After finishing last season as Class 1 Show-Me Bowl runner-ups with a 13-1 mark, it would be easy to understand if the Thayer Bobcats had chosen to open the 2008 season with a couple of easy opponents.
Thing is, this group of Cats would have none of that.
Last year is last year and this year is this year, as they say.
So Thayer went on the road to Springfield Central in week one and knocked off a Class 4 team by 21 points.
Then, in their home-opener at Louis Bozman Stadium Sept. 5, the Bobcats followed up that impressive victory with one that deserves even more attention -- a 21-13 win over the Class 3 Mountain Grove Panthers.
While the Central Bulldogs are not exactly chopped liver, the Panthers are certainly the real deal and currently hold down the number 3 spot in the state's Class 3 ranks, after going 10-1 last season.
But against Thayer, it was the Bobcats (2-0) that lived up to their billing as the state's second-ranked Class 1 team.
And once again, it was Thayer's defense that stood head-and-shoulders above the competition.
The Bobcats held Mountain Grove (1-1) to under 100 yards rushing, and under 200 yards total offense on the night, as Thayer's big defensive line held its place all evening long.
And on offense, Bobcat quarterback Jacob Eckman turned in another eye-opening performance, running for 98 yards while completing seven-of-eight passes for 68 yards in the game.
But back to the defense.
Thayer held a 14-13 lead late in the fourth quarter when the Cats' defense came up big.
Deep on Mountain Grove's end of the field, quarterback Casey White pitched a lateral that went uncaught and hit the ground in the Panther end zone. Quick as a Cat, Thayer's Luke Martin fell on the loose football to give his team an insurance TD with 3:48 left in the game. Ethan Leisenring kicked the extra-point to secure Thayer's 21-13 victory over Mountain Grove.
This defensive tone was set early in the opening moments of the contest.
Mountain Grove squibbed the opening kickoff of the game and recovered the ball, marching down to the Bobcat 17-yard line in the process.
But Panther running back Evan Williams fumbled the pigskin and Josh Huckabee grabbed it for Thayer.
Mountain Grove did get inside the Bobcat 17-yard line twice in the first half, only to come away empty on both occasions.
Thayer struck first, as Cameron Carey wrapped up a 48-yard, 10-play drive with a 13-yard touchdown at the 2:33 mark of the first quarter. Leisenring hit the point-after to give the Bobcats a 7-0 lead after the first quarter.
Mountain Grove looked poised to tie the game in the second, with a second-and-3 from the Thayer 10.
But first, Martin drilled Williams for a 1-yard loss. Then, Lance Schneider wrapped up Brandon Brandt for a 3-yard loss on third down. After an illegal produce penalty on the Panthers turned fourth-and-7 into fourth-and-12 from the 20, Leisenring got his hands on Mountain Grove's 36-yard field goal attempt, leaving the Panthers with nothing to show for their efforts.
Thayer finished the first half strong, with Schneider and Huckabee each picking off White in the last four minutes of the half, sending the squads to intermission with the Bobcats on top 7-0.
Mountain Grove wasted little time in regrouping at the half.
White tossed a 32-yard TD pass to Brandt on the Panthers' opening series of the second half. Christian Matthews kicked the PAT, and with 9:31 left in the third, Mountain Grove had locked things at 7-all.
Thayer moved ahead for good on its next possession.
Eckman hit Martin for a nice gainer on the Cats' 13-play scoring drive, and using his own legs, reeled off a big 14-yard QB keeper in the series. Eckman finished the deal with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Schneider on fourth-and-3 with 2:48 left in the third. Leisenring's extra-point pushed the Bobcats in front 14-7.
But Mountain Grove didn't go undefeated in the South Central Association last year by giving up when things got tough, and this night was no different.
Taking advantage of a Thayer turnover early in the fourth quarter, the Panthers pulled within a single point on a 45-yard touchdown run up the middle of the field from Williams. Leisenring got his hands on Mountain Grove's second kick of the night, blocking the extra-point attempt to keep Thayer on top 14-13 with 8:35 left in the game.
Although Thayer couldn't get much going on its next drive, the Bobcats did get the ball back as Williams muffed a Leisenring punt and Ryan Veatch recovered the football for the Bobcats.
Thayer drove the ball all the way to the Panthers' 1-yard line, but Mountain Grove made a huge goal-line stand and stopped Thayer on fourth-and-1 from the 2.
Turns out this was OK, as one play later, Martin recovered White's lateral in the end zone to preserve Thayer's second big win in as many weeks of the young season.