For the first time in program history, the Carthage football team is one win away from claiming a state championship.

The fifth-ranked Tigers (11-2) take on second-ranked Jackson (13-0) tonight in Columbia for the Class 5 state crown. Kickoff is slated for 7 at the University of Missouri’s Faurot Field.

“This is the first time we’ve been a part of this week, and I’m just really excited for our players, our coaches and this community — just people who have supported us for so long, stayed with us and didn’t give up on us,” 15th-year Carthage coach Jon Guidie said.

“This week has been so fast and busy. But it’s been handled very business-like. We just wanted to keep things the same as we’ve been doing the whole season in terms of our preparation, practice times and what we’re doing. But kids are going to be kids. I’m sure they’re excited — as are the coaches. Hopefully we’ll be able to keep our excitement and emotions in check.”

Carthage punched its ticked to the state championship game by defeating previously unbeaten and top-ranked Fort Zumwalt North 20-17 last Saturday in O’Fallon. The Tigers used a 17-play, 80-yard drive that milked more than nine minutes off the clock to register the game-winning score late in the second half. Defensively, the Tigers limited North to a season-low point total and forced four turnovers on downs.

The triumph extended the Tigers’ winning streak to eight games. Carthage is one of three Central Ozark Conference teams to make their respective state title game. The other two are Joplin and Webb City, the only two teams to defeat the Tigers this season.

“To make it to this point with this group, it really is special,” Guidie said. “We just had to overcome a lot of obstacles this year. Its been a very up-and-down season. There’s been a lot of adversity. I think that could be a reason we’re here right now, because we had to go those things — the tough losses, the injuries, the off-the-field issues. I think this is a result of having to overcome those things and the resilience of our players and coaches.”

Standing in the way of Carthage’s first gold ball is a Jackson team that’s averaging 47.2 points per game while holding opponents to 9.2 points. The Indians sport a balanced offensive attack, averaging 228 yards per game via both the run and the pass.

Jackson quarterback Cael Welker, a junior, has thrown for more than 2,800 yards and 40 touchdowns with just five interceptions. He’s also the team’s second-leading rusher with 643 yards and 13 touchdowns. Senior running back Seth Waters leads the ground attack with 1,251 yards and 16 scores.

“Their quarterback is really talented,” Guidie said. “He’s very good at extending plays and buying time when he’s pressured. He can expose you if you’re not disciplined on the back end.

“They have a little running back they use, too, who’s quick and shifty. They’re very good up front. I think they have at least one Division I offensive lineman playing up front for them. They also have a couple of returning all-state players up front, and they have a few receivers who are very good at what they do.”

The Indians have four players who have logged at least 500 receiving yards in seniors Dalton Skrob and Luke Starzingerm, junior Rhet Liley and sophomore Kannen Turley.

Carthage, averaging 38.5 points and surrendering 18.3, is led offensively by junior quarterback Patrick Carlton, who’s totaled 36 touchdowns with 1,229 passing yards and 1,421 rushing yards.

Senior running back Tyler Mueller leads the team in rushing with 1,714 yards and 26 touchdowns, while seniors Kale Schrader and Marcus Huntley lead the team in reception yards with 363 and 259, respectively.

Jackson’s last loss was in last year’s state quarterfinals when it suffered a 69-28 setback to eventual Class 5 champion Vianney.

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