COLUMBIA, Mo. — Carl Reed got the first touch.
When the championship trophy was presented to the Lutheran North football team, Reed took it with both hands and held it aloft Friday.
After coming close the last two years, the Crusaders finally broke through in his fifth season.
Lutheran North dominated Ava from the opening whistle to the last en route to a 49-0 win in the Class 2 championship game at Faurot Field on the campus of the University of Missouri.
The No. 1 small school in the STLhighschoolsports.com rankings and No. 1 team in the Class 2 Missouri Media poll, Lutheran North (14-0) won its sixth state championship and first since 1999. It's the first undefeated season for the Crusaders.
Ava (14-1) made its championship game debut five days after it played in its first state semifinal since 1948. When it knocked off Lamar in a quarterfinal, the Bears returned home to an impromptu parade through town complete with a police escort and fans lining the streets.
“It was almost like a town party,” Ava coach Dan Swofford said. “Kids don't get to go through that very often. Coaches don't get to go through that very often.”
The Bears were happy to be here.
The Crusaders were on a mission. Their first drive lasted 63 seconds.
On the third play of the game, senior running back Jalen Head went up the middle for a 28-yard touchdown.
Then it was time for the real show — the Crusaders' defense.
Ava started its first drive with the ball on its own 33. Three plays later it was at the 35 and the Bears set up the first of what would be seven punts.
Lutheran North was on the verge of punching in another score but Ava's defense held on fourth-and-goal at the 2. Head was stuffed for a 1-yard gain.
Ava managed to tug, shove and push the ball to the 9 but was short of the first down and punted again. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Head rolled 42 yards for another touchdown. Lutheran North led 14-0 with 4 minutes and 4 seconds to play in the first quarter.
The Crusaders' second drive lasted eight whole seconds. Head rushed 10 times for 86 yards and two scores.
“We knew that coming in to this game what we were facing it would be a tough game for us,” Swofford said. “It was kind of a David and Goliath thing going on out there.”
David had no stones, no slingshot and no answers for Lutheran North quarterback Brian Brown. The sophomore signal caller stepped in as the starter in the third game of the season after senior Jordan Smith was injured against Cardinal Ritter in Week 2. Brown took the job and never gave it back.
Against Ava he found six different receivers and hit senior Cameron Griffin and junior Jerrell Carter for touchdown passes. Brown completed 9 of 18 passes for 171 yards, two scores and was intercepted once. He rushed for a touchdown, too.
Brown's emergence changed the dynamics of Lutheran North's offense. For the first time in three years the Crusaders had a quarterback capable of consistently making plays through the air. His favorite target?
“Jordan Smith is the key to the whole thing moving from quarterback to receiver,” Reed said. “He ended up leading us in receiving and being the best receiver in our conference. That was a huge, selfless move. We probably don't make it to the championship if Jordan Smith doesn't have the commitment and the selflessness to make that move.”
Smith caught just one pass for 33 yards on Friday but didn't care a lick. He had what he came for — a ring.
“This is what I wanted. I wanted this in the end,” Smith said. “When coach told me this was what the team needed us to do to get here to be at this point to be state champions, I bought into it. I did it the very best I could.”
Ava did the best it could, too. It just didn't have the horses to make any kind of headway against the Crusaders defense. The Bears managed 66 rushing yards and senior quarterback Nate Swofford didn't complete either of the two passes he attempted. Ava picked up three first downs despite having the ball for 31 minutes to Lutheran North's 16.
The Bears biggest play of the game was a 51-yard interception return by Nate Swofford.
“We had to get it done,” Lutheran North senior linebacker Antonio Doyle said. “Ava was coming. We knew they were coming and we had to lock in. We had to do it together.”
Doyle finished with 7.5 tackles and a sack. Junior defensive end Travion Ford had eight tackles. Senior defensive end Itayvion “Tank” Brown had 6.5 tackles. As a team, Lutheran North finished with seven tackles for a loss of 29 yards.
“Our defense has carried us all season,” Reed said. “When you play a team that runs the triple option as good as Ava we knew we'd have to be very sound on defense and the guys lived up to the challenge today.”
Ava was overwhelmed early but never lost sight of the bigger picture. This senior class has the most wins in school history and brought home the first football trophy for the school. It didn't end the way Ava wanted but that didn't take away from the moment.
“To play against these guys was just an honor,” senior offensive lineman Dylan King said. “I loved every minute of it. I soaked every bit of it in. I loved it.”
Reed wanted his team to enjoy itself but to understand the work never stops. Many of the seniors at Lutheran North plan on playing in college. The underclassmen will have a championship to defend while taking every opponent's best shot. Friday was sweet but come Saturday it will be a memory.
“Nobody can rest on their laurels. You've got to look at what's next,” Reed said. “Life is a never-ending process that you have to keep going through.”