One week after a 21-14 loss at Neosho, where the Pirates came up empty on three second-half possessions in the red zone, the frustrations continued at home against Ozark.
For coach Anthony Hays and the Pirates, the “what-ifs” may have been even more painful against the rival Tigers, in a game that ended in a 14-13 Ozark win.
Things like …
· What if star tailback Jay Hill wasn’t forced out of the game with an ankle injury just before the half, after shredding Ozark for 78 yards and a touchdown on only nine first-half carries?
· What if Branson didn’t come up empty on two trips inside the Ozark 5-yard line, failing to score on a fourth-and-goal play from the 3-yard line late in the second quarter, and on a fourth-and-goal play from the 7-yard line midway through the third quarter?
· What if the Pirates weren’t flagged for illegal contact to the head on an Ozark incomplete pass on a third-and-13 play from the Branson 17-yard line, leading to the game-tying touchdown on the next play in the middle of the fourth quarter?
· What if Branson wasn’t penalized for running into the kicker on a missed conversion kick following that touchdown, giving Ozark kicker Thomas Rushing another chance, which he converted?
· What if Branson had turned any of the three second-half Ozark turnovers it forced into points?
Those are questions that could haunt the team, which easily could be 3-0, but is 1-2 heading into the meat of its schedule.
“It’s very frustrating, and we work too hard for this,” junior Payton McCormick said. “We just have to learn to finish. We’ll get there.”
The biggest loss may have been Hill, who ripped off a pair of 18-yard runs on Branson’s first drive, which ended in a nice 27-yard touchdown pass from Dalton Muenchau to Brady Blackwell, for a 7-0 lead just 65 seconds into the game.
Hill had a 76-yard TD run called back on the first play of Branson’s second possession, but the Pirates shrugged it off as part of a 76-yard scoring drive. The big play was a 32-yard pass from Muenchau to Blackwell, and it ended with a 4-yard run from Hill, for a 13-0 Branson lead.
Hill had a 39-yard run called back on Branson’s third possession, and a 26-yard run counted late in the half before he left the game for good.
“That was huge,” Hays said. “He’s been our heart-and-soul on offense. He’s a great kid and a great competitor. He gives us some dynamic play back there. Losing him was huge.
“I’m hoping it’s not a big deal and we can get him back.”
After Hill exited, Branson’s offense had trouble getting anything going. The Pirates had had 163 yards of total offense in the first half – 84 on the ground.
Branson rushed for minus-11 yards in the second half and had 32 yards of total offense on six second-half possessions.
“I think it was punch in the gut, and we never responded the way we needed to,” Hays said. “They did make some adjustments, and we just missed some opportunities. There were some plays to be made, but we didn’t make them.”
Muenchau was 4-of-5 for 79 yards and a touchdown in the first half, but with Hill out in the second half, he was 3-for-15 for 43 yards in the final two quarters.
Branson’s defense kept the game close over the final two quarters, forcing the three turnovers and limiting the Tigers to 170 total yards.
But Ozark’s running game took its toll down the stretch.
“Our defense did great, they kept us in there until the end, and they were the only reason we were in this game,” McCormick said. “One PAT, it’s just a small little detail, but we have to get that covered.”
Ozark committed turnovers on its first possession of the second half – on a D’Shawn Craigg interception – and on its second possession of the third quarter – on a Landon Atwood fumble recovery – but couldn’t convert either opportunity into points.
A key stretch came after Atwood’s fumble recovery midway through the third quarter, on the opening play of an Ozark drive, gave Branson the ball on the Tigers’ 19-yard line.
A 14-yard pass from Muenchau to Dominic Darnell set the Pirates up at the Ozark 5-yard line, and three plays for a minus-2 yards set up a fourth-and-goal play from the Ozark 7.
Branson passed up a field goal try and went for it, with an incomplete pass giving the Tigers the ball on downs. It was the second time the Pirates went for it and didn’t convert on a fourth-and-goal play, while leading 13-0.
“We were up by two scores,” Hays said. “The first time, I thought a field goal still keeps it a two-score game. Why not make it a three-score game? By doing that, we didn’t have the opportunity to make it a three-score game the next time.
“Obviously hindsight is 20/20 there.”
Another Craigg interception came late in the third quarter, after Ozark had scored to cut the Branson lead to 13-7.
Again, Branson’s offense sputtered, ending with a punt and setting up Ozark’s drive for the go-ahead score.
A horse collar penalty helped the Tigers keep the drive alive, and a flag for illegal contact to the head came after Chance Strickler’s incomplete pass on third-and-13 appeared to have Ozark stopped.
The penalty gave the Tigers a third-and-4 from the Branson 8-yard line and Rushing scored from 8 yards out. The initial PAT kick was no good, but Branson was flagged for running into the kicker, and Rushing made the PAT on his second try.
After the teams traded punts, Branson staged a frantic drive, starting with a 26-yard pass from Muenchau to Ethan Jones. But three plays later, a deep pass from Muenchau to Darnell fell incomplete.
Now the Pirates head into the meat-grinder portion of their schedule, with games at Webb City and Joplin, then at home against Carthage.
Entering Week 3’s action, Webb City was ranked No. 3 in the state in Class 4, with Joplin ranked No. 4 in Class 6 and Carthage ranked No. 2 in Class 5. Joplin is 3-0, with Carthage and Webb City both 2-1, each losing to Joplin.
“We’re just worried about the next game,” Hays said. “Each week is a tough one in this conference, so we’ll get back to work on Monday and worry about playing Webb.”
In other games involving Tri-Lakes area teams on Friday, Hollister dropped a 21-20 decision to Springfield Catholic, while Reeds Spring rallied for a 19-7 victory over Logan-Rogersville and Forsyth won its second consecutive game, celebrating Homecoming with a 36-6 rout of Greenfield.