The 2023 McDonald County Mustangs made history on Friday, Nov. 10. The Mustangs won the school's first district football championship with a 40-21 win against top-seed Bolivar at Plaster Stadium on the campus of Southwest Baptist University.
"It's a really good win for our program," said MCHS coach Kellen Hoover. "It's just really nice to do it for the program and the community. I know the boys were excited to do it, and they deserved it. They're playing their best football at the right time."
The Mustangs (8-4) won their fourth straight game and advanced to the Class 4 State Quarterfinals, where they'll host Jefferson City at 1 p.m. Saturday at Mustang Stadium in Anderson.
Hoover said the Mustangs have "flipped a switch" on their season, which was sitting a 4-4 overall after a 38-14 loss at Seneca on Oct. 13. Since then, they've reeled off home wins against East Newton (38-13), Marshfield (41-0), a road victory at West Plains (35-33) and the district title win against Bolivar in front of a great group of fans.
"It's really exciting for this and this bunch of coaches," Hoover said. "We're really well supported by our community. It was good to win (a district championship) with so many of them and parents and community members there and people that have supported us through the good times and not-so-good times."
Hoover also said past players have helped pave the way for this team's accomplishments. In 2021, the Mustangs also played for a district title but came up short in a 10-2 season.
"It's good to win one for the players that have helped us get to this point," said Hoover, who received numerous congratulations from coaches and former players after the game. "I definitely wanted to let them know and made sure they knew they had a big part in getting us to this game. They paved the way in earlier years to get us to this point."
The Mustangs played their best game of the season Friday against Bolivar, Hoover said.
McDonald County rolled up 397 yards of offense and forced three turnovers and a turnover on downs on defense.
"It was just a really good night as far as really all parts of the game," Hoover said, "offense, defense and special teams."
The game started like it might be a defensive slugfest, with neither team scoring in the first quarter and only managing one first down in the first 18 minutes.
McDonald County broke through with just under seven minutes to go in the first half when quarterback Destyn Dowd got free on a quarterback keeper for a 36-yard touchdown run, and after Richard Gasca's extra point, the Mustangs had a 7-0 lead.
The Mustangs got the ball back when Slyte Osborn stripped Bolivar's Gardner Casey, and Osborn recovered the fumble near midfield.
The McDonald County offense then picked up a pair of first downs on the ground before Dowd hit Josh Pacheco on fourth down for a 21-yard touchdown pass for a 14-0 lead with 3:26 remaining in the first half.
The Liberators (7-4) answered with a score before halftime, digging into their bag of tricks in the process with a throwback pass to the quarterback for a big gain.
Quarterback Drake Durham handed off to wideout Boone Shockley, running to the right before stopping and throwing back to a wide-open Durham down the left sideline.
Defensive tackle Toby Moore's hustle play prevented Durham from scoring. However, Durham threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Casey later in the drive as Bolivar cut the lead to 14-7.
Sam Barton, who was held to 18 yards rushing at halftime, got the Mustangs going in the second half.
Barton rushed for a 42-yard touchdown run with 9:17 left in the third quarter as the Mustangs went up 20-7.
Bolivar responded with a quick scoring drive, capped by a five-yard pass from Durham to Casey with 7:22 remaining as the Liberators cut the score to 20-14.
But the Mustangs came back with their own score to go back up 27-14
Dowd hit a long pass to Pacheco, who was stopped just short of the end zone. Dowd then ran in from one yard out with 4:23 left in the third for the 13-point lead.
Durham and Casey connected again on a 46-yard touchdown pass to bring Bolivar within 27-21 with 2:23 left in the third.
But the Mustangs scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, both from Dowd. He ran for a 13-yard score with 10:20 left in the fourth as McDonald County went up 33-21. Dowd's one-yard run with 1:11 left set the final score.
McDonald County rushed for 314 yards as a team, including 22 carries for 158 yards and a touchdown from Barton.
Dowd had 28 carries for 144 yards and scored four touchdowns. He also went 5 for 5 in the passing game for 83 yards and a touchdown.
Pacheco had three catches for 65 yards and a score, while Barton had two receptions for 18 yards.
"We were able to run the football effectively, which is what we have to do to win," Hoover said. "That's what everything is based around. Our guys up front know it and embrace it.
"Destyn came up with some timely throws. Some were really, really big completions, including one to Josh (Pacheco) early. It was a tight throw and great catch from Josh that allowed us to flip the field.
"It was a really good night for the offense overall. We executed the game plan, and the linemen up front were incredible."
Defensively, the Mustangs held the Liberators to 89 rushing yards, while Bolivar had 211 passing yards.
Durham completed 15 of 28 passes for 178 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Pacheco and defensive lineman Jayce Hitt had the interceptions for McDonald County.
Casey caught eight passes for 121 yards.
"We were able to slow down their run game," Hoover said. "They have weapons outside, and our guys kept fighting and kept battling. I'm really proud of them for that. From beginning to end, in all parts of the game, everybody battled and played their tails off. Really proud of them."
Hitt finished with seven tackles, including three for loss and the interception.
"You love to see those lineman interceptions," Hoover said. "Josh (Pacheco) had a really good game, really big interception for us. The game was going back and forth, and he was able to get one that broke up that back-and-forth momentum -- really big interception there."
Now the Mustangs will brace for a Saturday home quarterfinal game against Jefferson City (8-4), which also comes into the game on a four-game winning streak.
The Jays finished the regular season 5-4 before reeling off home wins against Fulton (63-16), Marshall (49-3) and Pleasant Hill (37-34) last week.
"They are pretty talented," Hoover said. "They've got some speed all over the field. They have a couple of big guys up front that have a ton of size. They want to run the football. They want to be physical running the football and attack over the top. We're going to have to be ready to go at all levels.
"Defensively, they're going to man us up and try to take away the run game. We'll have to throw it well enough to back them off. At the end of the day, we have to be physical running the football. We have to do that effectively to win the game."
Hoover said the Mustangs are excited to host another game on their home field Saturday afternoon.
"The weather is supposed to be awesome," he said. "We always have a great atmosphere. I expect Saturday to be no different. The community will come out and support us like they always do. We're excited to get to play in front of them and hopefully get us another win."