Jefferson City's Jesse Bilyeu, left, and Hayden Wells talk over strategy

Jefferson City’s Jesse Bilyeu, left, and Hayden Wells talk over strategy Oct. 1 at Adkins Stadium in Jefferson City. After a bye last week, the Jays kick off district play Friday at home with a semifinal matchup against Kirksville. 

After three weeks of play, Jefferson City was still searching for its first win of the season. Last Friday, while most high school football teams were competing in district quarterfinal games, Jefferson City was left without a match. The Jays had earned a first-round bye in the Class 4 District 5 tournament. Second-seeded Jefferson City ended the season winning five of its last six games, giving it a 5-4 record and matching its highest regular-season win total since 2016.

The Jays had lost each of their first three games by at least two scores. But practice habits got better. Team dinners were happening. The work was being done, and the wins followed.

“I had faith that it was coming, but I think all the credit in the world goes to the kids, because I believe they, too, knew that it was coming,” coach Damon Wells said.

Jefferson City has a young roster. Wells noted that his entire offensive line consists of sophomores and juniors and that the team starts just two seniors on defense right now.

On such a young team, senior leadership is of the utmost importance, and the Jays’ seniors have stepped up and acted accordingly. They’re also putting together some remarkable seasons. David Bethune and Kevion Pendelton make up one of the best running back tandems in mid-Missouri.

After having success with a young roster, it’s tempting to look to the future. The sophomores on the present-day offensive line will be seniors in a couple of years. Wells is in his first year with the program. Could things be even better in a few seasons?

No one in Jefferson City’s locker room is thinking about that right now. Wells made a promise to his seniors that the focus would be on this season and this season only. The only thing on the Jays’ mind is Kirksville (7-3), which they host Friday in the district semifinal.

“Every class leaves a legacy, and I couldn’t be more impressed with this class,” Wells said. “We just hope that legacy has a couple more weeks left in it.”

Game of the Week: Blair Oaks meets Boonville in much-anticipated rematch

Boonville beat Blair Oaks in Week 4, handing the Falcons their first conference loss since 2014. Blair Oaks, as close to a machine as a mid-Missouri high school football program can be, finally showed a hint of vulnerability.

That’s the thing with machines, though: They just move on to the task at hand. And that task is Boonville, again, Friday night in the Class 3 District 5 semifinals.

“Who improves the most?” Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. “There’s no revenge factor. There’s nothing like that. It’s, ‘Hey, we played a really good football team the fourth week of the season. They beat us. What did we do that we can get better at?’”

Blair Oaks has improved its defense, a defense that is still starting six sophomores and a freshman. After a few shaky defensive weeks down the stretch in the regular season, the Falcons blanked Osage 53-0 one week after giving up 43 points to that same Osage team.

It also somehow improved its Dylan Hair-led offense, which has not scored fewer than 50 points since the Boonville game. Typically, Blair Oaks centers its offense around spreading the ball out and passing, but against a Boonville run defense that hasn’t looked great recently and might be missing up to two of its starting linebackers because of injury, it might change that plan.

“Do we try (running the ball), or do they stay traditionally with what they do, throwing the football, quick game, vertical attacks,” Boonville coach Greg Hough said. “That’s the chess match. When you’re playing somebody like Ted LePage, you’re playing chess.”

The Falcons will need their defense to step up against a Boonville team that can beat opponents in so many different ways. Last time against Blair Oaks, quarterback Colby Caton ran the ball 37 times, but his body has taken a beating this year — he briefly had to come out of the game because of injury two weeks ago but ran for a touchdown on his first play back — and Hough isn’t expecting him to carry the ball as much.

“Our goal going into a game is Colby Caton, around 14-18 touches,” Hough said. “Dawan Lomax, 15-19 touches. And then we want Jamesian (McKee) to be in that 12-15 range. But with that said, we’re gonna roll the hot hand.”

Boonville has a myriad of weapons who can break for big games at any moment, and Hough uses that fact to motivate them into doing the nitty-gritty portions of their jobs.

“If they do good, guess what, they’ll get (the ball) again,” Hough said. “If they struggle, or they don’t stalk-block, or they don’t do their job to help their other teammates when they have the ball, we won’t give them the ball.”

While this is a rematch from earlier in the season, both teams have a shared experience since then — losing to Hallsville in heartbreaking fashion.

LePage said that the Hallsville loss “cut (the players) pretty hard.” Hough said it haunted the team even in last week’s district quarterfinal victory over Fulton, having the chance to win a conference championship and falling just short.

“We’re still trying to find that game and find that opportunity to leave our mark and our legacy on this program,” Hough said.

Harrisburg and Fayette set for Round 2

Nearly one month ago, Harrisburg left Fayette unsatisfied. In Week 7, the Bulldogs lost 42-26 to their rivals, tilting their head-to-head record further in favor of the Falcons, who have won eight of their nine matchups since 2014. However, both coaches suspected that wouldn’t be the last time the two teams would meet this season. Now, in the Class 1 District 5 semifinal, the second installment is here.

With their last matchup taking place just four weeks ago, the opposing coaches find themselves in a chess match, reviewing the tape from Week 7’s game, trying to predict their opponent’s next move.

“I kind of think the advantage goes to Harrisburg a little bit on this,” Fayette coach Mike Thompson said about the two teams having film on each other.

