STATE BOUND!

Ava High School senior running back Josh Bray (19) is tackled by Clark County defender Conner Mack during a MSHSAA Class 2 State Semifinal game Saturday, November 30, 2019, at Silvey Field in Ava, Missouri. (Jason Hoekema/Herald)

By Jason Hoekema / jason@douglascountyherald.com

Bears Rally in Fourth, Top Clark County in OT

Counting Blessings

In light of the Thanksgiving Holiday, the Ava High School Bears football team has a lot to be thankful for. Not but one week ago a dream came true for the Bears – who have cast a large shadow for future players – with a 26-14 win over the Lamar Tigers.

This week they brought home the beginnings of a new chapter in Ava High School football and re-wrote the history they had already set in stone.

The outcome of Saturday’s game against the Clark County Indians was speculated left-and-right. Would they win? Or would the Indian defense shutdown Ava?

For three quarters, it seemed that the later would prevail. 

Clear as Mud

It did not help either team’s cause Saturday. Rains had battered the area, some areas receiving as much as two inches of rain. As the clouds cleared it was evident that soup was on the day’s menu as freshly marked lines and yardage numbers faded away under the mud and muck.

“We had a great week in practice,” said coach Dan Swofford. “We knew it was going to be like this. We didn’t know it (would) be so warm, but we knew it’d be a terrible field.”

Clark County won the toss and elected to receive the ball at the kickoff of the Missouri State High School Activities Association Class 2 State Semifinal game at Silvey Field and the mud went right to work. 

There were no brakes, nor were there any breaks in the running paths. Like a truck stuck on an icy road, players went the direction they first started in.

The Indian’s first possession was null, and they turned over the ball after a dismal first-and-20 start from an offensive hold. As the jersey numbers started to fade into a shade of murky brown, figuring out who did what became a real challenge.

With 10:12 left in the first, the Bears started up with a two-yard carry by Josh Bray (who will be discussed later). A pitch out to Spencer Skyles picked up ten and the fresh set of downs. 

Things were moving smoothly for the Bears when quarterback Nate Swofford found himself in the muck and in the backfield for a four-yard loss on second-and-nine. Things didn’t get any better after that, either.  

The mud was doing everything it could to be a sour note in the game. Runners were slowed, passes wobbled through the air, and the pig started getting slippery. Before they knew it, the Bears were on fourth down with 15 to go. 

“They were sending backers in and they were stopping the run,” said Nate Swofford. “It was brutal with the mud.”

With 7:16 left in the quarter the Indians went at it again for a 54-yard touchdown drive over two and one-half minutes. The Bears defense was trying to get a hold of the larger offensive line but as the teams struggled on the line of scrimmage, legs slipped, and the Indians’ offense was able to break the line twice for 15-yard carries.

The first by Spencer Gregory, then the second for the game’s first scoring play by Caleb Lapsley who found the pay mud on the north end of Silvey Field. Lapsley ran it in from the three to convert, putting the Indians over the Bears, 8-0.

Despite three first down conversions and a drive from the Bears’ 31 to the Indians’ 27, the Bears wound up getting pushed back to the Indians’ 35 where an incomplete pass to Zach Mendel was victim to the mud as he slipped and did not make the catch. 

The turnover on downs was a blow to the Bears who went on their next possession of the second, falling victim to the mud once again. Offensive linemen were getting the motion from the defense causing them to flinch. 

With everything slick, there was no turning back and holding their body at the line. The mud helped cause two foul starts against Ava, who were forced to punt it away with 9:37 left in the half. 

Even after Myers recovered a fumble by the Indian offense, the same muddy result ensued. A turnover with a punt on fourth-and-nine at the Indian 43. The kick put Clark County on their own 14 to start their next drive.

Inching along with just two-yard gains, a deep pass up the east side of the field was picked by Blake King putting the Bears on the Indian 39.

Even with the advantageous field position, the Bears just couldn’t crack the combination of the Indians’ defense. Ava trailed 8-0 into the half. 

“(We told the team to) keep doing what you’ve been doing,” said coach Swofford. “It was like a combination of a lock on offense that we were we were figuring it out. We told the kids, hey, we’re getting ready to figure them out. So just hang in there. Keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Muddy Stats

This year the Bears offense has pushed the ball forward for a total of 5,483 yards – roughly 3.12 miles including Saturday’s game. Numbers which usually hit the hundreds in a game were short of the norm as the Bears’ exited for halftime.

Against the Indians the Bears rushed for just 136 yards with some players receiving negative rushing yards through the end of the game. 

Even with passing yards included in Saturday’s numbers, the Bears only put up 282 yards, averaging just 4.21 yards per snap – the lowest single-game average this season. 

Not for lack of trying, but between yellow laundry and muddy cleats the Bears were still trying to figure out how to make traction against the Indians. 

Myers was quickly identified as the go-to and he was kept at just 83 yards over 26 touches. Although this was not his season low (33 yards against Lamar) he was having to fight for every inch. He averaged 3.31 yards per carry. 

