By the time the opening kickoff arrived in the Class 6 state semifinals between Joplin and Fort Zumwalt West on Saturday, it was difficult to tell which was actually the home team.
The reason? Despite the game being played 4 1/2 hours to the northeast in O’Fallon at Hoekel Stadium, you could make the claim the Eagles’ support system was just as large if not larger than the Jaguars’.
“It was crazy,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said of the atmosphere. “It was very Junge Field-like, and it was awesome to see that many people care so much to make the trip. Our student section was truly fanatical the whole time. They were getting after it.”
The Joplin community — with the help and organization from Michael Landis, former Joplin School Board member and father of senior place kicker Garrett Landis — raised $9,236 in donations from local businesses and private donors to provide transportation to the game in the form of four charter busses, MSHSAA entrance fees and a meal to more than 200 Joplin High School students, with the students just needing to chip in $5 each to cover the total costs.
On top of the 200-plus students, the Joplin High School band, dance team and cheerleaders made the trip, along with parents and other fans, providing an atmosphere the players on the field won’t soon forget.
“We heard about how many people were planning on coming,” Joplin senior Zach Westmoreland said. “When you hear about it, you think that is a lot of people. When you actually see how many fans and students showed up, it was like, ‘Wow.’ The support they gave us was absolutely incredible. Basically, we had everyone who came to our home games at an away game. It was insane.”
How large was the crowd of supporters for the Eagles? Fort Zumwalt West school officials made special accommodations, setting up additional sets of bleachers for the extra Joplin fans, who also lined the stadium fence line. Even then, there wasn’t enough seating, as the Joplin student section filled out a portion on the bleachers on the home side of the stadium.
“This was like a home game,” Joplin senior Isaiah Davis said after the game. “We had fans on both sides of the stadium. We really fed off the energy they provided us.”
The rabid Eagle fans made their presence known early in the contest when Joplin grabbed the lead on the first drive, and they never wavered until the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard in the 41-20 win.
The support from the community didn’t start or stop at the game, however. The Eagles loaded the team bus at the high school and left for O’Fallon at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday morning with a fire department and police escort, with a large group of fans participating in the send-off.
As the team bus rolled into Joplin around 10:30 on Saturday night, again escorted by the fire and police departments, fans lined the streets and were waiting at the high school in droves to welcome back the Eagles following their historical win.
“You can’t really describe the feeling we got from it,” Westmoreland said. “To see the whole town supporting us from 6 in the morning until almost midnight was insane. They’ve supported us all year long, but at those times of day, it’s something different.”
“It meant the world to us as a team to not only feel the support at the stadium but even the continued support when we got into town,” Joplin senior Blake Tash said. “Just seeing the streets lined with people cheering and then when we got to the high school and the parking lot was full of people. It was crazy, and it meant the world to the team and coaches.”
With No. 3 Joplin heading to the Class 6 state title game to square off against No. 1 De Smet, the first trip back to the state finals since 1984 when Parkwood lost to Jefferson City Helias 23-13 at Arrowhead Stadium, Michael Landis is back on the fundraising trail in order to help provide a similar atmosphere at Faurot Field when the teams clash at 3 p.m. on Saturday. If you are interested in making a donation, contact Landis at 417-434-3636.
“The atmosphere by our Joplin crowd in O’Fallon was incredible, and our boys needed to see and feel that excitement from the stands,” Landis said. “It took an entire community to make this happen.
“This state title game is one for the history books. Our goal is to get our entire school to the game. We have gotten this far together, now we need to finish the journey in the same fashion, together.”