JOPLIN — Fourth-seeded Kirkwood held a two-score lead after the first possession of the second half before top-seeded Joplin rallied to outscore the Pioneers by 28 points down the stretch to pull away for a 69-48 win in the Class 6 District 3 football semifinals Friday at Junge Field.
“I just love our guys,” Joplin coach Curtis Jasper said. “The players and coaches worked so hard and persevered together. This is a close group, and bottom line, we are guaranteed seven more days together, and we are going to take it one day at a time.”
Kirkwood (6-4) marched down the field with a 10-play scoring drive to open the second half to build a 41-27 lead. Joplin’s defense, which struggled mightily against the pass in the first half, switched from a 4-3 front to a 3-4 in the second half and settled in.
The Eagles offense used the passing attack to tie the game up at 41-41 before the rushing attack broke free over the final 15 minutes of game action to send Joplin away with the win.
“Joplin is a great program and are led by two high-powered seniors,” Kirkwood coach Farrell Shelton said. “I give all the credit to Coach Jasper and everything they do. We came up a couple of plays short, but I told the kids I am proud of them, I love them and the sun will come up tomorrow.”
Joplin (11-0) advanced to play host to Marquette (10-1) at 7 p.m. Nov. 15 in the district championship game.
Kirkwood, which still has a matchup against Webster Groves on Thanksgiving Day left on the schedule, graduates 20 seniors upon the season’s end.
“I think our senior class means as much to us as it does to Coach Jasper,” Shelton said. “They fought through a lot.”
Kirkwood quarterback Kannon Nesslage hit Will Lee on a fourth down-and-5 pass for a 23-yard touchdown to give the Pioneers a 41-27 lead with 8:52 left on the third quarter.
“We have some great skill kids on the outside, and our quarterback did a nice job all game,” Shelton said. “I thought our o-line played great, as well.”
Joplin needed three plays to answer, with quarterback Blake Tash passing to the sideline to find Zach Westmoreland, who fought off several tackles and avoided going out of bounds before sprinting his way to a 49-yard score to trim the lead to 41-34.
Joplin’s defense forced the Pioneers into a punt on the ensuing possession for the first time in the game, and the Eagles’ offense took advantage on the first play with possession after Tash went deep up the near sideline to find Westmoreland, who battled Jarius Maclin down the sideline to make a one-handed 33-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 41-41 with 5:34 left in the third.
“JMac was on me pretty tight and knew where I was going,” Westmoreland said. “Blake couldn’t have dropped the ball in any more perfectly. Honestly, I couldn’t believe I caught it. When I got to the end zone, I just flipped and was really excited.”
Kirkwood answered again when Nesslage, who faked short before heaving it deep, hooked up with Maclin on a 64-yard touchdown to give the Pioneers a 48-41 advantage with 4:25 on the clock in the third.
Three plays into the next Joplin drive, Isaiah Davis broke loose for a 54-yard touchdown run on third down-and-1 to tie the game at 48-48.
Kirkwood was forced to punt for the second time in the third quarter, and Joplin immediately took the lead back when Davis broke free again, using a huge block downfield by Westmoreland to score from 46 yards out to make the score 55-48 with 9.1 seconds left in the third.
Kirkwood put on a 16-play drive that came up empty when Nesslage’s pass to Lee on fourth down-and-5 from the Joplin 15 came up a yard short of the first-down marker for a turnover on downs.
Davis continued to feast on the ground in the second half, finding a hole and sprinting his way to a 78-yard touchdown to put the Eagles up 62-48 with 3:29 to play in the game.
Joplin’s Dominick Simmons picked off Nesslage on the ensuing Pioneer drive, resulting in a 5-yard touchdown for Davis the other way to essentially seal the win with Joplin building a three-score lead.
Davis, who rushed for 333 yards and six touchdowns in last year’s district championship against Kirkwood, carried the ball 20 times for 309 yards and six touchdowns to lead the Eagles on the ground.
“The offensive line did a good job finishing blocks,” Davis said. “I was just patient and hit the hole as hard as I could. I did what they ask of me, and they did what I ask of them, and it really worked out.”
Tash completed 10 of 15 passes for 244 yards, four touchdowns and an interception, while Westmoreland hauled in seven passes for 201 yards and three touchdowns. Nathan Glades, who recovered a fumble in the win, caught a 15-yard touchdown pass.
Nesslage completed 44-of-51 passes for 538 yards, seven touchdowns and two interceptions. Lee caught 11 passes for 126 yards and two scores, while Jackson Fortner caught eight passes for 151 yards and two scores. Maclin caught nine passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns.
“What Will Lee did tonight was special,” Shelton said. “The first thing Kannon would say is to give kudos to the offensive line. His wide receivers made some plays, and I thought our offensive staff did a phenomenal job. Defensively, we lost our gaps a couple of times, and against a running back like Davis, that can’t happen.”