Meanwhile Swofford wasn’t having a great day, either. Thanks to the slick field the quarter back was found and sacked for a loss seven times in Saturday’s game. Because of some major sack plays by the Indian defense, he may have gone into negative rushing yardage during this particular game. 

Josh Bray was getting looked at on passing plays, and he delivered when the Bears needed him with three touchdowns.

Endgame Stress

“(The coaches) just told us to keep our head up,” said Swofford. “We were down 8-0 and we’re on the five-yard line right then. We can score. So, we came back out. We made some adjustments.” 

After the Ava Marching Band finished their performance the Bears took the field for the second half kickoff. The kick from Chase Norton went down the Bears’ 31 where Ava started a four-snap possession, Myers kicking the ball right back to the Indians.

Swofford and Skyles both took tackles for a loss, then a pass to Myers went awry when he appeared to lose the pigskin in the sun. 

Ava received the ball for another opportunity to put something on the board. Instead a hard-hitting, nine-yard drive resulted in another punt for the Bears. 

Even on their final possession of the third, the Bears still could not break through after their 38-yard drive ended in another punt from the Indians’ 38. The ball was punted away with just 14 seconds left. 

Fans that left thinking that the Bears were on their final game of the season missed a comeback fans will talk about for years to come. 

The Bears started their first drive of the fourth with 11:37 on the clock. It was as if they had finally cracked the code on the Indians’ defense.

Over the course of two minutes and fifty seconds the Bears trudged their way through the bog for 56 yards to tie the game at eight. 

The momentum started to shift after Swofford found Bray for a 39-yard pass completion to the Indians’ 21. Myers then broke through the defense for nine yards, leaving inches between the Bears and a first down. 

Myers made the carry on second-and-inches for a gain of one, hard-earned yard to keep the Bears alive with their second first down conversion of the possession. 

Swofford picked up another three before an offsides penalty was called against Clark County. 

The penalty gave Ava the break they needed to clear out a fifteen-yard deficit after the Bears were called on motion.

“You’ve got to hold it with two hands above your head and lay your hand flat,” said Swofford when asked about changing the pass in the mud. “You just hope it flies good. You’ve got to trust… I trust my receivers, that they’re going to go get it or knock it down to make sure it doesn’t get picked.” 

On the Indians’ seven on second down, Swofford found Bray for a seven-yard touchdown completion knotting the game up.

However, the Indians wasted no time taking back the lead.

The Indians picked up excellent field position after a targeting call was made against Ava. The penalty can eat up a field with the ball spotted 15-yards from the location of the personal foul. 

The Indians’ were at their 49 and completed their possession with a pass to Conner Mack which sowed seeds of doubt amongst players and the fan base. 

The Bears didn’t stop though. Neither did Josh Bray.

Ava High School senior running back Kayden Myers (40) gets past the Clark County defense during a MSHSAA Class 2 State Semifinal game Saturday, November 30, 2019, at Silvey Field in Ava, Missouri. (Jason Hoekema/Herald)

(Young) Man of the Hour

The young player needs no introduction. He has been involved with some of the biggest plays on offense and defense this year. With him exploding in the fourth against the Lamar defense, the senior has been in the right spots at all the right times. He had already put Ava on the board, and he wasn’t done.

The Bears’ second possession in the fourth started with a five-yard sprint by Mendel from the Ava 32. Myers picked up eight yards over two touches to breathe life into the Ava offense with another first down. 

In this game alone the Bears racked up 11 first-down conversions. Eight by rush, two by air, and one by penalty. On their own 45 the Bears again appeared to come unglued. 

To the dismay of the fans watching at Silvey Field the offense was desperately struggling to move the ball, let alone the chains. Myers was held to one yard and Swofford had a slip in the mud to negate Myer’s gain. 

On third down Swofford tried to connect with Skyles but the pass was ruled incomplete. 

Fourth down. A very stressful fourth down. With about four minutes left a turnover here would have likely spelled doom for the Bears’ postseason bid. 

Sometimes, desperate times call for desperate measures… or a trick play.

Myers set up behind the line for a punt as he normally would. At midfield it was a good idea to keep the Indians deep in their own territory. Then again, the clock would have worked against the Bears had the fourth-down snap not gone the way it went.

Snap. 

Myers received the ball. 

Instead of a kick, he found Swofford on the flat for a 28-yard pass completion which stunned spectators, home and visitor. 

“We were in a time of need,” said Swofford. “There’s five minutes left and if we give them the ball, they can get a couple of first downs… I just did not want to punt. I knew punting was not going to be good. (Coaches called the play) and I knew no matter what I did, I had to come down with the ball.”

The Bears had pulled a rabbit out of their helmet and converted to first down on fourth-and-10!

Well, we needed some way,” said coach Swofford. “We needed some way to get that ball and keep that ball. That’s a play we’ve been working on all year.”

Now on the Indian 37, perhaps the defense was starstruck by the ingenious play and how well it worked out. 

Bray found his way around the right side of the pile of lineman at the line of scrimmage and broke loose for a 37-yard touchdown rush to tie the game back up after the Bears failed to convert the extra two. 

