STANBERRY, Mo. — For 40 minutes on Friday night, Stanberry and North Andrew exchanged punches in a relatively even matter. Unfortunately for the Bulldog faithful, it was the opening six minutes and the final two which decided the 48-minute game, and they belonged to the Cardinals in a 42-22 victory.
Stanberry got the ball first and standout freshman running back Tucker Schieber got to work with a pair of 11-yard carries to open the game. His third carry ended the drive with a fumble which North Andrew linebacker Carson Thomas was able to fall on.
The Cardinals began chugging down the field behind sophomore running back Hayden Ecker. His first five carries of the drive resulted in 26 yards while Thomas, the team's quarterback, kept the ball on the other play for five yards. On a third and goal from the one, Thomas was able to plunge across the goal line and a 2-point pass to Keaton Hannah made it 8-0.
The ensuing kickoff crossed up Schieber and ricocheted off his foot. North Andrew jumped on the ball on the 11-yard line. Ecker quickly capitalized on the short field with a 5-yard touchdown run.
“For us, we've started — I'd say, 10 of our games that way this season where we just overwhelm a team early in the game and put ourselves in a good position,” North Andrew coach Dwyane Williams said.
For the rest of the first half, two of the top defenses in 8-man football traded stops. Stanberry stood tall with a goal-line stand early in the second quarter, and North Andrew was able to grind the Bulldog offense to a standstill by focusing on Schieber with starting quarterback Austin Schwebach sidelined with injury.
The 16-0 score stood into halftime.
“We were keying on him (Schieber) a little bit,” Williams said. “They had a quarterback change, so we knew to key on him a little bit. But he is such a fantastic runner of the football and broke so many tackles and made so many plays.
“Up front, they kind of man-handled us at times, and we haven't had that all year — that is the first team to do that to us. We challenged our guys at halftime, and they were able to come out in the second half and play a little bit better up front."
North Andrew found the end zone again with its second drive of the third quarter. Thomas went deep to Hannah down the left sideline, and Hannah laid out for a 35-yard reception. Four plays later, Ecker was in the end zone again — this time with a 1-yard run.
“He is so special,” Williams said of Ecker. “And not just as a football player. He just a sophomore so not everybody in the world knows about him yet. He is just as special as a young man. He is modest. He is a hard worker. He never misses anything. And he made plays for us all year on both sides of the ball.”
Schieber provided the answer though. His 19-yard touchdown run capped a 7-play drive and freshman quarterback Colby McQuinn hit Tyler Schwebach for the 2-point conversion to cut the margin to 22-8 with 16 seconds left in the third quarter.
The Stanberry defense forced a three-and-out, but McQuinn fumbled on the ensuing drive, and North Andrew took over at the 16-yard line in plus territory. Thomas dialed up Clayton Linville for a 14-yard touchdown pass then made the same connection for two more points and a 30-8 lead.
The game looked all but salted away at that point with six minutes left, but the Bulldogs had other ideas. McQuinn found Tyler Schwebach for a 35-yard touchdown then hit Collin Sager for the 2-point play to slice the lead to 30-16.
“Credit to Stanberry,” Williams said. “They fought back like we knew they would. They came back last week to force an overtime and get a win. We told our guys that was going to happen.”
On the ensuing kickoff; Hannah, the Cardinals' return man, kicked the bouncing kickoff out of bounds. Hannah thought that he was in the end zone and kicked it out for a touchback. After an officials' conference, it was determined that the ball had in fact gone out at the 1-yard line — forcing the Cardinals to start from there.
They were moved back even further after a false start and Thomas fumbled the next snap. Sager jumped on it in the end zone for Stanberry and suddenly the lead was just 30-22 with 5:45 to play.
“We had a mistake down here on the goal line where a young man thought it was out of the end zone, gave it a kick and ended up putting us in a bad position there,” Williams said. “But my guys hung on and did what we did last week, which is make plays at the end to win a football game.”
The Bulldog defense forced a 3-and-out, and Stanberry took over with a chance to tie the game. The first three plays of the drive were three Schieber runs which combined for 22 yards.
A false start on first down derailed the drive though. An incomplete pass on first-and-15 led to a 5-yard McQuinn scramble on second down. A holding call pushed third down back to third-and-20. After Linville sacked McQuinn, the Bulldogs had to punt on fourth-and-30.
The sideline screamed a simple message into the huddle: it was time for Ecker to finish the game.
“We talked to Hayden about: 'Hey, there is a cutback lane that we are missing. Your head is not up and you are not seeing your lane,' and he made a great cutback on it and helped us seal the victory,” Williams said.
The sophomore did exactly that on the first play from scrimmage. Ecker sprinted down the North Andrew sideline for 69 yards and the game-sealing touchdown with 1:20 left in the game.
“Our offensive line made really good blocks and I was just able to cut off them,” Ecker said.
After four McQuinn incompletions gave the ball back to North Andrew, Stanberry still had three timeouts so the Cardinals needed one more first down to officially end the game. Ecker gave them that and a lot more with a 39-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. The score provided the final 42-22 margin of victory as North Andrew took a knee on the two-point try.
North Andrew advances to the state championship game next Saturday at 1 p.m., in Chillicothe.
“It is exciting,” Thomas said. “I've dreamed about this ever since I was five years old. It is just a dream come true.”
They will face Southwest Livingston — who beat Drexel 52-22 on Friday. The Cardinals and the Wildcats finished the regular season as the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked teams in the state.
“With them, we have to play our zones, get out drops and get some pressure on (Wildcat quarterback Wes) Hughes and not let him get out of the box,” Williams said. “... We can not let him just take off and run, or he will just kill us. We have to do a good job in our zones and a good job on our pressures.”