Joplin took its first step toward its ultimate goal of playing for a state title last week with a 68-16 win, beating Jefferson City for the first time in program history to open the postseason.
In the second round of Class 6 District 3 play, the Eagles (10-0) take on a familiar opponent. Joplin hosts the Kirkwood Pioneers (6-3) at 7 tonight at Junge Field in a rematch of last year’s district championship, which saw the Eagles walk away with a 49-14 victory.
“We know how athletic they are and some of the challenges they are going to pose,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “We are really excited to get an opportunity to line up against a quality program.”
While the Eagles are familiar with the Pioneers, that doesn’t mean they will take much of anything from the meeting last postseason. With Kirkwood, winners of two straight, bringing a bevy of new players to the matchup, Joplin is heading into the contest with a clean-slate approach.
“I think you look at the film (from last season), but, honestly, they have a new quarterback, a couple new receivers and running backs,” Jasper said. “The new pieces have different strengths than the old pieces, so you look more at their film this season. … When you scout someone and prepare for someone, you prepare for the team you are playing this season and not a team you played in the past.”
Kirkwood is averaging 34 points per game, relying heavily on its production through the air. Quarterback Kannon Nesslage has completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,468 yards, 27 touchdowns and six interceptions. The Pioneers have several playmakers in the passing game, with William Lee leading the team with 34 receptions for 569 yards and nine touchdowns, while Jackson Fortner has caught 38 passes for 592 yards and five scores. Jarius Maclin, cousin of former Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, has 20 receptions for 355 yards and a touchdown.
On the ground, Kirkwood is led by Gerald Jackson’s 68 carries for 384 yards and two touchdowns, while Nate Jones has 254 rushing yards and two scores on 55 carries.
“They will still use their run game, but a lot of time, their short passing game and screen game will act as their run game,” Jasper said. “We are going to have to play the screen really well and tackle athletes in space.
“We are going to have to get pressure with our defensive line, and if it is a screen, they will have to retrace and get back in on the play. Our secondary will have to be ultra disciplined because their quarterback likes to move around in the pocket. We can’t come up on everything because he likes to throw it deep on the run.”
In Joplin’s win a season ago, the ground game was instrumental. The Eagles, averaging 50 points a game, accumulated 425 rushing yards, with Isaiah Davis accounting for 333 yards and six touchdowns on 19 carries. Though the Eagles had incredible success putting the ball on the ground, and would love for the case to be the same in this matchup, that will not change the game plan the Joplin coaching staff has used for 10 weeks this season.
“The run game will be important,” Jasper said. “It is supposed to be a little cold outside, and it is always fun to run the ball when its cold and you have a physical rushing attack. That being said, we aren’t going to go against our formula. We are going to see how the defense aligns and take advantage of the things they are giving us.”
Like last year, the game will be played at Junge Field, and if any of the home games this season are an indicator, the community support will be in full force.
“I think our players definitely appreciate playing at Junge and the community supporting them,” Jasper said. “It gives them a lot of energy.”