“They were controlling the game and then the fake punt and then the touchdown,” said Swofford. “It’s just a crazy feeling.”

The game could have ended there had the Bears found the endzone, instead the game was knotted at 14 as tension built along the sidelines and in the stands. 

Would the Indians clap-back like they did earlier? Would they get the points needed to end the game?

On their own 35 the Indians ran the ball with one big gain on second down. Now on the Ava 47 Sam Wheeler gained one before Myers split the offense and sacked Mack for a loss of nine.

Earlier in the game Spencer Skyles had a pass intended for him deflected by a Clark County defender. Skyles had an opportunity to respond in kind with a pass breakup which would have been a game-ending bomb from the Indian offense. On fourth-and-20 the obvious answer was a punt. 

Kicker Chase Nolton set up well behind the line for the punt. He hung it high and the increasing winds took it out of bounds at the Ava 45. 

With the game tied the Bears needed to get downfield, and quick.

Then again, mud does not play fair. Swofford lost three yards on a pitch to Bray then was sacked at the line bringing up third-and-13. Two snaps later and it was overtime. 

Putting In Overtime

The Bears have hit OT on three separate occasions this year and were 2-0 in overtime situations when the coin toss was made, Saturday.

The Indians got the first shot at the north end zone from the thirty-yard line. MSHSAA overtime rules are simple. Each team gets to play offense and defense. If one fails to score and the other succeeds, it’s a win for the latter. 

Wheeler was stopped at a gain of three on the Indians’ first snap. Then Mack was able to pick up 22 as he found his way through holes in the Ava secondary. Now on the ten-yard line it seemed that scoring was inevitable. 

Wheeler picked up three followed by a no gain play, pushing the game to third down. Spencer Gregory got the third touch and pushed the Bears’ defense back on their heels on the three-yard line. 

Snap. 

With nothing but mud to stand on, the Ava defense made the stop. Now the offense needed to answer with six for the win.

Hoping to get an early big yardage gain the ball went to Myers who was stopped in the middle for a short gain of two. On second-and-eight the Ava coaching staff unleashed the passing game.

Nate Swofford failed to find Skyles, and an ineligible receiver call nearly took the wind out their sails. 

Unfortunately for the Indians another flag had their name written on it. It was a costly pass interference call near the goal line where Skyles attempted the catch. 

The penalties offset and Ava had another chance on second-and-eight.

Swofford took the snap, stepped back into the pocket and let the ball go.

“I stepped back and I knew his place was going to be wide open,” said Swofford. “It had been open the whole game and (then he was) wide open. Kind of shocking how open he was. On my last step, the throw, I slipped but caught my balance… The line did a great job. I had so much time. I slipped and still got the throw off. Credit to the linemen.” 

On the other end, a step shy of the goal line was Bray with the reception. 

He fell back with the ball clutched tightly in his arms and rolled his way into the endzone for the 28-yard, game-winning touchdown reception.

With three touchdowns, Josh Bray was the tip of the spear which brought down the Indians. 

Again, history was made. This time Bray was the author. 

“It’s a dream of a lifetime,” said Bray. “I’ve dreamed of this since I was a kid, man. It’s crazy.”

Ava High School senior quarterback Nate Swofford (5) grips the ball as he attempts to break a tackle by Clark County defender David Lemmon during a MSHSAA Class 2 State Semifinal game Saturday, November 30, 2019, at Silvey Field in Ava, Missouri. (Jason Hoekema/Herald)

Uncharted Waters

Not only have the Ava Bears never broke past the quarterfinal round in football since 1948, they had never won a semifinal, either. 

The senior class has set a high bar for future football programs by making their mark as state finalists in the history books of a rural town once-called Militia Springs. 

Now the Bears must make the trip up to Columbia to face one final foe in the MSHSAA State Class 2 Championship.

On the other end of the bracket you will find Lutheran North High School. A private school with a history of Division I NCAA prospects, the Crusaders had nine of their ten seniors sign letters of intent in 2018. 

One of those was offensive lineman Jack Buford, who signed-on with Mizzou. 

This year three new prospects have voiced their commitment to some big-time schools.

Antonio Doyle has verbally committed to Mizzou, turning down offers from some of the NCAA’s powerhouse teams including Alabama, Auburn, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. 

Itayvion Brown has also verbally committed to Minnesota as a wide receiver/linebacker while Cam Griffin has verbally committed to Western Michigan as a safety. 

The Bears are going to have their hands full, Friday.

The Crusaders are currently 13-0, averaging 47.2 points per game while allowing only an average of eight points to competitors. Ava has come to this point in their season averaging 36.2 ppg, allowing an average of 14.6 ppg.

As for the Bears, they are headed off to find out who will be the top rung on the ladder. For this journey, it’s going to be taken with a father and a son on the bus. 

“I got emotional trying to talk about it,” said Coach Swofford. “The fact that your son is the quarterback and is playing great. He’s had a great year. It’s just been special, a special time. I wish everybody had this. I’m blessed is what it is. I’ve been blessed that I’ve been able to get to do this.”