KINGDOM CITY — Now that they possess a share of the Eastern Missouri Conference lead, the North Callaway Thunderbirds can't allow it to be a distraction moving forward.
North Callaway created a three-way tie for first place in the EMO with its third consecutive win last Friday, a 28-22 triumph at home against Montgomery County. The Thunderbirds (5-2) will try to sustain the emotion from that victory when they travel tonight to Mark Twain for a conference matchup with the Tigers (7 p.m. kickoff).
North Callaway, Montgomery County and Wright City are now all 4-1 atop the EMO. Wright City handed the Thunderbirds their only conference loss, while Montgomery County is responsible for Wright City's lone EMO setback.
Mark Twain is just 3-4 on the season and 2-3 in the conference, but the Tigers are riding a little surge of their own. Mark Twain picked up its second win in a row last week, a narrow 14-7 EMO victory at Clopton/Elsberry.
Oh, and Mark Twain edged North Callaway 24-22 last year in Kingdom City.
"Well, you talk to (the players) about it all week long and you stress not overlooking an opponent, but they have to buy in," North Callaway coach Don Boulware said. "We have to send a message in such a way that they buy into it.
"(Mark Twain) beat us last year, they're dangerous. They can beat us on a given night. We just need to not hit the snooze (button) and go up there and play."
The Tigers mostly run the ball out of a spread formation. Running back Avery Epperson — a 5-foot-10, 200-pound senior — has a team-high 709 yards rushing (5.1 average) and five touchdowns.
Fellow senior running back Logan Perrigo (6-1, 150) has gained 321 yards (4.1 average) and also has five scores. Perrigo rushed for 1,052 yards last season.
Jace Barton (6-0, 185), another senior running back, recently returned for Mark Twain after missing most of the season with an injury, according to Boulware. Barton topped the Tigers with 1,229 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns in 2018.
"They just run hard, physical," Boulware said. "They've got good quickness for kids as big as they are, but they're physical runners. They run behind their pads."
Tigers sophomore quarterback Payton Hawkins has completed just 46 percent of his passes (49-of-107) for 556 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. Senior Ryan Spoonhower (5-10, 160) is Mark Twain's leading receiver with 24 catches for 327 yards (13.6 average) and three scores.
North Callaway's defense is coming off its most impressive outing of the season last week. The Thunderbirds forced two turnovers, had three fourth-down stops, recorded three sacks and — most notably — held Montgomery County to a meager 28 yards rushing.
Boulware stressed North Callaway will have to be ready to match Mark Twain's rugged running game tonight.
"We've got to be gap-sound and everybody's got to read their keys and do their job," Boulware said. "We've got to be really sound on our run fits and we've got to be physical.
"Some nights when you don't feel like hitting and you're taking on blockers, it wears on you. We've got to come out with the mindset, 'Hey, we're going to take on blockers and get off of them, and make plays.'"
Boulware noted the Thunderbirds are prepared for the Tigers to cram the line of scrimmage out of their 4-2 defensive alignment. Epperson directs Mark Twain with a team-high 75 tackles from his inside linebacker spot.
Fellow senior inside linebacker Mathias Bridges (6-1, 225) is next with 61 tackles. Spoonhower, a cornerback, and sophomore free safety Landon Moss (5-11, 170) both have three interceptions.
North Callaway hopes to hammer the Tigers with a running game that generated 274 yards against Montgomery County.
"We need to be able to run the ball and just be sound in our blocking assignments," Boulware said.