Nov. 6—CARTHAGE, Mo. — The Carthage Tigers were tasked with filling a Luke Gall-sized void on Saturday as they opened play in the district playoffs.
But it was only a matter of time before they found their footing.
After falling behind on two occasions in the first half, top-seeded Carthage responded with five straight touchdowns to pull away for an eventual 41-21 win over fifth-seeded Willard in a Class 5 District 6 semifinal game at David Haffner Stadium.
The semifinal tilt was originally scheduled to be played a day earlier but was pushed to Saturday due to Friday thunder storms.
CHS, ranked No. 1 in Class 5, improved to 9-1 on the season and punched its ticket to the district championship to take on third-seeded Republic (8-3), a 30-21 victor over second-seeded Webb City (6-4), on Friday in Carthage. CHS will be seeking its ninth district title in program history.
Republic comes into the district final as one of the hottest teams in the state after stringing together a five-game win streak. Its most notable victories in the stretch includes a 36-25 overtime win over Class 6 No. 4 Nixa on Oct. 14 as well as the nine-point win over Class 5 No. 5 Webb City on Saturday.
Carthage picked up a 56-26 win over Republic in a Week 1 meeting on Aug. 26 in Carthage.
"I'm pretty freaking excited, to be honest," Carthage quarterback Cooper Jadwin said. "The first time we played Republic this season was an amazing game. I think they're a really good football team. They're going to give us some fits in a lot of ways, but I think we can take them. I'm just really excited to get back on the field Friday."
Jadwin and Clay Kinder took over most of the scoring duties for a Carthage team that was competing without its top playmaker in Gall (RB/LB), who was sidelined for precautionary reasons with an undisclosed injury. Jadwin scored a pair of TDs on the ground, including an 86-yard score that gave CHS its largest lead of the day at 41-14 early in the fourth quarter, while Kinder added three TDs.
"Luke is obviously a big part of our offense and one of our big-play guys, but coach (Jon) Guidie let me know early on in the week that I'd get a few more carries than I'm used to," Jadwin said. "But I'm OK with that. Today me and my teammates had to step up without Luke, and I feel like we did a good job."
It was the one-win Willard Tigers (1-10) who set the tone early by driving 74 yards and finding the end zone on a 37-yard run by Gary Walker for a 7-0 lead within the first 3 1/2 minutes of the game.
Carthage answered later in the first with a one-yard scamper by Kinder, who took over the starting running back role in the absence of Gall.
Willard reclaimed the lead, 14-7, in the early stages of the second quarter when Timmy Ruble hauled in an 11-yard TD pass from Russell Roweton to cap another lengthy scoring drive.
"We hadn't played a football game in over two weeks, and it was kind of a weird circumstance since we were supposed to play on Friday night and ended up playing (Saturday afternoon)," Jadwin said. "So I think there was a little bit of rust we had to shake off at the start.
"The good thing was that everyone kept their heads up and stayed positive as we kind of adjusted back to the tempo of a live football game."
That adjustment became evident by the middle stages of the second quarter when Carthage opened an eventual 34-point surge with an 81-yard drive that ended in a 2-yard TD plunge by Kinder. The score tied the game at 14 with 7:01 left in the first half.
Willard's ensuing drive ended with a turnover on downs, and Carthage took advantage by marching 85 yards down the field to score on another short run by Kinder. The ensuing PAT missed, but Carthage had its first lead, 20-13, with 25 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Following the game's intermission, CHS reached paydirt on its second offensive snap of the second half when Mason Frisinger took a reverse handoff and went 58 yards for a score that gave Carthage a 27-13 lead.
"They came out in a different defensive front than we'd seen them in all year, and it took our guys a little while to adjust to that offensively," Guidie said. "But they finally got going a little bit. ... Big credit to our offensive line and tight end for just staying in the fight until we got them figured out."
Carthage went on to add two more TDs to its lead — both on rushes by Jadwin — before Willard did some cosmetic work on the final score with a TD in the final minute of the game.
After scoring its two early touchdowns in the opening half, Willard was held scoreless on seven of its final eight drives.
"I thought after the initial quarter there that we played really, really well on defense," Guidie said. "We covered them on the back end. We were able to get to them a couple of times, which is something we didn't do at all the last time we played them. So the effort was there on both sides today."
Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.