KINGDOM CITY — The North Callaway Thunderbirds and Montgomery County Wildcats will have a heavy playoff vibe going on, only it will be a week early.
North Callaway ends the regular season tonight with a trip to neighboring rival Montgomery County for an Eastern Missouri Conference clash with the Wildcats. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Montgomery City.
The most significant ramification emerging from tonight's outcome will be positioning in the Class 2 District 5 playoffs, with less than five points separating the top four seeds. Montgomery County (6-2, 6-1 EMO) is the No. 2 seed with 40.59 points, less than two in front of No. 3 North Callaway (5-2, 4-2) with 38.62.
Hallsville (5-3) — which hosts Boonville tonight — is the No. 1 seed with 42.54 points. Missouri Military Academy (5-2) — which plays at Salisbury — is right behind the Thunderbirds in the fourth seed with 37.93 points.
The top two seeds in the six-team district earn a first-round bye a week from tonight.
"It's a big game — it's a big game momentum-wise, too," North Callaway coach Don Boulware said of tonight's showdown with Montgomery County. "If you lose your last regular-season game, it's tough to regain momentum going into that first round of the playoffs.
"All that we can do is take care of our end."
The Wildcats boast numerous offensive options that will demand the Thunderbirds to divide their defensive attention.
Montgomery County's quarterback spot has been a fairly even rotation this season between senior Drake Deuser and sophomore Adam Czerniewski.
Deuser is 33-of-60 passing (55 percent) for 427 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions, while also rushing for 515 yards (8.9 per carry) and six scores. Czerniewski has completed 38-of-69 passes (55 percent) for 595 yards, eight touchdowns and three interceptions, while gaining 366 yards (7.2 average) and scoring five times.
"They've both played significant (snaps), it appears 50-50," Boulware said. "They're similar, because they're both really good runners that can also throw a little bit."
Junior running back Logan Hutcheson sparks the Wildcats with 897 yards rushing (9.3 per carry) and a remarkable 16 touchdowns.
"He's a bigger kid, 185 (pounds), with really good speed," Boulware said.
Junior wide receiver Ty Leu tops Montgomery County with 23 catches for 314 yards (13.7 average) and five scores. Fellow junior wide receiver Drake Smith has 21 receptions for a team-high 428 yards (20.4 per catch) and five touchdowns.
"They have the ability to get open and catch the ball, and then they can make plays after the catch," Boulware said.
Boulware stressed North Callaway's defensive unit will need its most "complete" effort of the season tonight to slow down the Wildcats. Montgomery County is averaging a lofty 43.8 points during its five-game winning streak.
"Just the balance is going to make it tough," Boulware said. "We can't just load up on the run, we can't just focus on the pass."
Meanwhile, senior middle linebacker Kyle Yelton and junior outside linebacker Trenton Clardy power the Wildcats' 4-3 defensive scheme. Yelton has tallied a team-high 94 tackles (56 solo), including 15 for loss, while Clardy is second with 75 tackles (53 solo) and has logged a team-high 17 for loss.
"They're really good linebackers — they sit back there pretty deep and they're attacking downhill," Boulware said. "They're an attacking defense. They really flow fast to the ball."
While he expects Montgomery County to pack the line of scrimmage with defenders, Boulware noted the Thunderbirds will have to seek out soft spots on the perimeter with their running attack.
He added North Callaway's passing game will also be instrumental in loosening up the Wildcats' defense.
"We're going to have to have some success throwing the ball and we're going to have to have some success (running) on the edge," Boulware said. "They have seven guys in the box right there, that's the way they like to play.
" We've got to get to the edge, we've got to throw the ball."