Nov. 9—McDonald County had been searching for a statement victory on the gridiron. With a Class 4 District 6 semifinal game at West Plains, it got that opportunity.
The Mustangs seized the opportunity and picked up a 35-33 win to book their spot in the district championship.
This was the third time in the last four years that McDonald County made the long trek to Zizzer Football Stadium for a district playoff game. Both of those games went in favor of the Zizzers.
"The three-hour bus ride home is a little different after a win than the first two times," McDonald County head coach Kellen Hoover said. "I'm just happy for our kids. I'm proud of our kids. There was really good energy from them the whole night. Especially our seniors who are playing for their high school football careers at this point."
The Mustangs had possession of the ball as the fourth-quarter clock was winding down. A snap from victory formation that led to quarterback Destyn Dowd kneeling down to end the game resulted in jubilation.
A video on the McDonald County Athletics page on X, formerly known as Twitter, shows the team celebrating as players rush out from the sideline and onto the field. A chest bump from senior lineman Toby Moore was so strong it put sophomore lineman Jaylon Nepo on his backside.
"It was a really exciting moment," Hoover said about the win. "You prepare all week, and it's a team you haven't seen and don't really have any common opponents, except for Monett, and you just have to lay it all out there."
That win marked Hoover's 38th in his seventh season with the Mustangs. The opening-round playoff win over Marshfield made Hoover the winningest coach in program history.
McDonald County overcame two turnovers that West Plains turned into points. The Mustangs didn't waver and were able to find a way to win.
"We ran the ball effectively, and our offensive line was able to open up some holes in their defense and were really physical about it," Hoover said.
The return of ball carrier Sam Barton was key for the Mustangs in the victory over West Plains. Barton had dealt with an injury for most of the year and had been monitored closely all season and had carries limited. The senior ran for all five of the team's touchdowns and, the coach said, more than 200 yards.
The Mustangs (7-4) are now traveling to Bolivar (7-3) for the championship. The Liberators beat West Plains 42-38 in Week 1 of the season and that's the only opponent these two teams shared in 2023.
Last year, Bolivar defeated McDonald County in the postseason 21-7. The Liberators average just under 35 points per game, while the Mustangs tally 26.5 per contest. McDonald County's defense has been a little tougher to the tune of just 20.4 ppg in comparison with Bolivar's 25 points allowed per game.
"We've continued to grow closer together as a team," Hoover said. "There's a lot of things that can happen in a season that can split you apart. ... Our team has continued to grow closer together throughout it."
"You can see that they aren't ready to be done," Hoover said.
"It's a good football team, and we're going to have to make sure we have a great week of practice to prepare for it," Hoover said. "It's a team that has a lot of athletes all over the field. They can run it and throw it offensively. They're pretty aggressive defensively. They tackle really well."
He added that he wants to see his team be physical up front. He also noted that Dowd has done a good job of reading his option plays.