COLUMBIA, Mo. — Joplin’s storybook season came to an end on Saturday when the Eagles took their first loss of the year with a 35-20 defeat against De Smet in the Class 6 state title game on Faurot Field.
Joplin (13-1) struck first and took a 20-14 lead into the intermission. After both teams went scoreless in the third quarter, the Spartans took advantage of a Joplin turnover late in the third and scored to open the fourth stanza to take a 21-20 lead. The turnover bug bit the Eagles again in the fourth, swinging moment permanently in favor of the Spartans (14-0).
Despite the loss, Joplin coach Curtis Jasper couldn’t be more proud of the way his team battled adversity, not only in the title game, but all season long. The Eagles suffered a tragedy no team, or family, should have to go through after the passing of Kadin Roberts-Day prior to the Eagles’ Week 2 matchup with Webb City.
“I don’t even have words right now to describe this season,” Jasper said. “I told them (in the locker room) that I hope I was able to impact them the way they’ve impacted me. The way the leadership stepped up and the way we bonded together and took care of each other through the tragedy of Kadin’s passing. All of the obstacles we overcame to get here, even though we came up short, I think it just speaks to the character and resiliency of this team.”
The Eagles graduate 20 seniors in a year that also saw an undefeated regular season, a Central Ozark Conference championship and a second straight district title.
“We talked in the beginning of the season how football isn’t just about winning and losing,” Joplin senior Elijah Eminger said. “It’s about becoming a man and making you a better human being. I think everyone on this team has done that.”
“The brotherhood and friendships we made on the trip this year, and the last three years, it’s an awesome thing that will live forever,” Joplin senior Isaiah Davis said.
“Being a part of this program is something special,” Joplin senior Blake Tash said. “Five or six years ago, we were all sitting in the stands and thinking we were going to be playing in those jerseys one day. Little did we know we would have the success that we did. That’s due to each and every guy coming in every day and putting in the work on the field, in the weight room and in the classroom.”
“We were in middle school watching all the older guys play and it was a dream just to get on that field and play,” Joplin senior Zach Westmoreland said. “For us to be able to do what we did the last three or four years, it was absolutely amazing.”
Joplin won the opening toss and needed just four plays to strike first, as Tash hooked up with Westmoreland for a 66-yard touchdown pass to put the Eagles up 6-0 with 10:46 to play in the first quarter.
Joplin pushed the lead to 12-0 after capping a 14-play, 80-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown run by Davis with 11:16 to play in the first half.
De Smet found the scoreboard with 7:07 to play in the first half after Rico Barfield found paydirt from eight yards out to trim the lead to 12-7.
Joplin, which took possession at its 34 with 2:36 to play before the intermission, crossed the goal line for the third time after a 48-yard pass from Tash to Westmoreland set up a 16-yard touchdown reception by Westmoreland, who carried multiple defenders on his back on the way to the end zone with 1:45 to play. Tash found Westmoreland on a slant to convert the 2-point try to make the score 20-7.
The Spartans answered with a quick score of their own. A 46-yard pass from Michael Wheeler to Jordan Johnson followed by a nine-yard run from Wheeler set up a six-yard passing score to Ra’shod Smith-Harvey with 37 seconds left to trim the deficit to 20-14 heading into the locker room.
Late in the third, Joplin turned the ball over on a Davis fumble, and De Smet used the takeaway to take its first lead of the game, 21-20, to open the fourth quarter after Wheeler found Smith-Harvey for a 24-yard passing score with 11:55 to play.
The Eagles’ ensuing drive lasted just one play, as Westmoreland fumbled the ball in the backfield after a reception, giving the Spartans possession in Joplin territory. De Smet turned it into seven points after Barfield scored from 13 yards out to push the lead to 28-20.
Despite turning the ball over just four times in 13 games leading up to Saturday’s contest, Joplin uncharacteristically turned it over five times against De Smet.
“We had done a really good job of valuing the football all season long, but De Smet is a very good team,” Jasper said. “You have to tip your hat to them. But, obviously, it is hard to score when you turn the ball over.”
The Spartans closed the door for good with 1:46 left when Wheeler scored from a yard out.
Barfield led the Spartans with 116 yards and two scores on 15 carries, while Taj Butts picked up 99 yards on 11 touches. Wheeler completed 17-of-25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He added 66 yards and a touchdown on the ground on nine carries. Smith-Harvey caught six passes for 48 yards and two touchdowns, while Johnson hauled in five receptions for 84 yards.
Davis carried the ball 32 times for 91 yards and a touchdown to lead Joplin’s ground game. Tash completed 17-of-30 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, while Westmoreland caught 12 passes for194 yards, both game highs.