CARTHAGE, Mo. — This year, the sea of Cardinal red that has flowed to state championship games over the past three decades will be accompanied by a sea of Tiger blue.

In Carthage, they're painting the town, buying up tickets for the championship football game, and preparing caravans and pep buses to make the 222-mile trip to Columbia to see the Carthage Tigers play for their first state title.

After years of coming up just short, including a decade of winning records and three straight trips to the Class 5 semifinals, the Tigers finally broke through to the last game of the season and will take on Jackson on Saturday at Faurot Field at the University of Missouri.

Central Ozark Conference rival Webb City also is making its seemingly annual trip to the Class 4 state championship game to compete for its 15th state title Friday, also at Faurot Field.

Nick Smythia, who now lives in Webb City, remembers playing the Cardinals when he went to high school in McDonald County, losing to Webb City every year but one.

"I think this is more routine for people in Webb City than in some other places, but it is still exciting to be in the title game." he said. "You see it all over town, windows painted with signs saying 'Go Cards.' You see the posters with the schedules and the pictures of the seniors in businesses. The community is definitely behind its team."

Carthage is 11-2, with its only two losses this season coming from Webb City and Joplin, which remained undefeated until it lost to De Smet last weekend in Columbia in Class 6 championship play.

Webb City, 13-1 — also having lost to Joplin early in the year — will play Platte County.

“I think it’s basically unheard of for that many teams from one county and one conference going to state,” said Shanon Tallent, who attended Monday’s Christmas parade on the Carthage square with his family. “Joplin, I was not shocked; they had a heck of a team this year. Webb City, it was kind of iffy on them at the beginning of the year. Carthage, that was an insane ride for them.”

Not to be overlooked, another team from Southwest Missouri is also bound for Columbia this weekend. Cassville will play for the Class 3 title on Saturday, before the Carthage game.

'All-out party'

Tallent, who went to Webb City High School and now lives in Carthage, said he can appreciate the excitement gripping Carthage residents this week.

“If Carthage wins, it’ll be an all-out party here on the square in Carthage,” Tallent said. “They’ll remember this all their lives.”

Carthage resident Bryan Stringer said he played for a state championship football team in Wellington, Kansas, when he was in high school in 1983 and that he still remembers the excitement, even though he was a sophomore and didn’t make it into the game.

“You’ll never feel another thing like it,” Stringer said. “This is definitely going to be one of the highlights of their lives. They’ll remember these days forever. I still remember going to the state championship game, getting to stay in the hotel, the game. Being part of a team playing for the state championship is something special.”

Jerry Cobaugh, president of the Tigers Athletic Booster Club, has been watching the football team get better and better for more than two decades.

“The town has supported Carthage football for years, and to finally get over that hump and make it to the state championship, it’s pretty emotional to a lot of people,” Cobaugh said. “There are a lot of people in town that have supported the Carthage football program and the coaches and kids for years and felt that heartbreak of falling short, and now they finally have the chance to bring home the biggest game of Carthage’s history. It’s pretty emotional for a lot of people, a lot of people put in a lot of time behind the scenes that no one sees, and it’s exciting.”

Josselyne Renteria, a senior at Carthage High School and member of the SkillsUSA club at Carthage Technical Center, was one of three students carrying the banner leading the Carthage Christmas parade on Monday.

“Honestly, all the guys are so hyped up,” Renteria said. “They’re super happy they’re going to state, and it’s great that we made history. They guys have a bet that if they win, they’ll dye their hair blond, and they’re doing it. They’re so excited for the game, and I’m so excited to watch them play and cheer them on.”

Bailey McDaniel, a senior at Webb City and another member of SkillsUSA at the Carthage Technical Center, also helped carry the SkillsUSA banner on Monday.

McDaniel said she’s thrilled about the Cardinals returning to the state title game.

“Everyone is super excited,” McDaniel said. “Last year, we, unfortunately, didn’t get to go to state, so it’s like we redeemed ourselves. All our boys, they’re not dyeing their hair blond, but they’re getting perms, which is even worse. There’s high morale all over the school. We’re all really excited.”

Along Main Street in Webb City, windows were painted in red with messages cheering on the team, including "Go Cards" and "Way to Go Webb City."

The Cardinals have won 14 state titles since 1989.

McDaniel said she was happy for her Carthage classmates and offered this advice: “Don’t stress about it and relish in the victory of even making it to state. Just go out there and have fun and do your best because what’s going to happen is going to happen. Don’t let the big crowd psych you out, Carthage is a great team, you’re going to do your best.”

Carthage High School Assistant Principal Sam Rogers said he was excited to see three schools from Jasper County — all members of the Central Ozark Conference — competing for state titles in football.

“What it shows is that as Webb City got better, Carthage has gotten better in response,” Rogers said. "Joplin has gotten better and they’ve been energized by changing conferences and playing with us and now we’re all making each other better. I’m excited to see this weekend that, potentially, you could have Southwest Missouri fans there for Friday night for Webb City and Saturday watching Cassville and then Saturday evening watching Carthage. When you think about that, that’s pretty exciting.”

Departure, game times

The Webb City Cardinals play at 7 p.m. Friday. Team buses leave from the Webb City High School parking lot at 10 a.m. and the community is welcome to come and see them off.

The Carthage Tigers play at 7 p.m. Saturday, and Carthage High School Principal Matt Huntley invited residents to give the team a send-off for its first trip to state. He said buses will leave the school sometime around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, travel down River Street to Centennial Avenue and retrace the Maple Leaf Parade route in reverse, taking Centennial to Grand Avenue to Grant Street, then around the Carthage square.

“If you live on the route and want to step outside and wave your Blue and White from the sidewalk, we’d love to see you,” Huntley said in a written note to the Carthage Community. “If you don’t live on the route, we would love to see a Maple Leaf Parade-sized, (a) square full of people wishing our hometown Tigers all the luck we can muster.”

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