It was all or nothing for the second-ranked Class 5 Carthage Tigers and the fourth-ranked Class 6 Joplin Eagles.
After 47 minutes of a back-and-forth dogfight, the Tigers, fresh off a Patrick Carlton one-yard rushing score, lined up to go for the 2-point conversion trailing 56-55. Carlton took the snap and pitched left to running back Tyler Mueller, who sprinted toward the goal line.
Joplin linebacker Holden Ledford met Mueller at the 1-yard line and brought him down just short of the end zone to preserve the win at Junge Field.
“It was the biggest play of the game for us,” Ledford said. “It was do or die. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make that play in front of our home crowd. The Joplin community has really rallied behind us. It was just great to give them this win for Kadin (Roberts-Day).”
“I have a hard time putting things into perspective right now, to be honest,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “I love my players. They fought all night long. We came up with two huge plays defensively when we needed them, and the offense and special teams played lights out.
“I am so proud of the way our guys fought the whole way. We got down two touchdowns at one point to a team the caliber of Carthage and our guys didn’t blink. … After everything this team has been through recently, the resolve and perseverance we showed was unreal.”
On Friday the 13th, with a Harvest moon, the Eagles and Tigers came into the game with 2-0 records and combined to score 111 points, gain 1,182 yards of offense, with neither team attempting a punt.
“I figured it would be close, but I didn’t think there would be this many points scored, honestly,” Jasper said. “When you consider how good our defense has been, and how good Carthage’s defense is, it was a crazy game.”
“This was a heck of a high school football game,” Carthage coach Jon Guidie said. “It was a pretty crazy night. It was two pretty good football teams going at it, and neither wanted to back down. They made one more play than we did tonight.”
Carthage scored on its first five possessions, while Joplin scored touchdowns on four of its five drives before the intermission to give the Tigers a 35-28 lead heading into the locker room. Joplin outscored Carthage 14-7 in the third quarter to tie the game at 42-42, but it was the opening play of the fourth quarter that shifted the momentum in favor of the Eagles.
The Tigers had a first down on the Joplin 19 when Carlton rushed the ball to the 3-yard line before fumbling into the end zone, with the Eagles falling on it for the game’s first turnover.
“We kept telling our guys on defense to keep chopping wood,” Jasper said. “It can be disheartening. Carthage has a great offensive line and scheme. I told them they would make a play when we needed it if they kept playing with everything they had, and to their credit, they got it done.”
Three plays into Joplin’s ensuing drive had the Eagles staring at a fourth-and-1 at their 29-yard line. The Eagles decided to go for it, with running back Isaiah Davis picking up eight yards on a run up the middle to move the chains.
“I asked the kids in the locker room at halftime if they believed in each other,” Jasper said. “I got a resounding yes, so I said, ‘OK, let’s go win this game.’ Looking at that fourth down, I thought to myself, ‘If they believe in each other as much as they do, then I better believe in them enough to go pick up that first down.’ ‘‘
Four plays later, Joplin quarterback Blake Tash found wide receiver Zach Westmoreland in the left flat. Westmoreland made several would-be tacklers miss before taking the ball upfield for a 53-yard touchdown to give Joplin its first lead, 49-42, with 8:55 to play.
“That was just dudes being dudes, with Zay (Isaiah Davis) and Zach (Westmoreland) making two huge plays,” Tash said. “It all starts with the offensive line up front. They rocked it all night long.”
The Tigers didn’t go away, driving 80 yards on 11 plays with Carlton scoring from two yards out to tie the game at 49-49 with 2:32 to play.
Joplin needed just two plays to regain the lead as Davis took a second-down handoff to the left sideline, breaking several tackles before reversing the field for a 57-yard touchdown to put the Eagles on top 56-49 with 2:32 left.
Carthage faced a third-and-20 from the 42 when Carlton connected with tight end Alex Martini for a gain of 34 yards to keep the drive alive. Two plays later, Carlton kept it from 2 yards out for the score, setting up the 2-point conversion with 10 seconds remaining.
Davis led the Eagles with 241 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 29 carries, while Nathan Glades added 10 carries for 74 yards and a touchdown.
Tash completed 14-of-19 passes for 235 yards and two touchdowns, while Westmoreland caught nine passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.
Carlton led all rushers with 251 yards and five touchdowns on 33 carries, while Mueller finished with 218 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 28 carries. Carlton completed 6-of-8 passes for 111 yards, with Martini’s two catches for 64 yards finishing as a team-high.
Ledford led Joplin with 11 tackles, while Kale Schrader had nine tackles and one sack for Carthage.