It’s been 35 years since Joplin High School football fans had the opportunity to cheer their team on for a state championship trophy.

Current Joplin Eagles football players weren’t yet born when the Joplin Parkwood Bears lost a title bid in the fall of 1984, falling to Jefferson City Helias at Arrowhead Stadium.

Because of this, school officials and community leaders are working in “hyperactive” mode to ensure it’s an unforgettable trip this Saturday for athletes and other students.

“It’s been awesome,” said Matt Hiatt, athletic director for Joplin High School, describing the way the community has rallied around the school and its football team. “Words can’t describe it. We get to go back to (state).

“You never know when an opportunity like this is going to come along again and nothing is guaranteed no matter how good you are. We want to make the best of it.”

The Eagles, with a perfect 13-0 this season, are ranked the 84th best high school football team in the nation, according to Maxpreps.com. They are ranked No. 2 in Missouri, just behind their Saturday opponent, De Smet of St. Louis, and just ahead of their Central Ozark Conference rival, the Webb City Cardinals.

Ironically, Parkwood’s first football state title was garnered with a 16-8 win over De Smet in 1975 under head coach Dewey Combs.

Countdown game day festivities launched Tuesday afternoon, when members of the Joplin Eagle Pride Marching Band led a parade through the interior of the high school building.

Organizers are hoping the community turns out for a 7 a.m. send-off ceremony Saturday when the football team rolls north for the 236-mile trip to Columbia.

And yes, said Hiatt with a chuckle, there will be a repeat performance of the late night Nov. 23 parade through Joplin. The football players were caught by surprise when their bus was “escorted” back to the high school by a half-dozen Joplin police squad cars after their Class 6 semifinal win over Fort Zumwalt West.

The convoy parade, with sirens wailing and lights flashing, and hundreds of cheering Joplin residents lining Seventh Street, had a distinct small-town feel to it.

“I loved it,” Hiatt admitted. “I wouldn’t want to live in a community that didn’t want to shut down Main Street for its kids.

“What I love about this community is how so important it’s become for this community to do this right and to send the kids off in a proper way.”

It was estimated that Joplin’s traveling fan base rivaled, if not exceeded, in numbers the opposing home school’s crowd during the match against Fort Zumwalt West.

Michael Landis, former Joplin School Board member and father of senior place kicker Garrett Landis, wants to exceed those numbers Saturday at Faurot Field.

“I’m confident we’ll surpass that number,” he said.

Demonstrating the community spirit noted by Hiatt, Landis was able to raise $9,236 in donations from 27 local business and private donors to provide charter bus rides for 200 JHS students to watch last Saturday’s game, he said.

The idea came about when Landis noticed a slight drop in student attendance once the regular football season came to an end because of ticket prices jumping from $5 to $7 for playoff games and from $7 to $10 for the state championship game. Prices are set by the Missouri State High School Activities Association.

“We do not want to leave one student behind,” Landis said.

For the state championship game, $10,000-plus from 22 donors has already been raised to charter five student buses to transport 220 students to Columbia. For just $10, students will receive a seat on the bus, a ticket to the game and post-game pizza.

The charter buses will begin loading at 9 a.m. Saturday and depart the high school at 9:30 a.m., with a lunch scheduled at Lebanon at 11 a.m. They are expected to arrive in Columbia at 2:15 p.m.

The Class 6 state championship game starts at 3 p.m.

It’s been a historic run for the 2019 team, which was forced to overcome early and tragic adversity when sophomore offensive lineman Kadin Roberts-Day collapsed and died of cardiac arrest during an early September indoor practice. His No. 63 jersey was subsequently carried by team captains to the 50-yard line for the coin toss before each game.

Stephen Miller, a 2000 Joplin High School graduate who snapped pictures of Joplin’s win last week, said he’s proud of how team members have dealt with Roberts-Day’s death.

“It bonded them together,” Miller said, “instead of tearing them apart. They have given 120% for Kadin. Because he’s watching over the boys. I know he is, and he’s cheering them on.”

“What this team has been able to achieve is remarkable,” Miller said, who works for the Joplin Fire Department. Their success “has been monumental. It’s brought unity within the community. It’s just an awesome story.”

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