It was a task about as big as trying to fill in the Grand Canyon.
Facing the Webb City Cardinals Saturday in Jasper County proved to be too much for the Sullivan Eagles in a 35-6 MSHSAA Class 4 quarterfinal loss.
“They gave what they had,” Sullivan Head Coach Pat Burke said. “We had a lot of two-way players. They left it out on the field. What else would you expect. They are wonderful kids. They never back down and they never let down.”
Webb City Head Coach John Roderique had good things to say about the Eagles.
“Sullivan’s coaches and kids do a great job with the system they run. We were fortunate that we had two big plays with a blocked field goal and a blocked punt. We scored 14 points in the second quarter and had one snap on offense,” Roderique said. “They do a very good job with their personnel. They get a lot out of their kids in controlling games and scoring points.”
Roderique also complimented Sullivan’s fans and coaching staff.
“They traveled well. I was impressed with their crowd. It was a great atmosphere,” Roderique said. “Coach Burke is a good guy. He sent me a text message Sunday congratulating me on the win and had nice things to say about our program.”
The Cardinals (13-0) advance to face St. Mary’s (11-2) this Saturday in St. Louis.
“We don’t know much about St. Mary’s. Going on the road in the state semifinals, anything is possible. We found that out last year at Savannah. We trailed 24-7 at halftime and came back to win, 28-24,” Roderique said. “In the playoffs, you just have to find ways to move on. It’s all about matchups.”
Sullivan ended one of the most successful seasons in program history at 12-1, winning a district championship in the new eight-team district format. In 2008, the Eagles reached the state semifinals, losing to Cardinal Ritter.
“These guys have talked about having the opportunity to play for a state championship since the time they were sophomores,” Burke said. “We knew at some point or time it would have to go through this program. To be playing in this environment in November is a great testament to the work these kids have done over the last three years.”
Webb City is the type of team which can beat you with reputation alone. Winners of 43 games in a row, including the last two Class 4 state championship games, the Cardinals give opposing teams the reason to fear baby blue.
Playing methodical, technically sound football, the Cardinals rely on fundamentals, ball control and mistake-free football to win games.
And that’s how Webb City vanquished the Eagles on Saturday. Webb City scored on nearly every possession while building up a 35-point advantage.
“It comes down to you have to stop them at some point in time and we didn’t do that,” Burke said. “That, and the special teams breakdowns, really hurt us.”
The Cardinals moved the ball mainly on the ground, but mixed in passes when necessary. One of those resulted in a touchdown as well.
But where Webb City really shined was on special teams.
Senior Nate Brown broke through the Sullivan screen to block a field goal attempt and a punt on back-to-back drives in the second quarter.
The field goal block was huge. It came as Sullivan attempted a 40-yard field goal with the wind to try to cut the Webb City advantage to 14-3.
But Brown stopped sophomore Jake Lochner’s kick and senior Phoenix Johnson grabbed the ball, running for a 67-yard touchdown before Sullivan could react. That extended the lead to 21-0 with 5:44 left in the half.
“I thought at halftime we had an opportunity to be a little bit of a different game,” Burke said. “It started to slide away from us a little bit on special teams. We had some breakdowns which led to major point swings.”
On the next series, the Eagles were forced to punt. Brown again broke through the protective screen to stop Adam Weiland’s kick. The Cardinals took over at the Sullivan 22 and senior Cooper Smith scored on the next play to make it 28-0 with 1:32 left in the half.
And Webb City nearly made it three big special teams plays in a row. The Cardinals, kicking into the wind, tried for an onside kick. Webb City recovered the ball, but a penalty for fair catch interference gave Sullivan another chance.
Another potentially big play came on the first drive of the game. Sullivan faced fourth and inches in their own territory and decided to punt into the wind instead.
“Being on the 29-yard line, I most definitely would punt,” Burke said. “Our defense had been solid all season. I wouldn’t have changed a thing.”
Webb City took over at its own 42 and marched in for the game’s first score. That drive included a fourth down conversion for the Cardinals and another first down pickup on a third and long play.
“The wind had the potential to be a big factor. We forced them to punt early in the game against the wind, which gave us good field position,” Roderique said. “We got a couple of touchdowns with the wind in the first quarter. The second one came on a nice pass and catch. They had it defended pretty well. We just made a big play.”
While Sullivan lost the game and didn’t score until the fourth quarter after the outcome already was decided, the Eagles did have some big plays.
The one touchdown came on a 31-yard run by junior Justin Biermann. He was able to cut to the right side of the field and avoid tacklers to reach the end zone.
