LAMAR, Mo. — Nate Swofford had spent countless nights thinking back to the narrow, heartbreaking losses his Ava football team suffered to Lamar in the two previous seasons.
Both setbacks — a six-point loss in 2017 and five-point loss in 2018 — came in the Class 2 quarterfinals and denied the Bears their first trip to the semifinals in program history.
“They were tough to swallow,” Swofford said. “It was a feeling that you never want to feel again. I mean, we left it all out there and still couldn’t get the win. … So we knew we just didn’t want to feel that again.”
On Saturday afternoon, the senior quarterback and his Ava team used the memory of those shortcomings as fuel in yet another matchup with Lamar in the quarterfinals. And this time, the Bears flipped the script to claim a 26-14 triumph over the Tigers at Lamar High School.
Ava (13-0) plays host to Clark County, a 22-7 victor over Hallsville, in a semifinal matchup next Saturday.
“It feels awesome (to get over the hump and beat Lamar),” said Ava coach Dan Swofford, Nate’s father. “Our goal coming into the season was to win this game. And to do it the way we did it against such a great tradition in Lamar, it was just awesome.”
And opposite of Ava’s two previous meetings with the Tigers, Saturday’s contest saw the Bears build a two-score lead by halftime and keep the Lamar offense in check for most of the day.
Ava was led by its senior signal caller Nate, who finished with three touchdowns and 257 yards of offense. The team captain showed a knack for generating big plays with touchdown runs of 75 and 45 yards as well as a touchdown pass of 54 yards.
“My son did a great job of executing and making plays today,” Coach Swofford said. “I was proud of him.”
Lamar finished its season with a 10-3 record and failed to make the semifinals for the first time since 2008.
“(Ava is) playing extremely fast,” Lamar coach Scott Bailey said. “They’ve done it for three years now. It’s a very well-coached football team. Their kids look undersized when you see them, but they play extremely hard. It was a very well-played game by Ava. … I know we have a lot of respect for them.
“Football kind of mirrors life sometimes. In life you have bad days and adversity, and today’s one of those days. We faced a lot of adversity and didn’t have a real good day.”
A short touchdown run by Chase Tucker brought Lamar to within 12 points with 2:30 remaining in the third quarter. But from there, the Tigers went scoreless on their final three drives with two punts and one turnover on downs.
“In the second half, our defense got us the stops that we needed to get back into the game,” Bailey said. “But the offense just could not be consistent and we couldn’t generate anything.”
Early on, the game seemed destined to finish as a shootout as both teams combined to score 20 points in the first six minutes. Ava scored touchdowns on its first two drives — a 75-yard run by Swofford and a 54-yard pass from Swofford to Zach Mendel — and Lamar scored on its first possession with a 1-yard touchdown run by quarterback Donte Stahl.
Ava used a seven-minute, 83-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter to widen its lead to 18-8 right before halftime. Running back Kayden Myers scored on a 3-yard run.
“We’d always gone into halftime about two touchdowns down (in previous games against Lamar), and I didn’t know how to respond (at halftime) today,” Coach Swofford said. “I thought, ‘Hey, we’ve never been in this spot. Maybe we’ll win this one.’ “
The start of the second half saw Lamar fumble away its first possession, leading to a 45-yard touchdown run by Nate Swofford that gave Ava its largest lead at 26-8.
“The way we started the second half was a big moment,” Coach Swofford said. “We felt like this was ours to win or give away at that point. Fortunately our defense made the stops we needed to keep them from mounting a comeback.”
Lamar totaled 206 yards of offense and was led by Stahl, who went 6-of-12 passing for 81 yards and also rushed for 48 yards on 14 carries.