A win would put the Joplin football team right back on track before it matters most in two weeks.
The Eagles, despite suffering their first setback of the season in a 34-22 loss to Carthage last week, venture to play at Branson in a Central Ozark Conference matchup on Friday.
Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said his players can take a lot from Week 7.
“It’s the importance of every possession,” Jasper said. “We have to understand to execute better in the early stages of the game. We have to make sure we are ready to play as soon as that first ball is kicked off. That’s on me, too.”
Joplin enters this week looking to bounce back. With Nixa (6-1, 43.29 points) and Lee’s Summit North (6-1, 42.95) occupying the top two spots in the Class 6 District 3 standings, the Eagles (6-1, 40.81) cling to the third spot.
Lee’s Summit West (4-3, 34.52) and Raymore-Peculiar (5-2, 34.31) lurk at fourth and fifth. Kickapoo (3-4, 29.24), Lee’s Summit (3-4, 26.69) and Ozark (2-5, 23.86) round out the district at sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively.
Against the Tigers, who now sit alone in the COC standings, the Eagles struggled to get going offensively in the first half. Joplin didn’t score its first touchdown until Drew VanGilder punched a 3-yard run into the endzone at the 5:55 mark in the second quarter — at that point Carthage led 21-7 and eventually 27-7 at halftime.
Carthage extended its lead to 34-7 after Luke Gall ripped off a 39-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But the silver lining — the Eagles finished with 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. Always Wright connected with Terrance Gibson for an 80-yard touchdown pass and then a 7-yard touchdown strike to his younger brother All.
“I liked the way we battled,” Jasper said. “We just have to figure out a way to not get ourselves in a hole and give ourselves a shot. You can’t give a team of Carthage’s caliber that big of a lead before you start getting things rolling.”
After throwing for a season-high 285 yards against the Tigers, Wright is now up to 1,586 passing yards on the season. He’s completed 121 of 175 of his attempts and racked up 19 touchdowns to go with just four interceptions.
Wright has added 333 yards on the ground in 37 carries while scoring seven times. Running backs Quin Renfro and VanGilder have combined for 728 rushing yards in 152 carries and nine touchdowns.
Landen Atherton, 6-foot-3 tight end, leads the receiving core with 29 catches to go with 281 yards and six touchdowns. Gibson continues to be a big-play threat for the Eagles, racking up 506 yards on just 21 receptions (24.1 yards per catch) and five touchdowns.
Draven VanGilder paces the defense with 94 tackles. The middle linebacker has registered double-digit stops in six of seven contests this season.
Branson’s bread-and-butter is running the football, where the team has amassed 1,222 yards on 274 carries, averaging 174 yards per game and 4.5 per attempt. The Pirates (3-4) have relied on senior running back David Hadaller, who leads the team with 765 yards and seven touchdowns on 124 rushes.
Quarterback Tristian Pierce has completed 53 of 90 passes for 672 yards through the air. The senior has three touchdowns and three picks. His top target is Cooper Saxton, who has 28 receptions for 408 yards and two scores.
Linebacker Cade Grimm has recorded a team-high 72 tackles for the Pirates’ defense.
“Branson has an athletic quarterback,” Jasper said. “They have a good running back. They have a couple good receivers out there. They have weapons offensively. They do a ton of different things both offensively and defensively. They have a ton of different offensive formations and different alignments on defense. They show a lot of different looks there, too.”
Jasper said Joplin also has to focus on themselves.
“We have to make sure we are ready to play,” Jasper said. “We have to make sure we are ready to execute. We have to make sure we are ready to play a physical brand of football.”