Written by Rusty Swift
Coming up just short has plagued Republic Tiger football this season. Friday night, in their final regular season contest with rival Willard, the results were no different. Republic came up just short, losing 26-25.
After trailing 20-0 at halftime and 26-7 midway in the third period, Republic clawed almost all the way back, just to come up short when Willard blocked the potential tying extra point with 1:12 left in the game.
Willard was able to run out the clock, securing the win and the third seed in district play. With the loss, Republic will get the fourth seed and play either Parkview or Neosho next week.
Both teams struggled to move the ball early, but Willard was first on the board when Kenny Chambers intercepted and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead with just 53 seconds left in the opening period.
Neither team could sustain a drive, thanks in part to numerous penalties, but Willard eventually won a field position battle after a punt by Chambers pinned Republic deep in its own territory. A delay of game and an illegal procedure penalty didn’t help the ensuing Republic drive, and Willard ended up getting the ball back at the Republic 37.
Yocum Automotive Drive of the Game
Last time the Tigers played at home, they pulled off a miracle on their last drive against Neosho. Friday night, they almost did it again. With 4:53 remaining, Republic started on its own 23 yard line, trailing by seven points. They marched 77 yards in 12 plays and punched the ball into the end zone on a Riley Watkins 2-yard run, setting up the potential game-tying field goal. Willard blocked the kick, but the drive was our Yocum Automotive Drive of the Game.
It only took Willard two plays to cover that distance with Ethan Thompson breaking several tackles on his way to the end zone from 17 yards out. After Brayden Swearengin’s second extra point kick, Willard led 14-0 with 3:57 remaining in the opening half.
Swearengin, who has a monster leg, put all of his first half kick-offs into the end-zone, leaving Republic with poor field position to start each drive. That proved costly just before half, as Republic coughed up the ball with just 24 seconds left on its own 23 yard line.
Willard quarterback Quintin Batson wasted little time, connecting with Chambers in the corner of the end-zone on the next play. Willard missed the extra point, but Republic was down 20-0 going into halftime.
Coach Dustin Baldwin says the turnover that led to Willard’s last score of the half was a key moment in the game.
“We’re just trying to run the clock out, and we give them ball… They throw a fade, and everyone in the stadium knows where they’re throwing it…and we let him catch it. We just made some critical mistakes in the first half….that we couldn’t overcome,” Baldwin says.
As he has done several times this year, Cam Flood electrified the Senior Night crowd, taking the second half opening kickoff 98-yards for a score. The Grant Holmes kick made it 20-7.
The Republic defense held, and momentum seemed to be shifting to the home Tigers. The momentum did not last long, as the offense fumbled the ball back over on the first play. This time it took Willard 4 plays to cover 15 yards, with Batson finding Ethan Burson in the end-zone on a 4-yard pass. After missing the extra point, Willard had increased its lead to 26-7 with 7:30 left in the third period.
The Republic offense drove into Willard territory on its next drive, but the drive stalled, hurt by two holding penalties. After another defensive stop, the Republic offense started to click. Key pass plays from Watson to Jake Jones, Skyler Owen and Flood helped sustain a 9-play, 69-yard scoring drive capped by a 5-yard Watson run. A bad snap led to a failed extra point attempt, but with 45 seconds left in the third period, Republic had cut the lead to 26-13.
The defense held again, but a Watkins interception on the first play gave the ball right back to Willard. But Jaden Duvall returned the favor on the very next play, intercepting Batson’s pass.
Watkins led the offense on an 8-play, 63 yard scoring drive with key passes to Trent Rackley and Brady Coggin, while capping the drive with a 4-yard run. The extra-point attempt again failed after a bad snap, leaving Republic down 26-19 with 8:32 remaining.
Willard was able to get one first down and take some time off the clock, but the Republic defense again did the job, getting the ball back in the hands of the offense with 4:53 left in the game.
Two big pass plays got Republic into Willard territory. First Watkins found Owen over the middle for a 22-yard gain, then Watkins connected with Rackley while on the run, down to the Willard 28. Not wanting Willard to have too much time, Republic went to the ground with seven straight runs by Watkins. The senior quarterback found pay dirt from 2-yards on the final run with 1:12 remaining, cutting Willard’s lead to 26-25.
Dustin Baldwin called time out to talk over the extra point attempt and sent his Tigers back onto the field with a chance to tie — but the Willard rush was too much for the left side of the Republic line, and the kick was blocked, leaving Republic once again just short of victory.
“We really gathered ourselves and talked about stepping down hard and keeping our shoulders square and securing our gap, and to let someone come through after a time out was disappointing,” Baldwin says.
He says because Republic had outplayed Willard in the 2nd half, he liked their chances in overtime—and that’s why he didn’t try a 2-point conversion that could have given Republic the lead.
“We had all the momentum at that point. We’d played better the last two quarters, without question,” Baldwin says. “They hadn’t moved the ball on offense. I wanted to go to overtime.
“I’ve been on the other side. I’ve went for two and gotten it. I’ve went for two and not gotten it…You can look at it 100 ways. The bottom line is we need to make an extra point to send it into overtime, where we have all the momentum, and we didn’t get it done.”
Republic falls to 3-6. The Tigers will host a playoff game next Friday, probably against Neosho.