By Jason Hoekema
In every sport, inches matter. An inch can determine a first down conversion, an out, a three-point shot, medaling in track, and more.
As insignificant as an inch may seem, it can decide a game.
The inch is not to be undervalued in athletics.
The Ava Bears prevailed with a 12-6 overtime win over the Thayer Bobcats in a defensive slugger at Silvey Field last Friday, and it took 58 plays averaging 3 yards per snap to win it.
“Well I just think they just did a great job of playing,” said coach Dan Swofford. They just did a great job of taking away every gap in the inside and then took away any outside stuff that we tried to counter with.”
The two hungry teams took to the field, Ava winning the toss and deferring to the second half. They set up to defend the north end zone and the Bobcats got through in the first quarter.
The Bears forced two punts by the Bobcat offense and on the third possession Thayer succeeded with a 27-yard touchdown without extra points.
“I think we were shell shocked,” said Swofford. To be honest, we beat some teams easily (in the) last few weeks and when they came out there and got after us… I think it kind of surprised us.”
The Bears offense struggled with a rough start in the game of SCA titans spending four minutes and 14 seconds on their first possession that converted twice for first downs. The first came with a hard-earned three-yard carry by Kayden Myers and was followed with a 17-yard gain by Nate Swofford who squeezed past the Bobcat defense up to the Bears’ 42.
The 31-yard drive died near midfield after a trick play failed for a loss of one. Myers punted the ball from the Ava 45 and it bounced down the field to the Thayer 7.
The great defensive position created by Myers stopped the Bobcats in their tracks thanks to some help from a holding call against Thayer. Behind the chains at fourth-and-12 the ball was sent back to the Bears.
The Bears shot themselves in the foot after starting their drive from the Thayer 38. What could have been a scoring drive ended with a ten-yard holding penalty that put Ava behind the chains at second-and-22. Swofford managed one yard but received an intentional grounding call when he threw the ball away to avoid a devastating sack behind the line of scrimmage.
At fourth-and-31 at their own 40, Ava had no choice but to kick it away to Thayer who started at their own 30.
On second-and-11 Thayer quarterback Jayce Haven took the ball left and around the Ava defense for a 40-yard gain and a fresh set of downs at the Ava 30. It appeared that the defense could hold them, running the drive up to third down, but six points were granted to the Bobcats to take an early lead.
With over 14 minutes of possession time in the first half for Ava, it took a long 6:24 drive to knot things up before the half.
KNOTTING IT UP
Ava took possession with 11:00 left before the break, converting twice for first downs. Myers earned the first conversion with 10 yards on two carries before Swofford found Spencer Skyles for another 13-yard gain.
On first-and-10 following a Thayer timeout with 9:16 left, Swofford carried the ball up the middle and reached forward as he was tackled, and the ball came loose at the Ava 45 for his first fumble of the season.
The Bears spent six minutes and 24 second on their second possession of the quarter and were to tie up the game with a 12-play, 56-yard drive. The drive was led by Myers with 47 yards over seven carries.
Ava was able to convert for two first downs, both thanks to Myers who made the second on a punt fake for six yards.
On the Thayer 27, Myers was able to break free from an aggressive Bobcat defense for 27 yards to find the pay dirt.
Penalties have continued to be an issue for the Bears, who have given up an average 57 yards per game this season. This time it came in the form of a costly holding call which negated a two-point conversion by Skyles.
Instead, the Bears were held at the 13-yardline to tie the game at six.
“I thought the guy spun out,” said Swofford. “If you’re connected when they spin out, to me it’s not a penalty. (The official) said he gave a little extra shove in the back. When you teach aggression, you want to be aggressive (to counter their) size. Sometimes you get these penalties.”
Since the game did go into overtime, this two-point conversion could have made the game 8-6 and ended the game at regulation. The laundry flew, and the two points were taken back.
The Bobcats had no answer for the Ava defense in the final 2:23 of the half, punting the ball on fourth-and-one from their own 12.
The defensive slugfest turned up the intensity in the second half with six sacks and numerous incomplete passes. The offenses struggled to convert, Thayer doing it just once in the third quarter. They did get a fresh set of downs in the fourth, but that was because of a pass interference call on the Bears.
Swofford was sacked thrice in the third quarter losing a negligible amount of ground and the Ava defense returned the favor with three sacks on Haven in the second half.
As they did before the break, Thayer was shutting down Myers by blocking holes and quickly moving their secondary up to limit any breakthrough by the Ava offense. In fact, the largest gain by the Bears was limited to ten yards.
Swofford found himself compromised and under immense pressure with the Bobcat defense breaking through and stuffing the quarterback and/or running backs on several plays.
“We were trying to get the ball to the edge a little bit,” said Swofford. “We just couldn’t get it done the way we wanted to. (Thayer) did a good job taking away Kayden and Nate. When he pulled (the ball) there was a guy in his face. We just couldn’t get to where we needed to get to.”
