The lead evaporated slowly on an early-September evening, and in the third week of the high school football season, Kearney suffered its first defeat. The loss came courtesy of Liberty North, which rallied from a 10-point deficit with Kearney starting quarterback Logan Hinck sidelined with an injury.
After the game, Kearney coach Greg Jones criticized his team’s inability to march on without one if its prominent starters, calling the loss a “valuable learning experience.”
Apparently so. The Bulldogs haven’t lost since.
Not even close. Over an 11-game winning streak, Kearney has outscored its opponents by an average of 39 points per game.
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The surge has pushed the Bulldogs into the Missouri Class 4 state championship game on Friday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
“It’s definitely not a coincidence,” said Kearney senior linebacker Cale Garrett, who leads the team with 142 tackles this season. “We started 2-0, and we thought we were hot stuff. That (loss) was a reality check. We realized that if we don’t come out trying to play as hard as we can, we’re beatable.”
A more centralized focus shouldn’t be an issue on Friday. The Bulldogs will match up at 1 p.m. Friday with five-time defending state-champion Webb City, which, to no surprise, is undefeated once again.
“If you can’t get motivated for a state championship game, there’s something wrong,” Jones said. “But especially when you’re facing a team like this, you know you have to be at your best.
“People want to beat them — not because they don’t like them, but because you respect them so much. Everybody wants to be the team that says, ‘Hey, we beat Webb City.’”
Kearney, of course, had the same opportunity last postseason, but Webb City defeated the Bulldogs 38-7 in the state semifinals.
“I think what hurt more last year was we left that game, as a coaching staff, knowing we did not play our best football game,” Jones said. “If you go out and play well and get beat, you can take it. But if you go out and don’t even show up, that’s hard to stomach.”
Kearney is the last team other than Webb City to win the Missouri Class 4 state title, when it won in 2009.
The Bulldogs believe they are a more versatile team than they were in 2014, when Webb City used its signature rushing attack to turn the game into a rout. Nevertheless, they acknowledge few expect them to dethrone a dynasty on Friday.
They’re offering no concessions.
“They’re a good team — I’m not going to lie,” Garrett said. “But we like our chances as much as they like their chances. We’re ready to go, just like they’re ready to go.
“That’s why we play the game.”