By Anvil Welch
Globe Sports Writer
The Joplin Crusaders again are atop the Central Football League.
The 14-year-old Crusaders won their sixth crown and first since 2009 by beating defending champion Enid (Okla.) 21-7 on Saturday night in Fred G. Hughes Stadium at Missouri Southern State University.
Said Joplin coach Dave Pitts: “Maybe it wasn’t pretty. But we won.”
The start of the game was delayed an hour — kicking off at 8 p.m. — because of the heavy rainfall. Few rain drops fell, however, during the contest on the artificial surface.
“This defensive performance may have been our best of the season,” Pitts, who also serves as the defensive coordinator, said. “We were able to beat an outstanding team with an equally good offense.”
The teams — Joplin won 31-28 during the regular season — met afterward in the middle of the field and exchanged compliments before a prayer.
The Enforcers, who won the playoffs in 2012 by rallying for a 28-21 stunning victory at Joplin, yielded grudgingly and more than once seemed on the verge of catching the Crusaders.
Joplin, although it tallied the last three touchdowns, didn’t produce the clincher until late.
The Crusaders snapped a 7-7 tie at 5:49 in the third period in startling fashion.
Enid, punting, unleashed a bad snap and the Crusaders’ Jordan Highley recovered the ball on the Enforcer 22-yard line.
Brenden Gubera, the Joplin offensive coordinator, pounced on the miscue.
Quarterback Matt Thompson lofted the ball toward Matt Rice in the right corner of the end zone.
“We had a nice matchup (a shorter defender),” Gubera said. “Matt (Thompson) threw a great ball. Matt (Rice) did a nice job of going up and getting it.”
Said former Crusader owner Charlie Hudson: “Both (the defender and Rice) appeared to catch the ball. Rice took it.”
Jason Bromley, limping, kicked his second of three extra points for the 14-7 advantage.
The clinching TD didn’t come until 1:47 left in the game. It was set up Blu Cato’s second interception of the fourth period.
His first theft early in the quarter came on second-and-6 from the Joplin 26. Enid, on its ensuing possession, threw incomplete on fourth-and-13 from the Joplin 21 at about the five-minute mark. Cato’s second theft — he had a third erased by a penalty — came with the Enforcers facing second-and-4 from the Joplin 42.
Cato returned the ball some 50 yards to the Enid 15 with less than three minutes remaining. The Crusaders lost two yards before Rice gained 10 on an end-around. Quarterback Robert Lockett then rolled out and zipped the ball across the middle to a diving Sam Sturgis for the 7-yard strike on third-and-2.
Said Sturgis: “The line gave Robert (Lockett) time for the play to develop. Robert was looking at me all the time. But Matt (Rice) seemed to kind of hold back.”
Added Gubera: “This was a great win for the organization. The defense stepped up and played a great game.”
NOTES: Joplin, counting two forfeits, finished 11-0 and Enid 6-2. ... Joplin’s Justin Williams had two jarring tackles on kickoffs. ... Kenny Ray Session Jr., who rushed 15 times for 108 yards, had the third Joplin on a 2-yard run. Matt Thompson completed 8 of 12 passes for 98 yards and rushed four times for 28 yards. Rice (5 receptions for 79 yards) and Daniel Thompson (2-22) were leading receivers for Joplin. ... Quarterback Chourse Young and wide-out Tyjia Sparks hooked up for a 62-yard scoring play for Enid. Sparks snared the ball after it was hit by a Joplin defender. ... An interception by Chris Turner halted the final Enid drive.