The third time proved to be the charm for Cale Garrett and the rest of the Kearney football team.
The Bulldogs had advanced to the state semifinals the last two years, only to lose to eventual champions Lee’s Summit West in Class 5 in 2013 and Webb City in Class 4 last season.
Kearney players, coaches and fans will be spending part of their Thanksgiving weekend in St. Louis after the Bulldogs defeated Westminster Christian Academy 35-16 in the Class 4 semifinals Saturday at Westminster.
The Bulldogs will play five-time defending champion Webb City at 1 p.m. Friday for the Missouri Class 4 championship at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. Webb City defeated Cape Girardeau Central 35-14 in the other semifinal Saturday.
“Three years is a long time,” said Garrett, the Bulldogs’ middle linebacker. “It just feels so good to finally get over the hump. I am just numb right now.”
And it was not because of the frigid temperatures and high winds.
“It is all adrenaline,” Garrett said. “We don’t even feel the cold right now.”
Despite the final score, it was a defensive battle for much of the game. Each team scored on one possession in the first half after getting a short field on short punts into the wind.
Westminster scored first on a 24-yard field goal by Andrew Kempen.
Kearney was able to capitalize on its field position with a two-play drive that was capped by Logan Hinck’s 23-yard touchdown run.
Bulldogs coach Greg Jones had a decision to make to start the second half. He elected to play with the wind in the fourth quarter.
“I did that a couple of years ago against Fort Osage and it worked out well, as it did today,” Jones said.
The game turned on the kickoff to start the second half. Westminster failed to field the pooch kick, and it was recovered by Kearney. Two plays later, Garrett was in the end zone.
“You could feel the momentum swing in that first minute of the second half,” Jones said.
A third two-play touchdown drive gave Kearney a 21-3 lead late in the third quarter. Kearney’s Zac Courtoise recovered a fumble on an attempted Wildcat reverse and ran it back to the 10. Hinck hit Aaron Mello with an 11-yard touchdown pass.
Westminster scored its first touchdown on a 24-yard pass from Evan Johnson to Casey Hinds. But the Wildcats were called for unsportsmanlike conduct after the touchdown. Kearney took advantage of good field position, and after three two-play drives they scored on a one-play “drive.” Hinck connected with Mello for a 60-yard touchdown pass just 11 seconds after the Wildcats scored.
Marcus Harris put an exclamation point on the Bulldogs win with a 6-yard TD run in the final 2 minutes.
“I’m an old SEC guy who believes in playing great defense and not beating ourselves,”Jones said. “We were able to do that today and finally get through this round.”
Jones was not surprised when he heard the score of the other semifinal game in Class 4.
“Coach (John) Roderique and I are great friends,” Jones said of Webb City’s coach. “But for 48 minutes Friday we will be on opposite sides of the field. And you can’t win it if you’re not in it.”
And for the first time since 2009, when Kearney won the state championship and became the last non-Webb City Class 4 champion, the Bulldogs are in the championship game.