Oct. 29—NEOSHO, Mo. — The Willard Tigers put together perhaps their best first half of football this year, and it ultimately came at the expense of the Neosho Wildcats' season.
A valiant second-half comeback attempt came up short for Neosho, and Willard picked up its first triumph of the season in a 43-29 victory in the first round of the Class 5 District 6 playoffs on Friday night at Bob Anderson Stadium.
Neosho, which earned a 79-72 win over Willard earlier in the season in a Week 1 shootout, finished the year with a 4-6 record, marking the program's winningest season since 2018 when the Wildcats went 8-4.
"I'm proud of our kids for the way they worked all year," second-year Neosho head coach Brandon Taute said. "Obviously that's not the way we want it to end, but it doesn't change the way I feel about them. I told them that the outcome of the game doesn't change how I feel about them, and I love them to death."
Willard (1-9) punched its ticket to the district semifinals to take on Class 5 No. 1 Carthage on Nov. 4 in Carthage.
Neosho trailed by as many as 20 points but managed to trim the deficit to 35-29 after running back Jared Siler recorded his third touchdown run of the night with 6:10 remaining.
But the Tigers put the final nail in the coffin on their ensuing drive, milking nearly five minutes off the clock as they drove 78 yards in nine plays for a TD on a 38-yard scamper by running back Gary Walker.
Walker's TD, his second and final of the evening, was made possible by a fourth-and-1 conversion earlier in the drive when quarterback Russell Roweton bulldozed his way up the middle on a sneak play from the Tigers' 46-yard line. The ball was spotted right on the yard to gain at the 47, and officials deemed a measure was not necessary as they awarded Willard the pivotal first down with under four minutes to play.
Neosho lost a fumble on its final offensive drive before Willard ran out the game clock from the victory formation.
"Our kids fought all game," Taute said. "It was awesome the way fought. You know, we got down early and continued to battle and battle. So it wasn't for lack of effort. They just out-executed us there down the stretch."
Willard managed to build a 35-15 lead by halftime after scoring touchdowns on its first five drives of the game.
Neosho kept pace in the first quarter with a pair of touchdowns through its first three possessions, but three Wildcat turnovers in the half ultimately allowed the Tigers to jump out to their 20-point lead at intermission.
The Wildcats started the game with the football and drove deep into Willard territory before a pass by Quenton Hughes was intercepted by Willard linebacker Jase Motlagh, who got a hefty pickup on the return to the Willard 41.
Willard capitalized on the takeaway three plays later when Roweton connected with Timmy Ruble for a 42-yard TD pass.
Neosho responded with an eight-play, 68-yard drive that was capped by a 34-yard TD pass from Hughes to Isaiah Green, tying the game at 7-7 with 5:34 still to play in the first.
The Tigers reclaimed the lead on their next offensive play when Roweton delivered a short pass to Clayton Scott, who eluded a pair of Neosho defenders on the Willard sideline before outrunning the rest of the defense for a 75-yard score.
Neosho took its first lead of the night with 3:20 left in the first after an 82-yard drive was punctuated by a 9-yard run by Siler, who went on to convert the ensuing two-point conversion with a run to put the Wildcats up 15-14.
But the first half was all Willard from there.
The Tigers took the lead back, 20-15, before the first quarter even expired when Chaz Amodeo hauled in a 10-yard TD pass from Roweton with 39 seconds showing in the period. Then Willard outscored Neosho 15-0 in the second quarter with TD runs of 11 yards by Gary Walker and four yards by Roweton.
Neosho came up emptyhanded on all three of its drives in the second quarter. Two of them ended via turnover on downs, and another ended on a punt.
Neosho stopped the bleeding late in the third quarter when Siler ended a 71-yard drive with a short TD run that trimmed the Willard lead to 35-22.
Siler finished with 238 yards and three TDs on 46 carries as he eclipsed 2,000 yards on the season.
Hughes completed 23 of 35 passes for 194 yards and one TD. His top target, Brock Franklin, had 119 yards on 12 catches.
Contact Jared Porter on Twitter at @JaredRyanPorter.