ANDERSON -- The tears on the faces of McDonald County's football players told the story. So did the long embraces with one another afterward.
The Mustangs left everything on the field Saturday afternoon in the Class 4 quarterfinals against Jefferson City. Unfortunately for McDonald County, the result was just short as the Jays left Mustang Stadium with a 31-28 victory, ending the Mustangs' magical postseason run.
"Proud of how our kids fought the whole time," said McDonald County coach Kellen Hoover. "Not very many teams end the year on a win, so it hurts right now. It's going to hurt. There's not a lot you can do about it when you've put in your heart and soul into something like these guys have. It's going to hurt, and it shows you care. And it shows you how they've invested into it. I'm just proud of how they bought into each other, how they played for each other and just proud of how they fought and clawed. That was even today. It's the whole season and today. I'm just proud of them."
The season ends for the Mustangs (8-5), who won three straight playoff games to capture the school's first-ever district championship. Jefferson City (9-4), meanwhile, advances on to the Class 4 semifinals this Saturday, where the Jays will host Kearney (11-2), which beat Nevada 35-0 in another quarterfinal game last Saturday.
To do so, the Jays survived a fired-up Mustangs team, playing in front of a huge home crowd on a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Mustang Stadium that was ready to get behind its home team. The home stands were packed with black and red, the fire and emergency personnel vehicles were lined up in the end zone to escort the Mustangs onto the field. And McDonald County was ready from the very start.
The Mustangs stuffed the Jays on their opening offensive possession and forced a punt to midfield.
McDonald County senior quarterback Destyn Dowd rushed for 35 yards down to the 10, and Sam Barton followed with an 8-yard run to the 2. After a procedure penalty on the Mustangs, Barton ran for a 7-yard touchdown with 7:24 remaining in the first quarter. Richard Gasca's point after touchdown kick made it 7-0 Mustangs.
McDonald County's defense came up with another stop in the first quarter, this time forcing a Jefferson City turnover on downs at the Mustangs' 31.
McDonald County methodically moved the ball 69 yards in nine plays to score and go up 14-0.
Barton had two runs for eight yards, and Dowd completed passes of six and five yards to Barton and Huston Porter, respectively, to reach midfield.
Barton then ran for eight yards, and Dowd followed with a 24-yard dash to the Jays' 18.
Malosi Sosef carried twice for two and 10 yards, and Dowd ran in from six yards for the Mustangs' touchdown and a two-score lead with 26.3 seconds left in the first quarter, where the Mustangs had 119 yards of total offense, including 108 rushing yards on 11 carries.
The second quarter though belonged to the Jays, the champions of Class 4 District 5.
On the second play of the second quarter, Bradarious Lewis broke free for a 73-yard misdirection touchdown run with 11:45 left in the second quarter to put Jefferson City on the board 14-7.
The Jays got a stop on defense and came back and scored again, this time marching 53 yards in 11 plays and capped by Lewis' six-yard touchdown to tie the game 14-14 with 4:07 left in the first half.
After forcing another McDonald County punt, the Jays scored again when quarterback Jacob Wilson found Kendric Johnson for a 42-yard touchdown pass with 1:00 left in the half.
Down 21-14 at halftime, the Mustangs regrouped in the locker room.
"Yeah, you know, we really didn't make a lot of adjustments offensively," Hoover said. "We just had to clean some things up. Whether it be penalties or reads, different things, we just had to clean up some things and kind of lean on them a little bit and kind of do what we do best. Our kids just needed a reminder that what we do works. They bought into that. Came out and played a really physical second half. And I'm proud of how they came out of a halftime where, like you said, things weren't necessarily going our way."
McDonald County received the football to open the second half at the 36 and went to work on getting back in the game.
Dowd completed an eight-yard pass to Brodie Roessler on the opening play of the second half, starting a 14-play, 64-yard drive that took 7 minutes and 14 seconds off the clock.
Dowd, Sosef, Samuel Murphy and Jarrett McCool combined to rush for 56 yards over the next 13 plays, with Sosef running for a 1-yard score with 4:46 remaining and a 21-21 tie.
