Senior Ty Werling (7) leads the Branson football team onto the field for Friday night’s game at Neosho.

Anthony Hays is well-versed in the ways of Central Ozark Conference football.

There are no guarantee victories on the schedule, and few “should-win” games for any team. No nonconference cupcakes to get geared up for league play, with every single week featuring COC competition.

That’s what made Friday night’s 21-14 loss to Neosho even more frustrating for the third-year Pirates’ coach. His team rallied from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit to tie the game at 14 before halftime, then saw just about everything go wrong for his team the rest of the way.

There was what he called a “blatant” false start that wasn’t called on the Neosho tight end on a play from the Neosho 29-yard line. Players on the Branson defense stood up, waiting for a penalty flag.

There was none to come, and the Neosho quarterback took the snap and went 71 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

“It was kind of a weird play, and he just took it to the house,” Hays said.

Adding to the frustration were a handful of trips into Neosho territory where the Pirates came up empty.

Three red zone trips ended in an interception on the goal line, a fumble on the 5-yard line and a missed field goal. Another possession ended on downs on the Neosho side of midfield.

“It’s very frustrating, because you walk away and you say we could have won by a score or two, and we lost by a score,” Hays said. “And in the COC, you’ve got to win those games, the ones you can and should win, you need to win.”

The loss evened the Pirates’ record at 1-1 and kept the team from building on the momentum of a Week 1 victory over Republic.

It came against a Neosho team that was coming off a 21-7 loss to Ozark in its opener.

Next up for the Pirates is a home game against that same Ozark team, in a revival of what has developed into a heated and competitive rivalry in recent years.

“It’s my hope that the team takes it as a challenge, to make the two or three plays there that can win you a game,” Hays said. “The good news for us is that it’s Ozark week now, and we always get pretty fired up for Ozark. I think they’ll have the right attitude and respond.”

Even though it finished in a loss, there were some bright spots for the Pirates against Neosho.

After spotting the Wildcats an early 14-0 lead, the Pirates came back with two second-quarter touchdowns to tie the game.

First came a 25-yard TD pass from Dalton Muenchau to Brady Blackwell, then a Jay Hill TD run from 2 yards out.

Hill followed up his 203-yard rushing day in the opener with 137 yards on 21 carries. In his second varsity start, Muenchau looked calm and poised, completing 13-of-23 passes for 182 yards. Blackwell caught seven passes for 116 yards. Defensively, Cristian Berumen and Ty Werling finished with 12 total tackles each, and Berumen had a sack.

“It was a very good game, and we just came up a little short,” Hays said. “Hopefully we can learn from it and play some better football next week.”

Adding to the urgent nature of this week’s game is the coming schedule Branson will face.

After Ozark at home, the Pirates will play at Webb City, at Joplin and host Carthage. Last week’s state rankings had Joplin at No. 5 in Class 6, Carthage at No. 2 in Class 5 and Webb City at No. 2 in Class 4. Those three teams have a combined record of 5-1 this season, with the only loss coming by Webb City against Joplin in Week 2.

“We need to go get this one, with it a home game and against a rival,” Hays said. “It would be a really big win for us. We need to have a good week of practice and play a little cleaner football.”

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