The Helias Crusaders hadn't had a game be in doubt entering the fourth quarter for more than two months.
The game was very much in doubt until the very end of the fourth quarter Friday night as the Crusaders withstood a second-half charge by the West Plains Zizzers to post a 36-30 victory in the Class 4 quarterfinals at Ray Hentges Stadium.
"I'm really proud of the guys and the way they fought at the end," Helias coach Chris Hentges said.
With the win, the Crusaders (12-0) advance to take on the Smithville Warriors (10-2) in the semifinals next week. That game will be played at 7 p.m. Friday in Smithville.
Smithville advanced with a 38-0 win Friday night against Grandview. It was the third consecutive shutout for the Warriors.
The Crusaders got off to their usual good start, with a 22-yard field goal by Vinnie Calvaruso and a 19-yard touchdown pass from Jake Weaver to Damon Johanns, giving Helias a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
A 2-yard touchdown plunge by Weaver in the opening minute of the second quarter pushed Helias' lead to 17-0.
But the Zizzers, a predominantly running team, got back into it with a pair of passing touchdowns in the second quarter. Dagen Kenslow connected with Kyler Stowers for a 17-yard score to make it 17-6 with 8:31 to go before halftime, then hooked up with Connor Lair from 12 yards out to cut Helias' lead to 17-13 a little more than five minutes to go before intermission.
Helias pushed its lead back to double digits with 1:42 to go in the second quarter on a 12-yard run by Isaac Lopez. The PAT failed and Helias took a 23-13 advantage into halftime.
The Crusaders got the ball first to start the third quarter and went 54 yards in six plays for a touchdown. The score came on a 20-yard run by Weaver, who tip-toed down the right sideline into the end zone for the score. The extra point made it 30-13 with 9:40 on the clock.
West Plains turned the ball over on downs on its first possession of the second half and Helias took over at its own 23. The Crusaders picked up a first down before Lair intercepted a pass and returned it 40 yards for a touchdown. The PAT was good and Helias led 30-20 with 4:03 remaining in the quarter.
The Crusaders then went on a nine-play, 56-yard drive for a score. The touchdown came on a 1-yard run by Alex Clement on fourth-and-goal. The PAT kick was wide to keep it a two-score game at 36-20 in the final minute of the third quarter.
After an exchange of punts to start the fourth quarter, the Zizzers took over at their own 42. It took them one play to find the end zone as Kenslow found a wide-open Heston Miller for the touchdown. Kenslow then hit Stowers for a 2-point conversion pass and Helias' lead was just 36-28 with 7:08 to play in the game.
The teams exchanged punts again, which resulted with the Crusaders starting at their own 1-yard line. Helias picked up a pair of first downs to move out of the shadow of its own goal line before having to punt. West Plains blocked the kick with about two minutes remaining to take over at the Helias 12.
A pair of runs got the Zizzers close to the end zone, but a third attempt resulted in a fumble recovered by Gage Wilde of the Crusaders at the 1 with a little more than a minute remaining.
On the next play, the Crusaders fumbled, but fortunately for them, recovered the ball in the end zone for a safety to make it 36-30 with 1:04 showing on the clock.
Calvaurso put the ball on the tee for the resulting free kick and the Zizzers tried some trickery on the return with a backward pass. The return got West Plains near midfield, but various flags were thrown on the play and the resulting holding call left the Zizzers at their own 22 with :54.1 left.
"We knew they had to do something out of the ordinary," Hentges said. "It was well set-up, but they just had some illegal blocks."
The Zizzers used a pair of pass plays to get out to the 38 before another holding call pushed them back to the 29 and made it second-and-19. A pair of incompletions followed before a delay of game penalty had the Zizzers facing a fourth-and-24. Kenslow dropped back to pass, but with his receivers covered, he scrambled down the left side and was stopped five yards short of the first down to give the ball back to the Crusaders.
"The defense stepped up," Hentges said. "We made enough plays to win a close, exciting football game."
One snap later, the Crusaders were celebrating their victory.
"Playoff football, it's November, it's rainy, it's cold," Hentges said. "Was it pretty, no? But we are advancing."
West Plains (10-2) finished with 318 yards of total offense. Titus Seley had 100 of West Plains' 160 rushing yards. Kenslow was 12-of-22 passing for 158 yards. The Zizzers were penalized 12 times for 90 yards in the game.
The Crusaders finished with 340 yards. Weaver ran the ball 23 times for 116 yards and was 7-of-13 passing for 99 yards.
The semifinal contest will be the first-ever football meeting between Helias and Smithville.