WEST PLAINS, Mo — Even though the outcome wasn’t what they wanted, Carl Junction football coach Doug Buckmaster couldn’t have been more proud of his Bulldogs' late-season resurgence.

The Bulldogs went 1-4 through the first five weeks of the season, and that brutal stretch of games included losses to Central Ozark Conference powerhouses Carthage, Joplin and Webb City. Carl Junction proved it could persevere, claiming five of its last six contests.

And the Bulldogs exuded that perseverance on Friday night as they were seeking their first district title in 19 years. Carl Junction nearly overcame a 14-point deficit in the second half before West Plains pulled away to a 41-26 victory in the Class 4 District 5 title game at Zizzer Stadium.

“We didn’t play our best night of football,” Buckmaster said. “In the first half, we were a little out of sync. We had some opportunities that we just didn’t cash in that we normally cashed in on. We turned the ball over a few times. After halftime, our kids didn’t quit. They came out and played like I hope they would have played in the first half. They dominated the third quarter and the first part of the fourth quarter.

“I’m very, very proud of how our kids got back into the football game.”

The Bulldogs took the early lead before the Zizzers answered with three scores, taking a 28-14 halftime lead. Carl Junction followed with two touchdowns unanswered out of halftime to cut the deficit to 28-26, but West Plains converted on a turnover to score twice in a minute and a half to secure the victory.

The Zizzers' ground game accounted for 262 yards of their 386 total yards, paced by running back Titus Seley. He ran for 134 yards on 27 carries and reached the end zone three times.

Four turnovers plagued Carl Junction, who ended the season with a 6-6 record. West Plains improved to 10-1 and advanced to the Class 4 state quarterfinals to face Helias Catholic.

“We had an opportunity to tie the game (midway through the fourth quarter) and we didn’t,” Buckmaster said. “We had numerous opportunities. We dropped two passes in the end zone, and then we caught one and scored that was called back on a penalty — all three of them didn’t matter. But I’m proud of how our kids played and competed. They got back in the game and gave themselves a chance.

“Unfortunately, we weren’t at our best in the first half. But they competed and didn’t just walk away from it at halftime and give it up. They had a chance and that’s all you can ask.”

After both sides exchanged interceptions to start the game, Carl Junction wasted no time in its second possession. Brady Sims put the Bulldogs on the board, finding paydirt from four yards out.

But West Plains followed with a methodical 13-play, 52-yard drive, culminating with a three-yard rushing touchdown from Connor Lair. The Zizzers took a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter when Dagen Kenslow connected with Lair on a 40-yarder for the touchdown.

West Plains increased that advantage to 21-7 when Kenslow put the Zizzers at the 1-yard line on a 37-yard run to set up Titus Seley's touchdown.

On the ensuing drive, West Plains’ defense forced a quick three-and-out but Carl Junction was granted a first down after a roughing-the-punter penalty. On the very next play, Alex Baker found a wide-open Drew Patterson deep for a 65-yard touchdown, cutting the score to 21-14 with two minutes remaining.

But the Zizzers pulled out the hook-and-ladder with just seven seconds left on the clock. Kenslow connected with Lair, who lateraled the ball to Seley for the 34-yard score and 28-14 halftime advantage.

Carl Junction’s offense in the second half started when Baker found Drew Beyer over-the-middle on play-action for an 11-yard touchdown to trim the lead to 28-20. After forcing a punt, the Bulldogs used a pair of medium-range passes to set up a one-yard rushing score from Sims.

The two-point conversion was no good, leaving West Plains’ lead at 28-26 with less than 10 remaining. The Zizzers put the nail in the coffin following two short touchdowns runs from Seley.

Kenslow went 5-of-9 passing for 124 yards and a touchdown for West Plains. He also rushed for 96 yards on 18 attempts. Lair finished with four catches for 95 yards and a touchdown while rushing for 32 yards on five carries and a touchdown.

For Carl Junction, Baker went 16-of-42 passing for 274 yards, two touchdown passes and four interceptions. Sims rushed for 94 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown. Patterson led the receiving corps with five catches for 161 yards and a touchdown.

The Bulldogs graduate 24 seniors in 2021 — one of Buckmaster’s largest senior classes in his tenure at Carl Junction.

“There are a lot of great character guys in this senior class,” Buckmaster said. “We had more leadership in this class than we had the last few years. I’m proud of all of them. In 10 years, we will be proud of the accomplishments these guys have made. They are going to grow up and have good jobs and are going to be good dads, good husbands. In 10 years, we will find out how really good they were.”

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