The program turnaround for the Washington football Blue Jays is complete.
After finishing 0-10 two years ago in the just the second season under Head Coach Derick Heflin, the Blue Jays held onto the belief that things would get better.
That belief was ultimately rewarded Friday as the Blue Jays improved to 9-1 on the 2019 season and advanced to the Class 4 District 5 semifinals with a 20-14 home win against Marshfield (6-4). The season continues for Washington in Week 11 on the road at Camdenton (10-0), the No. 1 seed in the district. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
In his first year as the team’s head coach in 2016, Heflin led Washington to a 6-5 season and a home playoff win against Holt with a senior-laden roster.
However, graduating that host of players and then being beset by injuries in 2017 meant a lot of younger players were thrust into key roles for the team sooner than they may have been ready for during the 0-10 season.
The growing pains continued in 2018, though the Blue Jays showed improvement in getting to 3-7 on the year.
Now loaded with a roster full of multi-year starters, patience is finally paying off for Washington.
“It’s the first time that we’ve joined the GAC that Washington’s been 9-1 and I wouldn’t rather do it with any group of kids,” Heflin said. “(Our defense) did what they’ve done all year and held everybody under 14 points. If we score 20, we know we’re going to win.”
A key difference in the team’s success has come up front where the Blue Jays have one of the best defensive front sevens in the Gateway Athletic Conference Central and an offensive line that has opened up holes all season long for experienced running backs like seniors Nate Busch and Christian Meyer and junior Cole Nahlik.
“It’s easy to run when you’ve got a line like that,” Meyer said. “That’s the biggest difference between us this year and in years past — our offensive line.”
Meyer, the team’s leading touchdown threat this season, accounted for both a rushing and a receiving score against Marshfield in Week 10 and also ran in a two-point conversion.
The receiving score came on the first play of Washington’s penultimate drive of the game, breaking a 14-14 tie in the final four minutes of play.
The Washington defense then came up with a critical turnover on a fumble recovery to stop Marshfield after allowing touchdowns on the two previous drives.
“We’ve been waiting for this ever since we went 0-10,” senior Joe Hackmann, an anchor on the offensive and defensive lines, said. “A turnaround like this is something that you really only see in movies.”
The lone blemish against this Washington team this season has been no real blemish at all. The only team to defeat the Jays was conference foe Ft. Zumwalt North. The 9-0 Panthers are one of the top-ranked teams in Class 5 and are coming off a state quarterfinal season in 2018.
Friday’s win leads Washington into a Week 11 matchup on the road against the top-seeded team in the district, Camdenton (10-0).
The Lakers are coming into the game off a 51-27 defeat of Pacific (1-9) in which Camdenton led, 45-0, at halftime and played its defensive reserves in the second half.
Camdenton won this district a year ago, last eliminating St. Francis Borgia Regional in the title game, 24-13.
Paxton DeLaurent continues to lead the Lakers at quarterback. He threw for more than 200 yards and four touchdowns against the Indians in Week 10.
Camdenton is the only team to beat West Plains (9-1) thus far this season, doing so 37-34 in overtime in Week 3. Other key wins for the Lakers include a 28-0 victory over the No. 3 seeded team in the district, Lebanon (8-2), a 39-12 victory over Waynesville (6-3), a 50-42 win at Glendale (4-5) and a 49-14 victory against Rolla (4-6).
Lebanon plays at Helias Catholic (9-1) in this Friday’s other district semifinal.
Washington has learned how to come out on top in close games this season, winning five times by one score or less. If the Blue Jays can stick to their usual bend, but don’t break, style of defense against the Lakers, even bigger things could be in store for Heflin’s team this season.
As the lowest-seeded team remaining in the district, Washington would have to win two road games before it could have another home game.
If the Blue Jays make it that far, they would host a state quarterfinal.