Garren Vroman and the Falcons (9-1) ran the ball at will against Harrisburg (8-2) in Week 7. On the flip side, the Bulldogs struggled to get much going on the ground. In Thompson’s view, the fact that Harrisburg will likely make adjustments to its run defense while his team has less reason to change in that area gives the Bulldogs a leg up. Nevertheless, he expects both teams to make adjustments on both sides of the ball.

Harrisburg coach Steve Hopkins sees an even playing field when it comes to reviewing last game’s tape. In terms of adjustments his defense needs to make, it’s an obvious formula: Keep the elements that were successful, and change what was unsuccessful.

“There were two or three things where we said, ‘Guys, this was not your fault — that was not a wise front or a wise coverage against this team,’” Hopkins said. “We’re not gonna do the same thing that we did last time and lose by 16 because we’re doing the same things.”

Fayette’s high-powered offense has not been at full strength during this past week of practice. Vroman, two offensive lineman and a wide receiver — all starters — missed Tuesday’s practice with non-COVID illnesses. Additionally, Brandon and D.J. Moore missed Wednesday’s practice. All the players were back for Thursday’s practice, and Thompson does not expect any of them to miss Friday’s game.

With respect to Harrisburg’s offense, Hopkins said his team will have to “use a couple of wrinkles” to run the ball better. Overall, the Bulldogs’ offense needs to be more balanced than it was in Week 7.

This may be a semifinal game, but it feels bigger than that. If the seeding worked out differently, Fayette vs. Harrisburg likely would have been a worthy district championship game.

“Going into this district, I felt like we were the two best teams in the district,” Thompson said.

For the final time this season — and for the final time ever for both teams’ seniors — Harrisburg and Fayette will line up against one another.

“I think there’s a lot of really good football teams that are left,” Thompson said. “Unfortunately, one of them’s gonna get eliminated this Friday night.”

Player Interview: Hallsville’s Tyger Cobb

Hallsville quarterback Tyger Cobb has shredded anyone in his path throughout his senior season, and Boonville was no exception. In the de facto Tri-County Conference championship Oct. 22, Cobb ran for four touchdowns, including the eventual game-winner.

Hallsville was off last week as the No. 1 seed in Class 2 District 6, but Cobb and his team are back in action this week against Centralia. Cobb talked to the Missourian about his season thus far, his relationship with coach Justin Conyers and his mindset heading into the playoffs.

Columbia Missourian: Heading into Year 2 as the starter for Hallsville, what were some of your goals entering the year?

Tyger Cobb: My goal is mostly just team goals, and we want to go far in the playoffs, and we’re taking it one game at a time. This game right here against Centralia is the most important game of my life up to this point. And then if we win, then next week, that game will be the most important game of my life.

CM: What were some of the biggest improvements you’ve made as a quarterback from last year to this year?

TC: I think using my legs. I definitely feel like I’ve gotten faster. I’m starting to run the ball a little harder, and just making better decisions, not creating as many turnovers on the offensive side of the ball.

CM: Did you do a lot of speed training over the offseason?

TC: A little bit. Coach (Travis) Kincaid had us doing a little thing in the summer, and I’ve been stretching my hamstrings a lot, actually, and it’s helped.

CM: What did the Blair Oaks win mean to you guys as a team and a program?

TC: It just makes us really proud that we don’t really have to look up to them anymore as the big dogs of the conference. And now that’s us. People are starting to look up to us. We don’t have to get pushed around by Blair Oaks anymore, so it’s kind of like sticking up to the bully.

CM: In the Boonville game, how’d you as a team persevere through that, and what did it mean to bring a conference championship to Hallsville?

TC: We were just the more physical team, and in the end that just brought us over the edge. Our O-linemen were bullying dudes around and pushing people around. The wide receivers were blocking really good, our running backs were running really hard and our defense got stops when we needed it. It just feels so good to bring that to our community, because Hallsville has never done that in football, and it feels great to be a part of that team.

CM: How much has Coach Conyers helped you this year, both as a play-caller and a head coach?

TC: He gives me the confidence to feel comfortable when I’m playing quarterback. He’s always a really positive teacher. He’ll critique you, but you just take it the right way, and it really helps me tremendously. He has a lot of confidence in me, and it makes me have a lot of confidence in me. Same goes with every other person on the team.

CM: What’s the quarterback-head coach relationship like?

TC: We’re on the same page quite a bit. He makes the call, and I’m gonna trust him most of the time. There’s been a couple circumstances where I’ve suggested something and he doesn’t forget to come back to it. Hopefully it works, and if it doesn’t, he’s not really mad at me. He just likes me to take control of the offense. … It means the world, because it makes me feel powerful, and without that confidence, then I wouldn’t be as good of a player as I am.

CM: What does it mean to you guys to see the community rally around this team?

TC: It’s amazing. You look at some high school games, and it’s dead, and there’s not a seat empty at a home game for Hallsville. Even in the visitors’ stands, we travel really well. It’s amazing to go look back at that Boonville game, and we have the white-out going on, and their students have the camo going on, and I think we brought more people than they did on their own home game. That just feels amazing to have all that support.

CM: What are the expectations for this team heading into the playoffs?

TC: We’re just gonna win one game at a time, and if you win one game at a time for five straight games, then we’ll end up state champions. So, just win one game at a time. Beat Centralia.

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