“It was nice to end the game like that,” Burke said. “I thought we had some missed opportunities. They have a defense that is incredibly fast. I noticed coming into the game that this is one of the fastest defenses we’ve played in a long time. They close so quickly and they tackle so well. If you don’t take the opportunities when you have them, it’s not going to be good. We missed them and they capitalized when they had the chance.”
Lochner’s kick appeared to be headed for a successful extra point, but the ball was pushed wide by the wind.
Sullivan was able to move the ball at times and showed imagination in their offensive play selection. While Sullivan had kept the ball mainly on the ground in the past, Burke mixed in a number of wildcat plays with the direct snap going to Biermann. Trailing most of the game, senior quarterback Adam Tiefenbrunn was pressed into more passing situations, completing four of 12 attempts for 66 yards.
Burke hopes the experience of playing Webb City is something the Eagles can build upon in the future.
“If you look around here, this had to start somewhere,” Burke said. “The opportunity to start something like this would be great. This group of seniors led the way with how hard they worked on and off the field.”
Sullivan had 178 total yards.
Biermann led the Sullivan ground game with 16 carries for 84 yards.
Senior Clayton Mayer ran eight times for 18 yards and caught one pass for two yards.
Weiland caught two passes for 52 yards. Seth Mesey had one catch for 12 yards.
Junior Caden Weigl ran three times for nine yards.
Defensively, seniors Mesey and Dalton Turner had eight tackles and four assists. Mayer checked in with five tackles and three assists. Weiland posted four tackles and three assists. Weigl had three tackles and five assists. Biermann closed with three tackles.
Senior Kishan Patel recovered a fumble.
For the Cardinals, senior quarterback John Roderique, the head coach’s son, completed all three of his pass attempts for 78 yards and one touchdown.
Senior Jalen Vaden caught two of those passes for 45 yards, including a 34-yard gain and a key first down pickup on the opening Webb City drive.
Senior Kohl Slaughter caught the other pass, a 33-yard touchdown to make it 14-0 in the first quarter.
Webb City takes pride in a solid running game and the Cardinals picked up 239 yards on the ground with six players carrying 36 times.
Webb City’s offensive line continued to punch open holes for the runners, allowing the Cardinals to run the clock while picking up positive yardage throughout the game.
Senior Cooper Smith led the way with 81 yards on eight carries. That included a 22-yard touchdown.
Johnson scored once on the ground while lugging the ball 10 times for 39 yards.
Roderique had Webb City’s longest run, 26 yards, while getting three carries for 38 yards.
Junior Trey Parra picked up 36 yards on five carries, including a 19-yard gain.
Junior Kyle Baldasarre ran five times for 29 yards. Junior Mason Williams, the backup quarterback, checked in with five carries for 16 yards.
Senior kicker Alex Easley was perfect on the day, kicking five extra points.
Senior Logan Williams had one tackle and 10 assists for 11 stops. Senior Dalton Humphery had five tackles and six assists. Brown closed with three tackles and three assists. Senior Jose Speer had two tackles and three assists.
“We didn’t do anything spectacular,” Roderique said. “We made some big plays that helped us build a lead in the first half.”
Sullivan received the opening kick and had to punt when faced with fourth and short. That led to Roderique’s easy four-yard run to the left side after the Cardinals drove down the field. The score came with 4:03 left in the first quarter. Easley converted the extra point to make it 7-0.
After forcing the Eagles to punt again, Roderique found Slaughter for a 33-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds left on the clock.
In the second quarter, the Cardinals stopped Sullivan’s best drive to that point and blocked the field goal attempt with Johnson returning the ball 67 yards for another Webb City score with 5:44 left in the half. Easley’s kick made it 21-0.
Following a blocked punt, Smith scored from 22 yards out with 1:32 to play. Easley kicked the extra point to make it 28-0 and that was the score at the intermission.
In the third quarter, the Cardinals drove down the field to score on a one-yard plunge by Johnson with 9:34 to play. Easley’s kick activated the running clock with a 35-0 lead.
Sullivan stopped the running clock with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter as Biermann broke free for a 31-yard touchdown. The extra point attempt failed and Webb City led, 35-6.
Webb City had the ball deep in Sullivan territory as time wound down. The Cardinals chose to kneel down with the ball to run out the clock with over a minute to play.
Missourian Sports Writer Craig Vonder Haar provided additional information for this story.
WC - John Roderique 4 run (Alex Easley kick), 4:03
WC - Kohl Slaughter 33 pass from Roderique (Easley kick), :24
WC - Phoenix Johnson 67 blocked kick return (Easley kick), 5:44
WC- Cooper Smith 22 run (Easley kick), 1:32
WC- Phoenix Johnson 1 run (Easley kick), 9:34
S- Justin Biermann 31 run (kick failed), 4:28