Despite the loss in Lebanon Friday night, the Waynesville football coaches say they saw the team make great improvements

LEBANON – Mistakes on Waynesville’s final drive of the football game in Lebanon on Friday night may have cost them some points, and the game, but it’s obvious the Tigers have taken a giant step forward in their skill level.

After scoring 48 points in a win against the Rolla Bulldogs a week before, the Yellowjackets had issues trying to figure out the Tigers’ defense albeit en route to a 15-14 victory over Waynesville.

The coaching staff at Waynesville had been bragging about a good week of practice and it showed up at game time Friday night.

“Our kids answered a challenge,” Defensive Coordinator Karl Wilking said. “If we played with this intensity last week, West Plains doesn’t score [as much], they don’t run the ball [as easily] and that’s a great credit to the kids.”

Lebanon’s lead back Elza Evans finished the game with an unofficial 155 yards, but that’s down considerably from the 314 yards he racked up last week. Also, he accumulated 66 of those yards against Waynesville on one play in the first quarter.

“They had a couple of big, long runs that got them in good field position,” Head Coach Rick Vernon said. “Other than that we made a great stand a lot of times.”

Lebanon coach Will Christian was downright astounded, even surprised, at the defensive effort by the Tigers.

“I thought they flew around and played very physical,” Christian said. “[Which is] a lot different from what I saw in film. I felt like they attacked and were much more aggressive.

“Watching the West Plains game, it seemed like they were catching a lot more. Tonight they were slanting, pursuing and blitzing. We had a hard time with them. I don’t know if they were saving that for us, I sure wouldn’t think so because West Plains is really good coming in, so I wouldn’t think they would save anything for us.”

They weren’t exactly saving it up for the Yellowjackets per se, just a little more adamant about playing with that type of style this time around.

“We preached to the kids about playing with an attitude,” Wilking said. “Yeah, he ran for 300 something yards last week, but if our kids get their heads on right and do their jobs and make people play at our tempo, we’re going to be fine. Tonight proved that.”

That attitude was there from the beginning.

Following a huge, 70-yard kickoff return for Lebanon that put the Yellowjackets at Waynesville’s 18-yard line, the Tigers forced a fourth-and-five and only surrendered a 28-yard field goal to Lebanon’s kicker Kendrick Tiller.

Following a couple failed series by both teams Lebanon would go on a tear down the field thanks to that 66-yard run by Evans, but once they got into the red zone the Tiger defense put the brakes on.

The Yellowjackets would again have to rely on the foot of Tiller, and he came through with a 37-yard boot to put Lebanon up 6-0 with 2:42 remaining in the first quarter.

Disaster seemed to surround the Waynesville offense early on, and that bad luck showed itself after a big return by Seth Hedrick and a 9-yard run led to a fumble on Lebanon’s 18-yard line.

The defense wasted no time getting the football back though.

They held the Yellowjackets to a measly two yards and Jackson Haedt blocked the punt to set the offense back up at the 20.

It took four plays, but this time Waynesville got it done. Quarterback Varon Martinez found Nigel Farmer standing in the middle of the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the first quarter.

Following the extra point, Waynesville took a 7-6 lead.

They would hang on to that lead until Lebanon would have it’s one and only touchdown drive of the night.

A lengthy 49-yard drive set the Yellowjackets up at the five-yard line, and Luke Winfrey hit Conner Hicks for the five-yard score. Christian made the call to go for two, but the run play was stopped short and they had to settle for a 12-7 lead with 12.2 seconds remaining in the half.

On the other side of halftime, the offense showed explosiveness on a three-play, 86-yard drive for a touchdown, 84 of which came on the scoring play.

After a couple of runs that netted two yards, Offensive Coordinator Derick Heflin dialed up a pass play in which Hedrick ran a little hitch and Martinez put the ball on him.

Hedrick skated by a couple of tacklers and burst into the open and didn’t stop until he put up six for the Tigers. A point-after made it seven and Waynesville was up 14-12.

Christian saw Waynesville was refusing to go away, so he decided to play risky on Lebanon’s next possession.

The Yellowjackets trekked 52-yards down the field to Waynesville’s 14, but the Tigers’ defense, again, dug in when it mattered and forced a fourth-and-two.

Instead of putting the pressure on Tiller once again, he trusted in his offense to get the yards.

“I should’ve kicked the field goal,” Christian said.

Waynesville forced a turnover on downs.

“I looked like a real genius in that situation,” Christian said, sarcastically. “I thought early on in the game my gut was telling me we could get two yards in that situation.”

Vernon would try his luck on the Tigers’ following drive too, when they reached Lebanon’s 24-yard line on fourth-down. Waynesville would turn the ball over on downs as well.

The two teams took turns giving each other the ball for a while, then came the thrilling finish.

Starting on their 20 with 2:29 left in regulation Lebanon drove to the Tigers’ 30-yard line and stalled. In came the kicking unit.

Christian wouldn’t second-guess his kicker this time.

The snap was good, the hold was good and the kick was good.

A 47-yard field goal easily cleared the uprights, which is almost unheard of in high school football.

“It’s one of those things that was a gamble for me, but I’ve got confidence he can do it,” Christian said. “I’ve seen him do it in practice, but wow, what a kick.”

The kick cleared with 55.8 seconds left in the game.

A good return, followed up by a Lebanon penalty set Waynesville up in good field position at Lebanon’s 40.

A pass interference call against the Yellowjackets gave the Tigers’ 15 more yards.

Then, a sweep to Hedrick was another 15 yards and Waynesville was now staring at a first-and-10 at Lebanon’s 10-yard line.

The subsequent snap went over Martinez’s head and running back Jalen Thomas had to fall on it for a 15-yard loss.

Then Martinez was tackled for a four-yard loss.

With 12 seconds left, in came Waynesville’s kicking unit for a 45-yard field goal.

The kick fell well short.

Had that snap not flew over Martinez’s head, Vernon had no doubt of the outcome, but that’s not how it played out and that’s not the only mistake that cost his team points.

“We would’ve been putting it in the end zone,” Vernon said. “We should’ve put it in the end zone other times too. So, it doesn’t always come down to the last play.”

It was a thrilling finish that had even the opposing coach on the edge of his seat, had he been sitting on one.

“Unreal,” Christian said. “What a game. The folks got every bit of the four bucks they paid tonight, that’s for sure.”

In Waynesville’s huddle after the game, Vernon was as fired up as he was at the beginning of the season when he said his goal for the season is state champion or bust.

He saw improvement, and as long as that keeps happening, they’re poised to start piling up victories.

“We’re proud of our kids,” Vernon said. “We’re going to be ready to go [next week] and, like we told them tonight, we’re making a run. Put that in all caps.”