Jefferson City's Wilson hit Zach Barnes for a 42-yard gain into McDonald County territory and the Jays' Johnson kicked a 30-yard field goal with 2:21 left in the third quarter for a 24-21 lead.
The Mustangs went on another long march to take a 28-24 lead with 9:28 left in the fourth, capped by a two-yard TD run by Dowd.
Earlier in the drive, Dowd hit Josh Pacheco for a 16-yard gain near midfield on third and 15 to keep the drive alive. The Mustangs went back to their read option run game with Dowd and Sosef alternating carries.
Trailing 28-24, Jefferson City drove back into McDonald County territory, but the Mustangs got a turnover when Slyte Osborne hauled in a tipped pass for an interception.
Looking to put the game away, the McDonald County offense drove into Jefferson City territory before the drive stalled at the 26 and the Jays forced a turnover on downs.
Jefferson City then hit another big play in its passing game, as Wilson found Barnes again for a 46-yard gain.
Wilson also hit Johnson for 19 yards before Barnes ran in a six-yard touchdown with 1:58 remaining and a 31-28 Jefferson City lead.
The McDonald County offense turned the ball over on downs in four plays on the next possession, and the Jays took two knees in victory formation to run out the remaining time.
"Heck of a high school football game," said Jefferson City coach Damon Wells. "They're incredibly talented and incredibly well-coached. What a great environment down here. It means a lot to come down here and win in a place like this."
The Jays finished with 409 yards of total offense, including 230 yards in the passing game. Wilson completed 7 of 15 passes for 230 yards, with Johnson hauling in five passes for 142 yards. Barnes had two catches for 88 yards and seven carries for 25 yards.
Lewis, who had eight rushes for 103 yards at halftime, finished with 13 carries for 113 yards as McDonald County held the Jefferson City running game to just 30 yards in the second half and 179 yards on 33 carries for the game.
The Mustangs finished with 297 total yards, including 262 on the ground on 53 carries.
Dowd led McDonald County rushers with 27 carries for 154 yards and completed 4 of 8 passes for 35 yards.
Sosef had 18 carries for 72 yards, while Barton was limited to six carries for 32 yards and sat the entire second half after suffering a foot injury.
The McDonald County community came out in mass support of the Mustangs, as evidenced by the home stands packed with fans on a sunny afternoon and people all over the campus.
Hoover said it made for a great football atmosphere.
"Our community's really, really special," Hoover said. "I just talked to a guy who flew in. He's with the Air Force. He flew in today to be a part of this. He's a guy who played for us a few years ago."
Several former Mustangs were in attendance, some not far removed from their playing days.
"It's really cool to see these guys from the past come back together, relive their seasons and moments from their own seasons," Hoover said. "It's just cool to see the community come together for a day like today and give these kids such a great atmosphere, and this is just an amazing place. It's such an incredible place to be. We are so well supported by our community, by our administration, by our student body. We are extremely lucky."
After the team broke it down in a huddle one last time, Hoover called the seniors together for a final message.
He told them he was proud of them and how they have added their mark to the program's history, just like the senior classes before them.
"Each group has just continued to push it forward," Hoover said. "Obviously, this group can lean on that they did the same thing. Our program, our culture was at a certain place, and then by the time they leave, we wanted to be better. This group can say they had a lot to do with where our culture is continuing to be pushed to, and I'm just really proud of them and how they've endured the ups and downs of a career, a season, and they continued to push our program forward. I can't say enough good things about this senior class. I really can't."
Hoover reminded them that their district championship banner will hang in the gym as a reminder of the accomplishment.
"It's never been done before," he said. "They're able to visually see their direct impact on the program, their impact on the history of this program, and look and know that was the first one, the very first district championship in program history. They'll be able to come back together with their classmates, their teammates from this year, and say look what we did. They'll be able to look at some of that and relive some of these great moments from this season. And I also just wanted to let them know they're a part of our family forever. They're a part of the fabric of who we are. They're a big part of that. We always want our seniors to know that when they leave, that (have) a special place in their coaches' hearts and a special place in our program."