Goal Lines: Blair Oaks hosting California in Tri-County Conference contest

Hayden Lackman of Blair Oaks runs through the line during a game earlier this month against Lutheran North at the Falcon Athletic Complex in Wardsville. (Ken Barnes/News Tribune)

WARDSVILLE -- The Blair Oaks Falcons are a couple of offensive possessions away from being a 3-0 team.

The California Pintos, on the other hand, are one play away from being a 3-0 team.

The two Tri-County Conference rivals will clash tonight at the Falcon Athletic Complex, each looking for their third win of the season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.

“It’s the same thing you always see from California: Hard-nosed, tough kids that just get after it like crazy,” Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. “They play their hearts out.”

Blair Oaks (2-1), which lost in Week 2 to Lutheran North, is coming off a convincing 56-14 victory last Friday against School of the Osage to begin conference play.

California (2-1), which started its season with non-conference victories against Willow Springs (56-0) and Fulton (31-3), dropped its conference opener last Friday at home to Southern Boone 27-20 in overtime.

The Pintos had a game-winning field-goal try blocked at the end of regulation. Southern Boone scored a touchdown in overtime and recovered a fumble on California’s ensuing possession to end the game.

“They’re playing with confidence,” LePage said of the Pintos, who started 2-0 for the third time in four seasons.

Last year, Blair Oaks defeated California 52-14 to take a 25-24 lead in the all-time series, which dates to the Falcons’ first varsity season in 1976.

“It’s a game that we look forward to every year,” LePage said. “But this one has a little bit more added to it, because we’ve got a little history here.”

That reason is because the Pintos have a new head coach this season: Kenny Grubb, who previously served as the defensive coordinator at Mexico. Blair Oaks lost 49-14 to Mexico in the 2021 district championship game.

“We looked at film on Monday, and the first thing I showed the players was the Mexico film,” LePage said. “Nine (Blair Oaks) players that were playing on defense in that game are playing tonight.

“We said, ‘This offense beat you pretty bad. What are we going to do to overcome it?’”

California’s offense is led by senior running back Ayden Bryant, who opened the Pintos’ season with a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Willow Springs.

“He has scored touchdowns against us each of the previous two years,” LePage said, “and they’ve been on explosive plays. They are plays that a normal, ordinary high school kid would catch and get tackled, or run and get tackled, and he turns it into an explosive play.

“He’s able to change the game at any point in time when he has his hands on the football.”

LePage considers Bryant either the most-talented or second-most-talented player in the conference.

“That’s the guy they’re going to try to get the ball to,” he said.

Another offensive player who has been making plays this season for California is junior fullback Tyler Oden. Like Bryant, Oden had scored a rushing touchdown in each of the team’s first three games.

“He is a heck of a hard runner,” LePage said.

California’s veer offense resembles a flexbone, LePage said. Junior running back Brooks Volkart and senior fullback Collin Althoff also have two rushing touchdowns each.

“They’re predominantly a running team,” LePage said.

Senior quarterback Walker Friedmeyer has thrown a pair of touchdown passes this season, including a big third-down touchdown strike for 13 yards to tight end Chase Schlup last week.

“They’ve got two tight ends,” LePage said, also noting sophomore Landen Dunham as a receiving target. “They’re both effective, they both do a good job blocking.”

Friedmeyer also broke loose for a 75-yard run against Southern Boone.

“With the option, you want to have a quarterback that’s reactionary, that can put his foot in the ground and go north and south,” LePage said. “That’s what he did last week.”

Senior guard Alexis Anguiano joins Bryant and Volkart as returning all-conference players on offense for the Pintos.

On defense, Bryant is the lone returning all-conference player for California. At free safety, he led the Pintos with 14 tackles last week against Southern Boone.

Bryant added one interception, while Volkart grabbed three interceptions at defensive back.

“Last week, they forced a lot of turnovers,” LePage said. “You can see they’re excited about playing defense.”

Althoff led the Pintos with 17 tackles against Southern Boone at linebacker. Oden, another linebacker, added seven tackles, while defensive linemen Aguiano and junior Lance Clevenger finished with six and four tackles, respectively.

The Pintos typically line up with three defensive linemen, but LePage said he has seen four players on the line of scrimmage in some instances.

“The defense causes confusion, causes you to panic a little bit,” he said. “We have to have ball security against this team.”

California has shown its strength in special teams as well.

In addition to Bryant’s kickoff return score in Week 1, Volkart returned a kickoff 73 yards to the Southern Boone 12-yard line last week.

“Their kickoff return team is as good as anybody around,” LePage said. “On kickoff coverage, they’re squibbing everything. They’re doing a good job in all facets.”

Notes: Blair Oaks remains at No. 1 in Class 3 in this week’s Missouri Media Rankings, still receiving seven of the nine first-place votes. However, the Falcons gained one point to give them 87 points, meaning one of the two remaining voters moved the Falcons from No. 3 to No. 2 on this week’s ballot. … Prior to kickoff at tonight’s game, Blair Oaks will celebrate 50 years of the football program, which originated in 1973. Blair Oaks said all former players, administrators and coaches are invited to join the pregame ceremony. … LePage said sophomore defensive lineman Carson Luebbering -- the only freshman player to make the coaches’ all-state football team last season, in any class -- will likely miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn meniscus in his knee during the Lutheran North game. Ayden Luckett, a junior, started in Luebbering’s place last week and will continue to do so in tonight’s game. … Senior offensive lineman Justin Atnip will be a game-time decision to start tonight after spraining his ankle last week against Osage. … After missing the first two games with a knee injury, sophomore Kaden Schulte will be available to play tonight, adding depth for the Falcons’ offensive line.