PLEASANT HILL -- When Jefferson City’s senior class entered the program as freshmen, it was hard to tell what direction the program was going in.
The Jays were coming off a 2-8 season in 2019 and hadn’t experienced a winning season since 2016.
Fast-forward two coaching changes and two district championship defeats later, Jefferson City broke through in the seniors’ final chance to win the program’s first district title in 14 years Friday with a 37-34 road victory against the top-seeded Pleasant Hill Roosters in the Class 4 District 5 championship.
“Coming into the school and not really knowing where the football program was going, coming off a two-win season my eighth-grade year, we just had to go to work,” Jefferson City senior lineman Brody Smith said. “We just started working toward this goal. I am just so happy. This senior group, we have been through so much together.
“We were so close to letting this game slip away from us. To come away with it, it’s just incredible.”
The victory pushes the Jays into the state quarterfinals, where they will play at 2 p.m. Saturday at McDonald County (8-4), which won the District 6 title with a 40-21 victory Friday against Bolivar.
It also clinches at least seven more days together for the seniors, the team’s mantra during each postseason under coach Damon Wells.
“These are seven days we’ve never tasted before,” senior quarterback Jacob Wilson said. “It feels great. We are going to relish it and keep fighting for seven more days.”
The Jays came out of the gate fast to start Friday’s game.
Following a turnover on downs from its defense to start the game, Jefferson City drove 54 yards in eight plays and got in the end zone on a 1-yard run by Zach Barnes. Kendric Johnson’s PAT missed to keep the early lead at 6-0.
The Jays continued their fast start with a three-and-out on defense and a 60-yard touchdown drive that ended with Barnes running in a 20-yarder to make it 13-0 with 3:30 left in the first following the first of four made PATs by Johnson.
“To be able to move the ball and to be able to execute against a quality opponent like that two hours from home in a hostile environment, I think it says a lot about these boys,” Wells said.
Pleasant Hill woke up after a sluggish start. Each team scored touchdowns on the remainder of the first-half possessions.
The Roosters got on the board with a 10-yard touchdown run by wide receiver Grayson Sudduth but was unable to get the snap down on the PAT to keep the lead at 13-6.
Barnes answered with a 6-yard touchdown run to extend the lead back to 14, but the lead stayed at two possessions for just 2:10 as Brayden Bush ran in a 31-yard score on fourth-and-1 to make it 20-13 following the first of four made PATs by Dylan Jackson.
It looked like Jefferson City would take a 14-point lead into the locker room after Wilson hit Johnson on a deep post for a 38-yard touchdown, two plays after narrowly overthrowing him on the same route, with 1:56 left.
“First play, I dropped back and wasn’t as comfortable, and I just short-armed it and didn’t get enough air on it,” Wilson said. “That’s something we rep in practice, let him run under it. So next time I knew to throw it up there and let him go get it.”
But the Roosters used their tempo offense to march 60 yards in five plays to get in the end zone on Bush’s second touchdown run, this time from 3 yards out, to make it 27-20 at intermission.
The Jays opened the second half with another Barnes 6-yard touchdown run to extend the lead to 34-20.
The sophomore finished with 17 rushes for 143 yards and four touchdowns to lead the Jefferson City running game.
“Everything was working,” Barnes said. “The linemen made holes that I could drive a truck through, and from there it was just me running up the field.”
Things were looking great for the Jays after the defense forced a three-and-out to follow, led by two sacks by senior linebacker Kane Fuelling, as they held a 14-point lead with possession.
But the game flipped in a hurry.
Jefferson City turned the ball over on downs following a negative run on fourth-and-3 from the Roosters’ 23-yard line, and Bush set himself up for a 7-yard touchdown with a 60-yard gain on a wheel route.
Bush’s touchdown run came on the final play of the third quarter to cut the lead to 34-27.
“I thought all night long our defense played very, very well,” Wells said. “We played the pass very well. We had one bust (in coverage), but I am proud of all our boys.”
The Jays fumbled the ball away just two plays into the next series, and Garrison Hartsell ran in the tying score from 24 yards out three plays after.
With 10:34 left, it was a brand new ballgame.
“We talked about in player growth meeting this morning that the message was all in,” Smith said. “We broke the huddle with, ‘All in on me, all in on three,’ and it was go time from there.”
Each defense came up with a key stop to follow, and Jefferson City got the ball back at its own 44 with 6:57 left.
The Jays were able to run off more than four minutes of game clock before facing a fourth-and-4 at the Pleasant Hill 8.
Johnson had attempted just one field goal on the season, a 50-yard attempt that missed in Week 1, but Wells decided to trust in his kicker in the biggest moment of the season.
“I heard somewhere that one of the keys is to try and get him to say yes three times,” Wells said. “I asked if he could take the steps, I asked if he could get the ball in the air and I asked if he believed we could get great protection. He said yes to all three.
“So I said, ‘Let’s get it done.’”
Johnson got the job done, booting the 25-yard try from the left hash through the uprights to give his team a 37-34 lead with 2:45 left and the Roosters out of timeouts.
“Everybody was telling me to just treat it like a PAT,” he said. “It wasn’t too crazy far, but we practice situational kicks. We were prepared for that moment.”
Then it was time for the Jefferson City defense to seal the deal.
The unit completed the job by forcing a turnover on downs as the drive was halted at the Jays’ 44, ending with a fourth-and-10 pass sailing over the intended receiver’s head to the turf.
It was the exact moment the defense had been building for all season.
“Absolutely,” Wells said. “I’m pretty proud of those boys.”
Jefferson City (8-4) finished with 426 total yards on a season-high 71 offensive snaps. Wilson finished 5-of-10 passing for 84 yards and a touchdown while rushing 10 times for 60 yards, Bradarious Lewis finished with 13 carries for 70 yards and Johnson had two touches on offense, the 38-yard touchdown catch and a 14-yard run, to go with his game-winning kick.
Pleasant Hill (9-2) finished with 296 total yards on 58 offensive snaps, led by Bush with 18 carries for 117 yards and three scores and two catches for 70 yards.