CAMDENTON -- The Capital City Cavalier seniors have seen the lows of two 1-9 seasons. They saw the program’s first winning season last year and the first playoff win this year.
Now they will see the Cavaliers’ first district championship game.
“I’m really glad I was able to go from a 1-9 team to where we are now,” Capital City senior lineman and linebacker Landen McNeil said. “The transition, the confidence, the trust, I think that’s a big key. The fact that I’m a senior and we’re succeeding like this. I think it makes it even better.
“I’ve been playing football for 12 years and when it comes down to moments like these, I can’t get over the feeling.”
The No. 3-seeded Cavaliers (8-3) escaped Camdenton in the Class 5 District 5 semifinals with a 38-35 win against the No. 2-seeded Lakers and will face a rematch Friday at top-seeded Helias (9-1), looking for the program’s first trip to the state quarterfinals.
“When you set your mind to something and you believe and have faith, you work towards it and good things happen if you try to do it the right way,” Capital City coach Joe Collier said. “You can’t expect it to always go your way, but you expect good things to happen either way if you work as hard as you can.”
The Cavaliers looked dominant early Friday night, scoring on their first three drives and moving at will.
Capital City received the opening kickoff and rattled off run after run to go 72 yards on eight plays, with Jaylen Thomas starting his 21 carries for 192 yards day on the ground and Richardson beginning his 133 total yard day. The pair each broke 11 yard runs on consecutive plays before Richardson took a speed option pitch around the left side of the line for a 24-yard touchdown run. Weston Schofield hit the first of his five extra points to put the Cavaliers up 7-0 with 7:56 left in the first quarter.
“We were staying locked in, staying focused and doing what we do,” Richardson said.
The Capital City defense forced a three-and-out after Dante McRoberts got a tackle for loss on third-and-3, setting up the Cavaliers to start their second drive at their own 33.
Thomas took the second play of the drive up the middle, slipping through a couple of tackles along the way for 26 yards, then Richardson broke an 11-yard run to eventually set up a 40-yard Schofield field goal. The kick put the Cavaliers up 10-0 with 1:10 left in the first quarter.
“We were staying true to ourselves, doing us and playing the blue way,” Capital City senior lineman Marques Golliday said.
The Cavalier defense forced another three-and-out, allowing only eight total yards in the first quarter, to set up a Camdenton punt on the first play out of the break.
Isaiah Franklin caught the kick at the 35 and spun out of multiple tackles down the right sideline to give the Cavaliers a short field at the Camdenton 43.
Capital City had two false starts, moving back to second-and-20, but Evan Schaffer hit on the first of his five completions, this one to Thomas on a screen for a 14-yard gain. Schaffer ended the day with a season high of 128 passing yards.
On third-and-6, Thomas took a pitch around the right side of the line and ran untouched for a 39-yard touchdown. Schofield’s extra point gave the Cavaliers a 17-0 lead with 9:51 left before halftime.
“We were locked in, ready to go before the game,” Thomas said.
Camdenton was able to gain its first, first down on a third-and-8 completion from Kade Durnin to Brayden Sheppard. Durnin ended with 335 yards passing on a 27-of-45 night, with Sheppard as the main target at eight catches for 123 yards.
But the Cavaliers forced another punt and seemed to hold all the momentum.
Until the Cavaliers’ main issue of the 2023 season came back.
A fumble on the punt return gave Camdenton the ball at the Cavalier 34, by far the Lakers’ best field position of the day, and allowed Durnin to take a deep shot on a jump ball to Kyle Eidson down the right sideline.
The pass set the Lakers up at the 2, where Blake Ford was able to punch it in to get Camdenton on the board with 8:00 left before halftime.
The extra point went into the back of the offensive line, but the Lakers had cut the lead to 17-6.
The Cavaliers fumbled again on the ensuing drive, giving Camdenton the ball at the Cavalier 33, but Capital City’s defense was able to get the stop it needed on the strength of a Matt Wiegand sack on second-and-10 and forced another Laker punt.
After the Cavaliers gained a first down, a false start moved them back to the 31, where Thomas broke through up the middle of the line and cut toward the right seem for a 69-yard touchdown.
Then Camdenton’s comeback began.
