KINGDOM CITY — A compelling win has given the North Callaway Thunderbirds the meaningful matchup they crave.
After rallying for a 22-21 conference win in the final minutes last Friday at Bowling Green, North Callaway returns home tonight to confront Eastern Missouri Conference leader Montgomery County. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
North Callaway improved to 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the conference with the comeback victory, situating itself for a shot at a share of first place in the EMO. Montgomery County is 5-1 on the season and 4-0 in conference play after a 34-12 victory last Friday at home against Wright City.
Like the Thunderbirds, Wright City is 4-2 overall and 3-1 in the EMO. Wright City — which hosts Bowling Green tonight — handed North Callaway its lone conference loss, 14-6 on Sept. 20 in Kingdom City.
"Montgomery County has set itself up early as the team to beat in the EMO," North Callaway coach Don Boulware said. "We put ourselves in position where this game really matters. They all matter, but now we're playing for a piece of the conference crown.
"You want a showdown game, this is a showdown game. They're on top of the EMO, we're nipping at their heels, one game back. This is our chance to show we belong, or we don't."
Montgomery County's offense will likely be missing its primary playmaker — senior quarterback Ethan Abercrombie — for tonight's clash, according to Boulware. Abercrombie — who has accounted for almost 1,000 yards of total offense and 17 touchdowns this season — injured his knee during the Wildcats' 44-16 EMO victory Sept. 27 at home against Mark Twain and didn't play last week against Wright City.
"Not from what I'm hearing," Boulware said when asked about the possibility of Abercrombie playing tonight.
Montgomery County's offensive rhythm has not appeared to be adversely affected by junior backup Drake Deuser replacing Abercrombie. The 5-foot-10, 150-pound Deuser has completed 29-of-53 passes (55 percent) for 586 yards, four scores and no interceptions.
Deuser has also rushed for 242 yards and four touchdowns.
"The Deuser kid is throwing it just as well — he's not as physical a runner as Abercrombie, but he's faster, so he presents a whole different problem," Boulware said.
The Wildcats' top receiver is Bailey Sontag, a 6-3, 185-pound senior. Sontag has 30 catches for 576 yards (19.2 average) and six scores.
"Sontag is the best receiver that we will see," Boulware said. " He runs such good routes — you've got to watch him on bubble screens, he can run past you on a post or a go, he can run you off deep and he runs a nice, comeback, out route, quick slants.
"He's a complete receiver. He could be a college receiver for somebody — he's that good."
Sophomore wide receiver Drake Smith also has 17 receptions for 175 yards (10.3 average) and two touchdowns for Montgomery County. Senior tight end Carson Parker — a matchup nightmare at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds — is next with 12 catches for 232 yards (19.3 average) and four scores.
"They've got the best receiver and the best receiving group of anybody that we've played," Boulware said.
Accounting for all of the Wildcats' skill pieces will require a collaborative effort by the North Callaway defense tonight, Boulware said.
"You've got to play great team defense against these guys," he said. "There's not any one aspect you can shut down — they're averaging 42 points in their EMO games.
"They're explosive. They're going to score points, so we've got to score points."
With Bowling Green's defense limiting the Thunderbirds to 101 yards rushing last week, senior quarterback Jadon Henry supplied the necessary spark for the North Callaway offense.
Henry delivered a 39-yard touchdown pass to junior running back Cody Cash with 2:15 remaining in the game to bring the Thunderbirds within a point. Henry then hooked up with junior tight end Christian Griffith for the decisive 2-point conversion to punctuate North Callaway's comeback.
Boulware stressed the Thunderbirds will have to be ready to match — and exceed — Montgomery County's spectacular offensive output.
"We've got to really pass protect well, we've got to mix up our formations and our plays," Boulware said. "If we just try to line up and run it down their throat, I think that would be a real challenge.
"We've got to figure out a way to stay balanced, loosen the box with some passing. We showed we could do that last week — that's got to continue. We figure it's going to take 30-something (points) to win."