KINGDOM CITY — Don Boulware is eager to become a character in this clash.
North Callaway's first-year coach and the Thunderbirds will play host to the South Callaway Bulldogs in the annual Callaway Cup showdown tonight in Kingdom City to end the regular season. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
North Callaway leads the series 13-8, despite a 33-32 overtime loss at South Callaway last year.
Boulware — a 1973 North Callaway graduate — played football for the Thunderbirds, but that was long before the Bulldogs launched their program.
"It's fun to have that opponent that brings out the best in not only both teams, but both fan bases," Boulware said. "I haven't even been to one of these (Callaway Cup games), so I'm really looking forward to being a part of it.
"It'll have a different feel to it, there'll be a different electricity in the air."
North Callaway (6-2) owns a four-game winning streak and is coming off a 46-8 Eastern Missouri Conference rout last Friday at Mark Twain. The Thunderbirds are 5-1 in the EMO and locked in a three-way tie for first place with Montgomery County and Wright City.
"I think we're going to get, absolutely, South Callaway's best shot," Boulware said. " They've been playing as well as anybody the last four weeks of the season."
The Bulldogs (3-5, 3-3 EMO) will be looking to rebound after falling to Wright City in the final minute last Friday in a 34-29 EMO home loss. South Callaway has won three of its last five games after starting the season 0-3.
The Bulldogs' Zack Hess will be coaching his 10th game in the Callaway Cup series tonight, the last four as head coach.
"I would like to think that we're progressing to the point where we can be competitive, and that we can have a chance to win that game," Hess said. "I wouldn't expect it to be anything other than competitive.
"It may or may not come down to the wire, but there's a good chance that it could."
North Callaway and South Callaway will showcase similar offensive approaches tonight. The Thunderbirds and Bulldogs both like to depend on methodical running games and throw the ball sparingly, unless the situations require it.
North Callaway is averaging 35.0 points and 247 yards rushing per game. Junior running back Cody Cash guides the Thunderbirds with 783 yards (7.7 average) and eight touchdowns, followed by senior fullback Mason Wortman with 555 yards (5.5 average) and eight scores.
Sophomore running back Trevor Ray also has 362 yards (6.6 average) and six touchdowns.
"I think the thing that impresses me the most is that they're dynamic," Hess said. "They have different skill sets, each running back does. (Wortman) can block, he can run, he's physical, he's downhill, he's just got some nasty to him.
"(Cash) is just so stinking fast. You look at his track numbers and they're unbelievable — it translates on the football field."
South Callaway's defense is giving up 27.6 points and 166.4 yards rushing per game.
"We've just got to be consistent and not have any lapses — mentally or just with our assignments," Hess said. "On top of that, we have to tackle. If we can do those two things well, then I think we'll have a good chance.
"If not, then that's when things start to break down."
Boulware expects the Bulldogs to load the line of scrimmage with defenders in an attempt to suppress North Callaway's running attack.
"They're going to blitz us and they're going to come up and crowd the line of scrimmage," Boulware said. " We've got to pick up the blitz and we've got to have a little success running inside, but we've got to get on the edge and we've got to have some success throwing the ball.
"They're daring you to throw."
North Callaway senior quarterback Jadon Henry is 34-of-60 passing (57 percent) for 400 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Henry has also rushed for 107 yards and three scores.
"We've really focused on the last four games, and the last four games it seems like he's really gotten a lot more comfortable throwing the ball," Hess said. "He puts the ball in good spots and they do a good job scheming guys open.
"It seems like when he is asked to pass the ball, he's been pretty consistent with it. It seems like he manages their offense really well and doesn't make a ton of mistakes."
Cash has a team-high 14 catches for 283 yards (20.2 average) and three touchdowns.
South Callaway, meanwhile, is putting up 27.5 points and 259.1 yards rushing per game. Senior running back Devin Borghardt directs the Bulldogs with 645 yards (7.7 average) and seven touchdowns, while senior running back Nick Mealy has 396 yards (4.6 average) and four scores.
Junior running back Hayden Vaught — who missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury — is next with 355 yards (10.1 average) and four touchdowns. Vaught also has six catches for 215 yards (35.8 average) and four scores.
"They've got three or four guys that can hurt you running the ball," Boulware said. "Vaught has really sparked them with his size-speed combination, just his athletic ability.
"He's a threat as a receiver or a runner. I think their formations and some of the things they've done schematically have really helped their running game, and kids are just figuring out their roles."
North Callaway's defense is allowing 21.3 points and just 80.4 yards rushing per game.
"We've got to be alignment-sound because they overload their formations a lot," Boulware said. "If you don't shift over, they really get you outnumbered.
"Then we've got to be assignment-sound. We've got to get lined up properly and all of the kids have to get their run fits. The guys in the secondary can't get lulled to sleep and they've got to stay over the top of their receivers."
Hess said eliminating turnovers and extending possessions will be priorities tonight against the Thunderbirds' defensive unit.
"We can't turn the ball over — I think that's going to be big — and we can't do three-and-outs," Hess said. "We've got to win the time of possession in terms of the number of plays that we run — we've got to be up there and competitive in that sense.
"Part of (North Callaway's) identity is being physical, smash-mouth, they're going to run the ball, control the clock, keep your defense on the field. We can't let that happen if we want to have a chance in this game."
South Callaway senior quarterback Cole Shoemaker has completed 29-of-57 passes (51 percent) for 554 yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Shoemaker has rushed for 186 yards and six scores.
"He's just steady, solid," Boulware said. "He's much better now than he was earlier in the year, being a first-year starter. It took him a while to figure things out, but he's taking care of the ball a little bit better, he's a little more careful with it."
Notes: Despite a winning record, North Callaway is seeded sixth in Class 2 District 5 with 38.68 points. The Thunderbirds are a little more than a point behind No. 5 seed O'Fallon Christian (4-4, 39.95), which plays No. 7 seed Father Tolton (0-7, 27.75) tonight. Even though South Callaway has a sub-.500 record, the Bulldogs are the No. 2 seed in Class 1 District 6 with 36.38 points. South Callaway sits two points ahead of No. 3 seed Harrisburg (5-3, 34.38), which plays Marceline (7-1) tonight. Brentwood (4-4) is the No. 1 seed with 42.58 points.