On the ensuing drive, Durnin fired two passes to Sheppard for 15 and 23 yards, then another to Ford for 16. Another completion set the Lakers up for third-and-6 from the Cavalier 10, where Durnin ran in the first of his three rushing touchdowns to cut the lead to 24-12 with 1:21 left after a failed two-point pass.
Capital City lost a third fumble on the first play of the ensuing drive, giving the Lakers the ball at the Cavalier 33.
Durnin hit Owen Borbe for a 29-yard gain through the air, then found Borbe again for a 4-yard touchdown to bring the Lakers within 24-19 with 24 seconds left before the break after a Willard DeMott extra point.
Camdenton received the kick after the break and put together a long drive to set up a 24-yard DeMott field goal, cutting the Cavalier lead to 24-22 with 7:53 left in the third. DeMott then recovered his own onside kick fired at the Cavalier front line on the kickoff.
Camdenton drove to set up another field goal, but the 41-yard try was no good, giving the Cavaliers the ball at their own 20.
The Cavalier offense got rolling, with the biggest plays of the drive coming on a Schaffer deep ball to Franklin down the left seem for 21 yards and another screen to Thomas for 19 more.
After Schaffer kept the ball on three consecutive plays to set up third-and-goal from the 1, Thomas was able to punch it in up the middle, rolling sideways over his linemen tied up in a block to put the Cavaliers up 31-22 with 10:16 left.
Camdenton moved quickly on the next drive, with Durnin firing passes of 26 and 29 yards, with the 29-yard completion coming on a fourth-and-7 heave downfield, before scrambling for the final 17 yards of the drive, including a 3-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown, cutting the lead to 31-29 after DeMott’s extra point with 7:27 left.
The Cavaliers came back out attempting to run clock, but two consecutive plays with runners going out of bounds stopped the drive short and forced the lone Capital City punt of the night, giving Camdenton the ball at its own 16 with 3:05 left.
Two incompletions set up third-and-10, but Durnin was able to escape the pocket for a 13-yard scramble and a new set of downs.
Durnin found Shepperd for gains of 16 and 33 on the next two completions, then hit Spencer Mellencamp for a 15-yard gain to earn a goal-to-go first down at the 7.
On second down, Durnin took another quarterback draw up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown to give Camdenton its first lead at 35-31 with 1:19 left.
“We just kept telling ourselves it was all or nothing right there,” McNeil said.
Capital City fell on the kickoff at the 30 with 1:16 to play and one timeout.
Thomas took a run out of the pistol up the middle for a 4-yard gain, then a Camdenton sack forced the final timeout and had the Cavaliers facing a third-and-14 on their own 26 with 50 seconds left.
Schaffer booted to his left and fired back to his right on a screen to Richardson, who took off, cutting from the right side of the line toward the middle of the field and on to the left sideline as he charged down the field.
“It was either lose and go home or win and go to the championship,” Richardson said. “That’s all that was going through my head. … It was just kill mode in my head. The game never ends until the clock hits zeros.”
But Richardson was pushed out of bounds at the 2 with 34 seconds left.
“We just believed the whole way,” Golliday said. “When we went out for that final drive, we just kept telling each other, ‘Believe, believe, believe.’”
The Cavaliers ran Thomas up the middle, gaining one yard and hurried to spike the ball. The spike landed with :10 left, but the clock operators didn’t stop the timer and it ran out, sending the Camdenton student section into a frenzy thinking the Lakers had put together their second consecutive district comeback win after beating No. 7 Rolla in the final seconds last Friday.
“For a second I was worried because the clock ran out, but everything was OK,” McNeil said. “I believed in the brother next to me, they believed in me and we did what it took to win. Confidence the entire time.”
The clock was eventually reset to 10 seconds left, and the Cavaliers went to Thomas again, this time pushing through the line for the game-winning touchdown with :07 left to play.
“I knew it was coming,” Thomas said. “I knew I was gonna get a touchdown, I knew I was gonna win the game for us at that point.”
Schofield hit the extra point to create the final margin.
“It starts with that O-Line, coach (Chris) Lueckenhoff, coach (Lance) Johnston, we always preach that we can get a yard,” Collier said. “We’re gonna get positive yards every time we run the ball, we believe that across the board. When we got inches from the end zone, I knew we had a shot and I didn’t think anyone would stop us at that point.”