Jefferson City expecting electric environment vs. Kearney in Class 4 semifinals

Jefferson City's Jacob Wilson hands off the ball to teammate Bradarious Lewis as Lewis starts his touchdown run during last Saturday's Class 4 state quarterfinal game against McDonald County in Anderson. (Roger Nomer/Joplin Globe)
Jefferson City's Jacob Wilson hands off the ball to teammate Bradarious Lewis as Lewis starts his touchdown run during last Saturday's Class 4 state quarterfinal game against McDonald County in Anderson. (Roger Nomer/Joplin Globe)

The Jefferson City Jays are set for their biggest home game in 22 years.

The unranked Jays will host the No. 4 Kearney Bulldogs at 1 p.m. today at Adkins Stadium in the Class 4 semifinals, marking the first time Jefferson City has hosted a state semifinal game since 2001 against Blue Springs.

“The environment is going to be fantastic no matter what because it’s a Saturday afternoon, Thanksgiving weekend,” Jefferson City coach Damon Wells said. “I’m sure it’s going to be a tremendous day.”

The Jays (9-4), making their first appearance in the state semis since 2008, enter today’s contest on a five-game winning streak, including last week’s 31-28 victory at McDonald County in the quarterfinal round.

The Bulldogs (11-2), who are in their first state semifinal appearance since 2016, enter winners of their past 10 games and are coming off a 35-0 shutout at home against No. 8 Nevada.

Kearney has won each of its past 10 games by at least 16 points with their closest victory coming in a 29-13 decision against top-ranked Smithville, which handed the Bulldogs their last loss Sept. 8 in a 41-21 final, in the District 8 championship.

“They are tough, they are incredibly tough,” Wells said. “They are talented, well-coached, talented players. We definitely have our hands full.”

During the winning streak, Kearney has averaged 41.0 points per game on offense while giving up just 9.0 points per contest on defense.

The Bulldogs use a spread-style, power-run offensive system that will test eye discipline with a lot of moving parts and different players touching the football.

“They are very sound, but they are willing to try anything and everything,” Wells said. “You have to be prepared and you have to be gap sound. You have to play solid, fundamental football.”

Kearney’s offense is centered around senior quarterback Casey Rooney (6-foot, 174 pounds).

Rooney is coming off a three-touchdown performance last week, two passing and one rushing touchdown, against Nevada and will be a threat both on the ground and through the air. Rooney had completed 70-of-117 passes (60 percent) for 1,414 yards and 19 touchdowns entering last week’s game.

“He’s talented,” Wells said. “He gets the ball where it’s supposed to go. I would say the offense runs through him. He’s not afraid to take off and run, as well.”

Rooney’s favorite target in the passing game has been senior wide receiver Manny Linthacum (6-0, 165).

Linthacum burned Nevada for a 40-yard touchdown last week and had 28 catches for 693 yards and nine touchdowns entering the game.

“He can run, he’s fast,” Wells said. “They have players at all levels.”

The Bulldogs are expected to use a number of ball carriers throughout today’s game, but senior running back Cameron Emmons (5-9, 195) leads the ground attack.

Emmons scored Kearney’s other two touchdowns last week, running in the opening score from 59 yards out before adding a second touchdown halfway through the second quarter.

“He’s incredibly talented,” Wells said. “He’s quick, he runs hard. He’s a load.”

The Bulldogs’ defense has been dominant of late. Kearney has not allowed more than 13 points in a game since its last loss.

The Bulldogs throw a little bit of everything at teams defensively.

“Odd-front defense, but they are certainly not afraid to be multiple behind that odd front,” Wells said. “They will stem, they will move, they’ll play man coverage and they will play zone coverage. A little bit of everything. Pretty multiple but sound all the way.”

Kearney’s defense is led by four Suburban Blue first-team all-conference players: Senior outside linebacker Danny Stansbury (6-2, 195), junior linebacker Theo Grace (6-2, 210), senior defensive lineman Aiden Smith (6-0, 220) and senior cornerback Cayden Harris (6-2, 180).

“Their defensive line plays incredibly hard, some talented linebackers and their secondary does a lot to minimize big plays,” he said.

The Jays will look to limit big plays on defense while controlling the clock on offense in today’s contest.

“We are going to have to minimize explosives, and we are going to have to stack first downs,” Wells said. “We can’t just go three-and-out, we are going to have to hold onto the football and sustain drives.”

Jefferson City was able to overcome a 14-0 deficit after the first quarter last week before storming back and winning the game on a late Zach Barnes touchdown run.

The Jays believe they can not afford the same type of start today.

“I think it’s instrumental,” Wells said of the importance of a fast start. “They are too good to get off to a slow start. They are too good defensively to think we are going to score points in bunches later on in the game.”

Notes: Jefferson City is making its 24th appearance in the state semifinal round. The Jays are 12-11 in those games but have lost their past four. Jefferson City would clinch its first state championship appearance since 1998 with a victory. … Today will mark the first-ever matchup between the Jays and Kearney. … The winner of today’s game will meet the winner of No. 2 Lutheran North (11-1) and No. 3 Hillsboro (11-1), which is scheduled to be played at 1 p.m. today at Hillsboro. … Jefferson City was led by Colton Ketchum, Ryan Tadsen, Anthony Seneker and Kane Fuelling, which also recorded his 15th sack of the season in the contest, with nine tackles each in last week’s victory. Fuelling now leads the Jays in tackles on the season with 83, Alex Holloway is next at 79 and Seneker and Ketchum are tied for third with 77. Fuelling’s 15 sacks is the highest total in any class entered into MaxPreps stats … Bradarious Lewis led the Jays’ ground attack last week with 114 rushing yards and a touchdown on 12 attempts, raising his season total over 1,000 yards at 1,065. Kantrell Jordan could reach 1,000 rushing yards on the year with 36 yards as he enters with 964. … Jacob Wilson posted a career high in passing yards last week with 230 yards, with the majority of it going to Kendric Johnson, who finished with career-highs of five catches and 142 receiving yards.