KINGDOM CITY — The 2018 North Callaway Thunderbirds are ready to take aim at adding to a title collection.
North Callaway (2-0) — which made a perfect run to the Eastern Missouri Conference championship last season — launches conference play tonight at home against the Clopton/Elsberry IndianHawks (1-1). Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
"Each team is its own entity," North Callaway coach Kevin O'Neal said. "The biggest thing is that the expectation is we compete for a conference championship — that's where we want to be every year.
"How we go about doing it is a little bit different each year, but we need to make sure that we're competing for that spot."
North Callaway stayed unbeaten with a 35-12 victory last Friday at Tipton. Meanwhile, Clopton/Elsberry earned its first win of the season for new head coach Ben Burnett with a 38-6 triumph at Missouri Military Academy.
The IndianHawks' spread offense is guided by junior quarterback Shawn Yates, who is in his second year as starter. Yates accounted for Clopton/Elsberry's lone score on a 61-yard touchdown pass as the IndianHawks were demolished by the Thunderbirds 73-8 last season in Clarksville.
"(Yates) is an exceptional quarterback had a solid sophomore season throwing the ball around," O'Neal said. "He's comfortable in the pocket, he runs the ball well — he's probably their leading rusher.
"When he has to escape and run, he's going to do that. They have designed runs for him. He's real comfortable back there and he's comfortable with his receivers and he's not afraid to throw the ball up and let those guys go make plays."
Yates' primary targets are senior tight end Trevor Anthony and sophomore wide receiver Zakk Eivins. Yates will be joined in the backfield by senior running back Damien Walker.
North Callaway's defense surrendered 325 yards passing and a touchdown to Tipton sophomore quarterback Blake Fischer last week, but the Thunderbirds also intercepted him four times and sacked him four times.
While Fischer had most of his success throwing to receivers on underneath routes, O'Neal stressed Yates can't be allowed extended time in the pocket to throw deep darts behind the North Callaway secondary.
"We've got to make sure that we don't get beat over top," O'Neal said. "I'll give up the stuff underneath. We need our front six, our front four especially, to get pressure on the quarterback and get that ball off-line a little bit."
Defensively, O'Neal expects Clopton/Elsberry to operate out of 4-4 and 4-2-5 schemes that mirror the Thunderbirds' alignments. Anthony and Eivins will man the end positions, while Walker will line up at a linebacker spot and Yates will patrol the secondary at a safety position.
"They probably blitz their linebackers a little more than what we do, just to get them moving downhill," O'Neal said. "I fully expect that to happen against us, being run-heavy."
North Callaway's running game got on track in the second half against Tipton, logging 139 of its 195 total yards during that span. Senior running back Dakota Brush gained a game-high 85 yards on 14 carries and scored on an 18-yard run, while senior running back Jordan Delashmutt added 61 yards on 12 attempts and a 5-yard touchdown run.
"We were just a little bit off (in the first half), we were missing a block here and there," O'Neal said. "We got that cleaned up at halftime and did a better job in the second half.
"We've got to fix those little things — that's the focus that we're going to have this week. You've got to do the little things right to make the big things work."
The Thunderbirds' offense received a scare against Tipton when junior quarterback Jadon Henry — playing at his strong safety spot on defense — was injured in the final minutes. Henry suffered a deep hip bruise, but X-rays came back negative on any further damage.
O'Neal said Henry was expected to return to practice Wednesday and set his availability for tonight's game at about 90 percent, but would probably only play on offense.
"He's moving around a lot better," O'Neal said. "Each day is a little bit better."
North Callaway received 11 points in this week's Class 2 Missouri Media Rankings, after earning 12 in the first poll of the season. Lafayette County is No. 10 in Class 2 with 14 points, while Palmyra was the first team outside the top 10 with 13 points. Lamar received all 12 first-place votes in Class 2.