There were a couple of issues that haunted the Branson High School football team in 2018.
The offensive production was often tough to find during a 2-8 season. The Pirates also went winless in five games at home.
After one week of the 2019 season, you can consider both of those demons exorcised.
Branson racked up 350 yards of total offense, scored six touchdowns and never trailed on Friday night, dealing Republic a 42-29 loss at Pirate Stadium.
It was a far cry from last season, when Branson scored 102 points for the season and failed to reach double figures in points in seven of 10 games.
The Pirates racked up 19 first downs on Friday night, dominated on the line of scrimmage, scored four running touchdowns and added two scores through the air. A seventh touchdown was called back because of a penalty in the fourth quarter
“I knew that we would be better offensively,” Branson coach Anthony Hays said. “I saw that during the summer and saw it in the camps.
“I knew that we would be better, I saw it in camps. I didn’t know that we would be 42 points better, and almost 50 at the end. I was really proud of those kids. I’m excited, and I think we’re going to have a good season offensively.”
The offensive output even came with two lost fumbles derailing Branson drives, one setting up Republic inside the Pirates’ 5-yard line for one of the Tigers’ scores.
The heroes for the Pirates were plentiful.
Leading the way was senior running back Jay Hill, who finished with 185 yards on the ground on 22 carries. He scored two touchdowns – one on a 26-yard run in the first quarter to make it a 14-0 Branson lead, and another on a 3-yard plunge in the fourth quarter to help ice the game.
“This means a lot,” Hill said. “We’ve been working for this game for the entire summer.
“We have to keep working at the same pace and keep getting better every day.”
Quarterback Dalton Muenchau, a junior who only won the starting job late in the week leading up to the opener, was calm and poised in his first varsity start. He finished 6-of-9 for 69 yards and a pair of scores and added 25 rushing yards on seven tries.
Muenchau had less success containing his excitement as the Branson student section stormed the field after the game.
“It means the whole world to me,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this night for the entire summer – it’s been a ride.
“I’m not sure I expected this, but we wanted it bad. The O-line was blocking and everybody came together.”
Muenchau hit Ethan Jones for a 24-yard touchdown on a third-and-11 play on Branson’s opening possession, and he found Brady Blackwell for a 10-yard score on the first possession of the second half to make it a 28-7 game.
“He stepped up and did a great job,” Hays said of his new QB. “He made some big plays and some good decisions. If nothing was there, he pulled it down and ran.
“He really showed some poise for his first varsity start.”
While Branson never trailed, perhaps the game’ biggest stretch came after one of Branson’s lost fumbles, late in the third quarter.
The fumble set Republic up on the Branson 4-yard line, and it took two plays for the Tigers to score, on a 3-yard pass from Lucas Hayes to Riley Sigman.
A botched snap on the PAT ended up with the Tigers running in for a two-point conversion, making it a 28-22 Branson lead with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The Pirates answered with a nine-play, 79-yard drive, with Hill carrying the ball seven times and Stephen Derks finishing it with a 2-yard TD run. The PAT made it a 35-22 Branson lead with 8:09 to play and effectively put it out of reach.
“They closed the gap, and I just told the kids that we had to go respond,” Hays said. “The momentum was on their side, and I told them we are going to respond and come back the way champions do, show me you have that in you.
“Jay Hill just took over on that drive. That really encourages me, seeing that mentality. We didn’t have the momentum, and we had to just go take it. And we did.”
It wasn’t just the Branson offense that turned in big plays. On Republic’s second possession, with the Pirates leading 7-0, Ty Werling stormed in to block a punt and give Branson the ball at the Tigers’ 26-yard line.
The first play of the next possession saw Hill score his first touchdown.
Then early in the second quarter, after Branson lost a fumble to give Republic the ball near midfield, the Tigers drove to inside the Pirates’ 5-yard line.
On a fourth-and-2 play from the Branson 3, Hayes hit Sigman with a pass in the left flat. Branson sophomore Tristian Pierce came up to make a big one-on-one stop, forcing Republic to give the ball up on downs.
Next up for Branson is a trip to Neosho, which claimed a 20-7 victory at Branson last year after the Pirates won at Republic in Week 1.
The Wildcats opened the season with a 21-7 loss at Ozark on Friday night.
“Neosho is always big, physical and well-coached,” Hays said. “I’m going to enjoy this one and we will think about that tomorrow.”
Hays also didn’t want to talk about last year’s home woes, saying with a laugh: “This feels good. We’re undefeated at home right now.”
In other season-opening games involving area teams on Friday, Hollister scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to break a tie in a 23-16 victory at East Newton, Reeds Spring cruised to a 61-6 victory at Nevada, and Forsyth dropped a 49-8 decision at Skyline.