After winning their fifth straight district title by defeating the Cabool Bulldogs less than a week earlier, the Thayer Bobcats took on the Cleveland NJROTC Commanders in the first round of the Class 1 state football playoffs Nov. 2 at Louis Bozman Stadium.
The Commanders came into Thayer from St. Louis with a 7-3 record and although they showed the Bobcats lots of quickness to the ball, some hard hitting and a strong-armed passing attack, it was the home team that prevailed 42-6.
After an outstanding kick return from Jacob Alford, the Bobcats started to grind away with their ground attack.
Cleveland's defensive quickness to the ball made for tough yardage for Thayer's running backs.
Connor Blair blasted the edges, only to be met by swift Commander linebackers for short gains and just enough yards to move the chains.
Like a plow-horse breaking up a garden, Bobcat fullback Jeremy Cabrales showed the St. Louis city boys his power by carrying -- or pushing -- three, five then eight Commanders in a pile, as he pushed the pile forward for a pick-up of 14 and a Bobcat first down.
After Thayer's drive stalled, Cabrales boomed a high punt and got an outstanding Bobcat roll, down inside the Commanders' 5-yard line.
Cleveland's first hike of the ballgame saw QB Harrell's hand-off squirt out of the hands of the running back.
Bobcat defensive tackle Austin Henry covered the fumble to give the Bobcats their first break and goal line yardage.
One play later -- Connor Blair strode into the end zone from 7 yards out for Thayer's first six points. Cabrales' PAT kick was pushed back five yards, thanks to the first of the Bobcats' many procedure errors, but was still true from the extra distance, giving the Bobcats a 7-0 lead with 8:35 remaining on the first quarter clock.
The Bobcat defense had to turn it up a notch to deal with the outside speed of the Commanders' running back, Dominic Ball, but were able to get pressure up the middle on the elusive senior quarterback Harrell.
An incomplete pass attempt on fourth down returned possession back to the Bobcats.
Thayer's youngsters on the front line held up their blocks to allow the Cat running backs to chip yardage away on the Commanders' defense, moving the ball deep into Cleveland's red zone. Cabrales rolled the last seven yards over the end zone stripe, and then kicked another long extra point, putting the Bobcats in the lead 14-0 with under five on the first-quarter clock.
Thayer's defense clamped down to force a Cleveland short kick and good return by Alford. The Bobcats continued to move the ball on the ground until Cleveland recovered a Mitch Webber fumble at its own 25.
The Bobcat defense stepped up again with pressure in the quarterback's face from Ridge Burke and Derek Krieg. Commander receivers were unable to make catches as passes were tipped or knocked down by Ary, Alford, Dennis, Hargrove and Blair.
Thayer took over possession early in the second quarter and continued to move the ball with its running game.
Coach Webber must have gotten word from the assistant coaches in the press box that the Commanders were all bunching up on the line of scrimmage each play, in an attempt to stop the run.
The play call to quarterback Brandon Childers came in and the Bobcats executed the play very well. Cabrales made a dive into the line, Childers faked the hand off, stepped to the right with a fake pitch out to Blair. All Cleveland defenders took the bait and keyed on the Bobcat runners. Childers dropped back a couple of steps and found two wide open Bobcats, 15 yards behind any Commander. Childers' pass spiraled into senior tight end Dylan Dennis' hands for the reception. The other open receiver Henry, and Dennis with the catch, trotted about 47 yards into the end zone to add six more to the Bobcat lead. Once again, a procedure penalty moved the PAT back, but it was no problem for the leg of Cabrales at the 9:26 mark in the second quarter.
With possessions back and forth, Cleveland got a 21-yard gain, pass completion and attempted a second pass into the Bobcat end zone. Jacob Alford had the inside position to intercept Harrell's pass attempt in the end zone.
The Bobcats met some resistance from the Commander defense and had to punt the ball away. Although Thayer defensive tackle Derek Krieg recovered a Cleveland fumble on their next possession, the Commanders managed to get Montey Dickerson free for a catch and run into the end zone.
That TD catch and run was called back on a holding flag. Pressure from Bobcat's Shelby Barton up the middle and Kreig from the outside, sacked QB Harrell for a big loss, to leave the Commanders with fourth-and-32. The Bobcats ran out the half with an uneasy 21-0 lead.
Cleveland came out fast in the second half with a pass reception for a first down.
Harrell found the Bobcat defense flat-footed and hooked up deep with wideout Dickerson, for a 45-yard catch and score. The 2-point try was snuffed out by the Bobcat defense to start the second half with a 21-6 Bobcat lead.
Fumbles on both sides of the ball by the Commanders and the Bobcats made for some unhappy coaches. Harrell had to scramble in the Commanders' backfield, but was able to elude defenders to attempt another deep pass.
Alford came down with another Bobcat defensive interception.
Thayer threatened the Commanders again, but quick defensive pressure stopped the Bobcats on fourth-and-goal.
A different wrinkle, a Statue of Liberty play to Latimore, picked up 40 yards on the ground for the Commanders, but that was just about the biggest highlight Cleveland could muster.
Connor Blair got into the end zone over the right-tackle side for the Bobcats with the PAT kick down the pike, 28-6, Thayer Bobcats. Cabrales ripped off a 14-yard TD run and PAT in the fourth, to widen the Bobcat margin to 35-6.
Harrell faced defensive pressure in the backfield all night long from Isaiah Martin, Barton, Burke, freshman Grant Denbow, Cabrales, Henry and Krieg.
With the clock running down and facing a fourth-and-18, Harrell launched a flat pass for the Commanders. For the second week in a row, Thayer corner back Hunter Ary held position, intercepted the ball and sprinted into the end zone.
Cabrales was perfect with the PAT to wrap up the final 42-6 score for Thayer's first round victory over Cleveland.
Blair had 154 yards rushing for Thayer, while Cabrales had 106 and Childers added 33.