The Helias Crusaders knew what they were in for Friday night.
The West Plains Zizzers brought a 10-1 record and some impressive stats into the Class 4 quarterfinal game with the Crusaders at Ray Hentges Stadium.
They were as good as advertised. But the Helias Crusaders were just a little better.
"That's a very good football team," Helias coach Chris Hentges said after the Crusaders held off the Zizzers 36-30. "It's who we expected to see and we knew it would be a very stiff test for us.
"We made enough plays to win a close, exciting football game."
The Crusaders looked like they had the game in hand early. Vinnie Calvaruso booted a 22-yard field goal on Helias' first possession, then Jake Weaver connected with Damon Johanns for a 19-yard touchown to give a Helias a 10-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
And when Weaver scored on a 2-yard run in the opening minute of the second quarter to give Helias a 17-0 lead, the Crusaders looked like they were in complete control.
But they weren't. There was a strong wind blowing out of the north straight down the field and it hampered the Helias passing game in the second and fourth quarters.
"It was hard to do what we wanted to do into the wind," Hentges said. "I thought we had some shots down the field, but with the wind, it made it difficult."
With the wind at their back in the second quarter, the Zizzers went to the air. West Plains quarterback Dagen Kenslow through a pair of touchdown passes — 17 yards to Kyler Stowers and 12 yards to Connor Lair — to cut Helias' lead to 17-13 with a little less than five minutes to go before intermission.
"(Kenslow) threw some very good balls tonight," Hentges said.
Helias answered West Plains' second score with one of its own. The Crusaders went 88 yards in 10 plays, with the touchdown coming on a 12-yard run by Isaac Lopez. The PAT kick failed and Helias took a 23-13 advantage into halftime.
The Crusaders got the ball first in the third quarter when Billy Underwood caught an onside kick into the wind by the Zizzers.
Starting at its own 48, Helias needed six plays to score. The touchdown came on a 20-yard scramble by Weaver, who started left before tip-toeing his way down the right sideline for the score. Calvaruso's PAT was good and Helias' lead was back to 17 points at 30-13.
The Crusader defense got a stop on fourth-and-12 on the next Zizzer possession and took over at its own 23. But the Zizzers defense stepped up with a 40-yard interception return for a touchdown by Lair and the PAT cut Helias' lead to 30-20 with 4:03 left in the third quarter.
Underwood fell on West Plains' ensuing onside kick attempt and Helias took over at its own 44. The Crusaders needed 10 plays to find the end zone, with the touchdown coming on a fourth-and-1 run by Alex Clement. The PAT kick was wide and Helias led 36-20 with :22.1 remaining in the third quarter.
Up by two scores, the Crusaders were 12 minutes from a trip to the semifinals. But those 12 minutes
"We just didn't make enough plays offensively," Hentges said. "All season, we've been able to answer scores with scores, but we had trouble doing that in the fourth quarter."
After an exchange of punts, the Zizzers took over at their own 42. On first down, Kenslow connected with Heston Miller for a touchdown. Kenslow then found Stowers for a 2-point conversion pass and it was 36-28 with 7:08 to play.
The Helias offense went three-and-out, but the Crusader defense was able to force a Zizzer punt on West Plains' next possession. Kenslow's boot was downed at the Crusader 1 with a little more than four minutes left.
The Crusaders were able to get the ball out to their own 30 before being forced to punt.
"They had a great game plan, they took away a lot of our options," Hentges said. "We are used to having more success offensively and their defense had a lot to do with us not having that tonight."
The punt attempt was blocked and the Zizzers took over at their own 12 with about two minutes to play.
Titus Seley picked up six yards on first down, then three more on second down to get the Zizzers inside the 5. But on the next play, Seley fumbled and Gage Wilde of the Crusaders recovered at the Helias 1 with a little more than a minute left.
But the Crusaders had problems on the snap on first down, but fortunately were able to recover the loose ball in the end zone for a safety instead of the Zizzers recovering it for a touchdown. The two points cut Helias' lead to 36-30 with 1:04 left.
"We didn't handle the snap well, that's the bottom line," Hentges said.
Normally, a team would choose to punt on the ensuing free kick. But going into the wind, Calvaruso and the Crusaders opted to use a tee like a kickoff. It was a good choice as the kick went to the Zizzer 30. West Plains' return man passed it to a trailing teammate to get the ball out to near midfield, but a holding call left the Zizzers starting at their own 22.
Two Kenslow passes netted 22 yards and the Zizzers were near midfield with :39.5 left. But a holding call, followed by two incomplete passes, left the Zizzers faced with a fourth-and-19. West Plains then got a delay of game penalty. On the fourth-and-24 play, Kenslow saw all of his receivers covered and tried to scramble for the first down. But he came up five yards short and Helias needed to take one snap to seal the hard-fought victory.
"We're happy to be moving on," Hentges said. "That would have been a gut punch to lose after having it what I thought was under control."
With the win, Helias (12-0) advances to take on Smithville (10-2) in the semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday in Smithville. The Warriors, led by former Moberly head coach Jason Ambroson, defeated Grandview 38-0 in their quarterfinal game Friday night.
"They're a very well-coached football team," Hentges said. "We're going to have to bring our best game up their next week.
"We have a lot to talk about in preparations for next week. This was a good learning experience."