WARDSVILLE, Mo. - One thing is for sure about today's Class 2 semifinal football game between the Blair Oaks Falcons and Lawson Cardinals - whichever team moves on will be continuing an unexpected postseason journey.
Take the Falcons, who advanced all the way to last year's state championship game before falling to two-time defending champion Lamar. Blair Oaks graduated a talented senior class that had some major contributors to the postseason run.
So with a young squad entering this season, expectations were not sky high, but the Falcons did their best to start raising them.
"The kids have done so much, and so much for each other," said Blair Oaks coach Brad Drehle, whose team brings a 12-1 record into today's 1:30 p.m. contest at the Falcon Athletic Complex. "They work extremely hard. It's not something that started in August (when practice began), it started in January. Everybody told them the things they couldn't do and they set out to prove everybody wrong."
It's a similar story for Lawson (11-2), which wasn't expected to do much with just three returning starters. After the Cardinals started the season with a 32-0 loss to Maryville, which is playing today in the Class 3 semifinals, they rattled off 11 wins in their last 12 games (other loss was to East Buchanan). Lawson is looking to advance to the state championship game for first time since winning the title in 2007, when the Cardinals beat Blair Oaks.
"This is what everybody dreams about and we've been fortunate enough to experience it a couple times," Drehle said as the Falcons make their sixth appearance in the state semifinals in the past 10 years.
When the Falcons and Cardinals met in 2007, Lawson was running the Wing T offense. They're still doing that, but this time it's out of the shotgun, rather than having the quarterback up under center.
"They're good," Drehle said. "They've got a quarterback (senior Garrett Titus) a lot like we saw from them in 2007 - a big kid running that Wing T and he throws the ball well, runs the ball well.
"... With the shotgun, the Wing T is a completely different animal because of the way that it spreads you on the field. You still get the power run game, but it's just a different thing. Something we haven't seen."
Titus is far from Lawson's only weapon, as another senior, tight end Austen Eskew, is another playmaker.
"Eskew is 6-4 and 220 - he's big," Drehle said. "They do a great job of running some tight-end drag and different things and getting him the ball."
Those two are also the leaders of the defense.
"They base out of a 3-3 and (Eskew) is one of those linebackers," Drehle said. "He'll walk down and play defensive end, and he's a man. When he comes to tackle, he comes with a purpose. ... (Titus) at free safety is 6-2 and 200 pounds and he runs the alley.
"Those two are seniors and they're hungry. You watch and you can see it. It's like they told all those other kids, "Get on our back.' The others rally around those kids."
Lawson will have a decided size advantage when it comes to line play, as that group includes Connor Hill (6-4, 250) and Trevor Pennington (6-4, 255).
"We don't have anybody that big. We can take (quarterback) Jordan Hair and (receiver) C.J. Closser and stack them on top of each other and they're not that big,"
Drehle said with a laugh. "They're hardly going to reach 250.
"So they present some unique challenges for us, and hopefully we're going to be able to handle it. We're going to try to push the pace and do what we do. If it's right, then we'll be playing next week."
This will be the latest in a season full of big games for the Falcons, and Drehle is hoping today has the same feel as one of them, in particular.
"I'm hoping we have a similar atmosphere as what we had against California, where if you don't get here early you're going to have to park in Jeff City," he said. "... We're looking forward to it, our kids are looking forward to it. That California crowd was such a big boost to us, we expect the same kind of thing."
That game, a 29-28 win for Blair Oaks, had an offensive output that could seem huge compared to today's game.
"Twenty-one points, if either one of us gets there, we've got a great chance," Drehle said. "And 28 will probably win it. In a game like this, 14 may win it."
In last Saturday's quarterfinal win at Palmyra, the Falcons saw firsthand the value of playing until the final whistle.
"We've kind of adopted this slogan, "Win this play.' We can't focus on anything else, just winning this particular play," Drehle said. "We got to that last 5.3 (seconds) and Palmyra took a timeout and our kids came over and that's what they were all yelling, "Win this play.' It kind of rallied us and we got it done."
To win this game, Drehle said one big key will be playing well on special teams.
"Lawson takes a huge amount of pride in their special teams, so somewhere along the line, good or bad, special teams will dictate what happens," he said.
And while a big play on special teams would go a long way, Drehle said it's more about just playing clean.
"They kick the ball around and it's going to be handling the ball," he said. "Like I tell the kids, "If people want to kick it around, that's a compliment to us. You're afraid we're going to take it for a touchdown, so you're willing to give it to us at the 40-yard line. If they're willing to give it to us, say thank you. Because if we get one first down, then they're playing in their end of the field.'"
There's one word that sums up another key.
"Attack," Drehle said simply. "We can't sit back and say, "Look at what we've done,' and feel comfortable. We have a goal, and this isn't it. This is the next step."
Notes: Lawson's only other loss came to East Buchanan in Week 6 of the regular season. ... The Cardinals are outscoring opponents by an average of 31-15 this year.