and that’s all that matters.”
The Eagles are still playing for a shot at hosting a first-round district playoff game.
Joplin is currently sixth in Class 6 District 4 with 33.64. Liberty (also 4-3) is currently fourth — the final home-field spot — with 34.59 points.
“There is no doubt this is a big game,” Shields said. “We still have a lot of things we want to prove.”
Joplin is bracing for the Lakers’ traditional ground attack, which is led by senior Murphy Ward. Last Friday, in a 36-0 win over Waynesville, Ward became the school’s all-time leading rusher, eclipsing the mark set by Dennis Chairs from 2003 to 2005.
“They’re going to play smash-mouth football and that’s something we need to relish and welcome,” Shields said. “They’re physical. They have big guys up front and they like to run it. I think we’ll see a lot of double-tight ... a lot of power, toss, isolation stuff.
“Those are the kind of games you’ve got to love as a defense. There isn’t a lot of tricky schemes or stunts, it’s just smash-mouth. You line up and play football.”
Joplin gave up 267 rushing yards to Lebanon in a 28-24 loss last Friday, 236 of them to Brock West. But 171 of West’s yards came in the first half and 65 came on one play, a second-quarter touchdown run that sparked Lebanon’s rally from a 21-0 deficit.
“It seems like, even when we’re playing well defensively, we give up one home run a game,” Shields said. “We play well for a quarter or a half and then it’s like ‘here’s your 70-yard play.’
“We have to stay hungry and be consistent and we have to finish people off.”
Joplin has a proven commodity in Chris Payton-Barba. The senior running back once again eclipsed the 100-yard mark in Friday’s loss, but he had just 19 after the first quarter.
When opposing defenses make adjustments to stop the run, Joplin’s passing attack hasn’t been able to consistently make the key plays needed.
“We have to have a counter-punch,” Shields said. “Our first punch is good. But when they take Chris away, we have to have somebody else step up and make a play.”