It is almost fitting that the Class 6 state championship game between No. 3 Joplin and No. 1 De Smet is being played today at 3 p.m. at Faurot Field in Columbia just two days after Thanksgiving Day.
Priding themselves on being a true football family, the Eagles (13-0) certainly have plenty to be thankful for.
“We have a lot of things to be thankful for,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “First of all, each other and our families, our football family and the love from the community that has rallied around us all season.
“We had the alumni at our practice (on Thanksgiving) and our guys really enjoyed that, and I think the alumni really enjoyed that. We just wanted to tell them thanks for their support and paving the way for this team.
“We are excited to have the opportunity that we have, and we are happy to get to play together another week as a team. Each group is a little different, and you want to stay together as long as possible to create as many memories as possible. We have accomplished that goal with this group. The only thing left is to get it done (in the state title game).”
Joplin is making its first trip to the state title game since Parkwood fell to Helias Catholic 23-13 at Arrowhead Stadium in the Class 4 championship in 1984. A year earlier, in 1983, you will find the last time a Joplin team won the state championship, when the Dewey Combs-led Bears defeated Union 35-7 at Busch Stadium to win the Class 4 state title, finishing with a record of 14-0. This is the first Class 6 Joplin team to reach the state finals.
“It’s cool, and I think it’s something you can reflect upon when it’s all over,” Jasper said. “Right now, we are just focused on what the next step is for us and to be ready for it.”
De Smet (13-0) brings an offense into the title game that is averaging 45 points per game, led by an efficient passing attack and a dominant rushing assault.
“Their offense will look similar to ours in the gun with one running back,” Jasper said. “They run the ball about 70 percent of the time, but they have some guys they can throw the ball to as well.”
The Spartans boast two 1,000-yard rushers in Taj Butts (1,180 yards and 18 touchdowns) and Rico Barfield (1,032 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns), while Darez Snider has accumulated 929 yards and 13 rushing scores.
Quarterback Michael Wheeler has completed 81-of-129 passes for 1,201 yards, 18 touchdowns and two interceptions, while AJ Fraser has completed 40-of-56 passes for 702 yards, 20 touchdowns and one interception.
Jordan Johnson has caught 24 passes for 503 yards and nine touchdowns, while Ra’shod Smith-Harvey has 34 receptions for 476 yards and seven touchdowns. Jakailin Johnson has six touchdown receptions and 303 receiving on 15 catches.
De Smet’s defense is giving up less than 10 points a game. The most points the Spartans have allowed in a game this year came in a 32-31 win over Chaminade on Oct. 4. Other than that game, 14 points is the most the Spartans allowed in a contest.
However, De Smet’s defense will be without linebacker Lanell Carr. a West Virginia recruit who is suspended after being ejected for fighting in the Spartans’ 37-0 semifinal win over Raymore-Peculiar last week.
Joplin’s 41-20 semifinal win over Fort Zumwalt West was the first playoff game away from Junge Field for the Eagles, but the team didn’t lack local support. The case will be similar today, as 240 Joplin High School students will load up on five pep busses, again funded by private donors, to join the school band, cheerleaders and dance team to provide Joplin with another raucous student section in its quest for a state title.
“You can’t say enough about the atmosphere last week,” Jasper said. “I don’t hear a lot once the game starts, but when we were at midfield for the coin toss, I kept hearing ‘KRD, KRD, KRD’ (in honor of Kadin Roberts-Day) and that was awesome. I know it gave me a boost and I am sure it gave our players a boost. Knowing that you have that support, it is just unbelievable.”