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story.lead_photo.caption North Callaway quarterback Jadon Henry celebrates after scoring the 2-point conversion to tie the game at 26 in last week's Callaway Cup rivalry game against South Callaway in Mokane. The Thunderbirds lost to the Bulldogs 33-32 in overtime. Photo by Amy Craghead

KINGDOM CITY — North Callaway head coach Kevin O'Neal has no problem using playoff payback as an incentive with the Thunderbirds.

North Callaway will get a shot to avenge a loss to Montgomery County that triggered its three-game slide when the No. 3 seed Thunderbirds (6-3) host the No. 7 Wildcats (5-4) in a Class 2 District 5 first-round matchup tonight. Kickoff is 7 p.m.

O'Neal and his coaching staff have spent three weeks trying to get North Callaway back on course after suffering its first loss of the season Oct. 5 at Montgomery County, a 40-34 defeat.

Subsequent losses to Mark Twain and South Callaway dropped the Thunderbirds in the District 5 standings and set the stage for their rematch tonight with the Wildcats.

"I don't know that you need to try to prevent (redemption) from detracting — that can be a motivational piece to get these kids rolling through the week," O'Neal said. "We're going to use that a little bit. Redemption's definitely a thing that's been said a few times in the locker room.

" This is a life lesson that sometimes you get another chance to redeem yourself, and you need to make the most of that chance. This is an opportunity for us and hopefully we can make the most of it."

O'Neal was encouraged with North Callaway's second-half showing in last week's stirring 33-32 overtime loss at South Callaway in the annual Callaway Cup rivalry game. The Thunderbirds rallied from a 26-6 halftime deficit to tie the game with less than a minute left in regulation, before falling short in overtime.

"As proud as I was of how we played in that second half, they were still upset that they lost that game," O'Neal said. "To have that belief back that they could have won that, that's half the battle right there.

"They have to believe they can go out there and do those things. When they had that success in the second half and then they started playing together again, that's the type of football we're capable of playing."

North Callaway will square off against a sizzling Montgomery County squad that is on a five-game winning streak after beginning the season 0-4. The Wildcats finished the regular season last week by resisting Clopton/Elsberry in a 58-56 shootout in Montgomery City.

The Wildcats toppled the Thunderbirds in their previous meeting by overcoming deficits of 26-14 at halftime and 34-28 entering the fourth quarter. Montgomery County tallied 12 unanswered points in the final 12 minutes to pull off the comeback.

"They had a belief that they could win that game, and they came out and played hard, and they hit us in the mouth," O'Neal said. "We need to make sure that when somebody does play physical against us, that we don't back down from that.

"That's our brand of football and we need to be physical right back."

Figuring prominently in North Callaway's demise was the performance of Wildcats junior quarterback Ethan Abercrombie, who passed for six touchdowns and 243 yards. Junior wide receiver Bailey Sontag caught four of those scores in finishing with 11 receptions for 153 yards.

"I think the biggest thing is we were soft on the back end," O'Neal said of the Thunderbirds' pass-defense breakdown. "We allowed receivers to run routes without rerouting them or getting in their way.

"Montgomery County did an excellent job of taking advantage of that soft coverage and taking the short routes when they were there. Whenever we would start to come up on those, then they would hit us over the top with one."

O'Neal stressed the Thunderbirds will have to be bolder in shadowing the Wildcats' receivers tonight.

"We have to be more aggressive on the back end," O'Neal said. "Part of that is making sure we know what coverage we're in, making sure we get the correct read and get to the drops we're supposed to be at."

North Callaway's offense averages 231 yards rushing per game, but was held below that standard with 156 yards against Montgomery County.

"We've got to hit the holes hard and fast when we do run the football," O'Neal said. "(The Wildcats) definitely played downhill and were very aggressive.

"(Senior Blake) Eoff, the linebacker, was very aggressive and did a very good job. We have to make sure that we have it schemed to get him blocked."

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