In the mind of Jon Guidie, there’s only one way to prepare a football team for its biggest game of the season and arguably one of its biggest games in program history.

“You just have to treat is as business as usual,” the Carthage coach said. “You don’t want to stray too far from what has gotten us here. I think the most important thing is to simply be who you are. That’s the biggest message we’ve shared with the team this week.”

The fifth-ranked Tigers (10-2), seeking their first state championship appearance in program history, take on No. 1 Fort Zumwalt North in a Class 5 state semifinal today at 3 p.m. in O’Fallon.

Carthage is competing in the state semifinals for the fourth time in the past five seasons. The previous three appearances resulted in a 36-21 loss to Vianney in 2018, a 54-13 loss to Staley in 2017 and a 43-19 loss to Chaminade College Prep in 2015.

“I hope our kids are motivated to take that next step,” Guidie said. “I think they are, and I think they’re excited. Practice has gone really well this week. The hope is that all of it carries over into Saturday.”

And Saturday will undoubtedly pose the most challenging test of the playoffs thus far for Carthage, which has steamrolled its way to the Final Four with a 48-10 win over Branson, a 35-0 win over Nixa and a 64-34 win over Glendale. The Panthers, averaging 49 points per game and limiting opponents to just 12.6 points, are making their third appearance in the state semis since 2016.

To this point, Fort Zumwalt North has only had one team come relatively close to defeating it this season. In a triumph over Chaminade in the quarterfinals last week, the Panthers were put in a 14-0 hole in the first quarter before rallying for a 24-21 win. North’s next closest game this year was a 17-point victory over Fort Zumwalt West in Week 2.

“They’re very, very talented and very athletic,” Guidie said of the Panthers. “And they do a very good job with their schemes. It’s no secret that this is a very good football team, and we’ll have to play really well to give ourselves a chance.”

The Panthers are led by dual-threat quarterback Cairo Payne, the team’s leading passer with 980 yards through the air and leading rusher with 1,498 yards on the ground. He’s accounted for 39 touchdowns.

“Their quarterback is a tremendous athlete, and he’s what makes them tick,” Guidie said. “He’s a dual-threat guy who’s very fast and very elusive. Every game we’ve watched, he’s made opposing defenses look foolish at times. He’s certainly one of the players we have to contain, but he’s not the only one.”

North has two other players who have rushed for at least 600 yards and nine touchdowns in Chris Futrell and Izaiah Hartrup. Hartrup is also the team’s leading receiver with 561 yards and six touchdowns on 33 catches.

The Carthage defense has limited opponents to 18 points per game since the Tigers’ 32-7 loss to Webb City in Week 5.

“I think that probably starts with our back four in our secondary,” Guidie said. “Those guys were really young and inexperienced coming in, but we could see progress every week. As they began to get experience and got more comfortable in what we were doing, they’ve just gotten better and better. I think that’s probably a weakness that’s been turned into one of our strengths.”

Another definite strength has been the consistent production out of the Carthage offense. The Tigers have scored 35 or more points in 10 of its 12 games.

“Everything that we do starts up front,” Guidie said. “If our offensive line does a tremendous job, then we’re going to be good. If they can be fast, physical and can communicate, then hopefully we’ll have success running the football and executing the play-action.”

A win today would advance Carthage to the state championship to take on the victor between Staley and Jackson on Dec. 7 in Columbia.

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