Thayer was saving its passing offense for the fourth quarter to try and take the late lead and W home. It wasn’t until their final play of the third quarter that the Bobcats went airborne with a dropped pass from Haven to receiver Jordan Madden.
The Bears coaching staff appears to have identified and isolated the Haven-Madden connection. The Bobcats were one-of-eight on pass completions in the second half. The only pass to get through was a 24-yard reception for a first down on the Bobcats’ third possession.
The first-and-ten turned into a first-and-20 after a late flag was thrown for intentional grounding by Haven. The Bobcats tried to avoid the penalty by noting that a player was in the vicinity of the throw, but the flag was dropped from the hip after referees discussed the matter to determine that a lineman was not an eligible receiver.
Haven tried to get around the offense and nearly broke loose, but luck and effort resulted in a shoestring tackle by Josh Bray to limit the keeper to a five-yard gain. With the backfield open, Bray saved the Bears from defeat with just over two minutes left in regulation.
On the Ava 34, the Bobcats went ahead and tried to Hail Mary the ball on fourth-and-15 but the pass was snubbed in coverage by the Bears who forced the turnover on downs.
In the fourth quarter the Ava defense was able to move downfield with Thayer receivers to delay positioning or applying pressure to the wide-out for dropped balls and butterfingered catches. They denied seven passes, each which could have caused a loss for Ava.
The Ava offense was kept at 16 yards in the fourth, forced to turnover possession on four occasions over seven minutes of time with the ball.
For the third time this season the Bears have been forced into a now-or-nothing situation. An overtime, 38-36, win over Buffalo. A squeaker past Hallsville at 28-26. Now a second overtime situation loomed over the Ava Bears.
This is a team which has become accustomed to large margin wins since their 20-6 win over Mountain Grove. It was 50-14 over Liberty, 44-16 past Salem, 46-8 by Houston, but now the Bears were tied after 48 minutes of play against a team which may have caught them off guard.
Thayer started OT with first possession at the north 25-yardline. Their first snap was set back when Logan Doss was flipped over by the Ava defense for a loss of three. On second-and-13 short pass to Doss wound up behind the line for a loss of two and an overthrown pass brought up fourth-and-15.
Ava fans cheered as they heard the proverbial death knell – the ringing of a bell after a death to announce it – in the distance.
Haven took the ball and rushed for 21 yards to the nine-yardline. The Ava defense needed to hold them there if they wanted a shot at keeping their perfect record.
Doss scooted the ball up to the eight but a loss on a carry by Haven set the Bobcats back to the ten. An incomplete pass to Jesse white brought-up fourth-and-ten but the Bobcats caught a penalty making it a desperate fourth-and-15.
Haven put it up in the air, destined for Lane Grimes who could not get into position for the reception. Ava’s ball.
Ava’s possession was just as dramatic when a pass from Swofford found Skyles for a 25-yard touchdown to end the game, so was thought.
Instead, Skyles was called out of bounds at the eight, pulling back six points and deflating the celebrations taking place in the stands.
“I thought he actually slipped through,” said coach Swofford. “I really did. I was watching his feet but the referees said that you could see his foot print there (paint). If (there is a) footprint because it was muddy there, I can’t argue that.”
With a fresh set of downs and just eight yards to go the Bears’ offense had some breathing room. Facing the still-hungry Thayer defense was a task in its own, though.
The coaching staff turned to the charging bull in their arsenal. Myers picked up four on the first carry, but the Bobcat defense knew what was going on and squeezed down on Myers to limit his advances.
The second carry netted four more yards but no whistles to signal the touchdown. With two tries left in the possession, Myers took the ball on third-and inches.
Making those final, minuscule, inches was not apparent after the snap as 22 young men collided en masse at the goal line.
After coming in for a better look, the far line judge signaled a touchdown followed by the near-side official.
The Bears remained perfect through seven games, winning by mere inches in overtime.
“We had to give it to (Myers) and let him take it in there.” Said Swofford. “(It’s) such a monumental win. This is a big confidence builder (for us) because they’re coming in here to knock us off a win streak. We’re a two-time conference champion and they they’ve never won a conference championship since they’ve been back in the (SCA). We knew, especially with everything that’s happened on their team with a coach passing away, that they have a fire in them right now to play hard and I appreciate what they did.”
With two more South Central Association Conference games left in the schedule for Ava, the Bears currently hold the perfect, 5-0, record out of the seven schools in the conference. Second is Thayer at 4-1.
Mountain Grove and Houston are mathematically out of the running with 0-5 records. Even if they won the final two games in the regular season a 2-5 record pits them at the bottom of the conference and below Ava’s hypothetical worst of 5-2.
Cabool’s best hypothetical would place them at 4-3, also below Ava’s worst-case of 5-2, so they are also eliminated as contenders in the race to the top of the SCA.
As of this week, Ava is in the driver seat of the conference with Thayer riding shotgun at second. There is currently a three-way tie for third between Liberty-Mountain View, Salem and Willow Springs.
At this point it would take two losses for Ava to dip below Thayer if the Bobcats win their final games against Mountain Grove and Willow Springs.