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ASHLAND — The day before Southern Boone’s first game of the season, Eagles head coach Trent Tracy was starting to get a little concerned about his new starting quarterback.

“Oh crap,” Tracy thought. “Is he going to go in there and lay an egg?”

That was one of the many scenarios running through Tracy’s head as he prepared his team for an important first game at Mexico.

After months of senior Tyson Smith looking dynamic and confident in practices over the summer, he looked nervous in the days leading up to the season opener. Smith rushed throws, made poor reads, and did basically anything else that would make a coach uneasy before a season with high expectations.

Tracy retained confidence because of his trust in Smith as a player and as a person. He knew that Smith knew the playbook, despite how jittery he looked.

But Smith became more anxious as the game neared.

The night before, Tracy could tell he needed to calm his quarterback down. He called Sam Stichnote, who was the Eagles’ uber-talented starting quarterback the last two years and is one of Smith’s best friends.

“Is he nervous?” Stichnote asked.

“Oh yeah.”

Stichnote immediately called his cousin. The vote of confidence centered around Stichnote’s genuine faith in Smith. He reminded him that the next day was a game that Southern Boone would really like to win, but was still just a game. After being “hyped up,” Smith went into game day feeling more confident than he did before.

The call helped for a little while. But when Smith saw the referees walking up to the middle of the field holding the coin for the pre-game toss, the nerves came back in a big way.

After winning the coin toss, the Eagles’ decision to defer receiving the kickoff to the second half ended up being a critical one.

Smith put his helmet on and took the field as a starting safety on defense. Within the first few plays of the game, he laid a loud hit on a Mexico Bulldog that not only stalled their drive, but changed everything for Smith. He popped up from the grass and felt like a new person — the nerves were gone.

From there, all Smith did was showcase his arm talent in an offensive system that did not limit him in the slightest even in his first start. Time after time, Smith lobbed pretty passes into the hands of his receivers en route to a 20-0 Eagles win.

Tracy was impressed with his quarterback’s play, and perhaps even more importantly his leadership skills, which have sharpened tremendously from last year to now.

With multiple important seniors, including Stichnote, graduating, Smith’s transition from junior wide receiver to vocal leader in the huddle and in practice is aided by the fact that he’s very close friends with many of his teammates. When they’re not in class or practicing, Smith and teammates are hanging out at the Missouri River, which sits about 15 minutes from the center of Ashland.

“’We’re country boys,” Smith said. He and his teammates love to go there to hangout, fish, and talk about football.

The river was an especially popular spot for the team over the summer. With more free time in their schedules during the day, members of the team would drive to the river and laugh and talk about things that happened during workouts or practice.

During the season, the team mostly only goes on the weekends. They talk about what went right (or wrong) against their previous opponent and strategize for their upcoming opponent. Mostly, they just have fun.

Tracy cites their togetherness as a substantial reason why the team has big goals for the season. Players say they want to finish better than they did last year, when they went 10-3 and made an appearance in the state quarterfinals.

This week, the Eagles have their home opener at 7 p.m. against the Fulton Hornets in the Friday Night Fever game of the week. After beating the Hornets 54-7 last year, Smith and the Eagles hope to be discussing another win when they head to the river over the weekend.

This story is a Missouri School of Journalism collaboration.