The Seneca Indians have positioned themselves one win away from a shot at the state title. But first, they'll have to win a state semifinal game. I'll be their first crack at clearing the semifinals since 2002.
There's really no other way to put it: the Indians were simply better than the Eldon Mustangs in all facets of the game on Saturday, and dominated their Missouri state quarterfinal game at Victor Field to the tune of a 43-0 beatdown. Now they'll entertain John Burroughs in a state semifinal at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Earl Campbell Stadium in Seneca. The winner of that game will take on the winner of another Class 3 semifinal between California and Maryville in the state championship on Nov. 30 in St. Louis.
"I don't know. I'm just happy, pleased that it's happening," Seneca coach Dan Scheible said. "I don't think anything about Burroughs, I haven't thought anything and I don't care about them right now. I want to enjoy this one. I want our kids to enjoy it.
"You talk about the memories for these kids. This is awesome."
Seneca's team speed made all of the difference. The Mustangs entered the game with the size advantage, but were repeatedly beaten at the point of attack by the faster Indians. Eldon never got its three-headed running attack going, whereas the Indians ran around them, ran through them and ran away with the game.
Offense, defense, the story was the same — the Indians controlled the game on both sides of the ball. The offense often gets much of the credit, and rightfully so considering what Seneca's has done this season, but its defense was every bit as dominant. While Braxton Graham led the offense with another big day, senior linebacker Dalan Merriman made enough plays to fill a highlight reel on defense, while fellow seniors Jacob Truelove, Graham, Devin Madison and Mac Yust stood out on defense. Chance Smith and Rawlins joined Graham with big offensive games.
"It's just a special group," Scheible said. "Those 10 seniors … the work is paying off. All the lifting, all the running, the attention to detail — that kind of stuff.
"Those little things are what's got us to where we're at."
For all of the scoring, the series of the game can be chalked up to Merriman and the defense. With the Indians leading 14-0 late in the first quarter, the Mustangs (9-4) had a chance to earn some momentum when it marched to Seneca's 5-yard line to set up first-and-goal. Following a 1-yard run, Merriman knifed through the heart of Eldon's offensive line and nailed tailback Dalton Lister in the backfield for a 4-yard loss. Following a run by Wyatt Greenwalt that set up third-and-goal at the 2, Merriman stuffed Lister again just short of the goal line on fourth down to turn it over on downs.
Those stops represented a major points swing, as Graham broke free on a 97-yard touchdown run just two plays later. A conversion run by Rawlins made it 22-0 with 11:42 left in the second quarter.
"I just have to give a lot of credit to the D-line, they controlled the line of scrimmage," Merriman said. "It's all them up front. Makes it easier to do my job.
"I think it's just because of our chemistry together. We all know what we're supposed to do, we all do our jobs, we all trust in each other."
Things didn't start particularly well for the Indians as Graham fumbled on the second play of the game and the Mustangs took over at Seneca's 33. But the Indians forced a turnover just two plays later, pouncing on an Eldon fumble at the Indians' 27. Graham made up for his gaffe three plays later with a 44-yard touchdown run to make it 6-0. He scored again with 3:40 to go in the first quarter on a 10-yard run, and a pass from Rawlins to Merriman on the conversion made it 14-0 with 3:40 to go in the half.
Graham would go on to rush for 248 yards on 25 carries with five touchdowns. His scoring runs went for 44, 10, 97, 3 and 2 yards. Rawlins completed eight of 12 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown. His scoring toss was a 16-yard strike to Smith on a perfectly thrown ball over the top of Eldon's defense. Rawlins also ran for 71 yards on five carries.
Seneca's offensive line showed a marked improvement over Monday's game against Aurora. Rawlins had plenty of time to throw and Graham had open lanes to run through.
"We have many options," Rawlins said of running an offense with so many weapons. "I thought our O-line did great today. Nothing bad happened at all.
"We could do anything we wanted."
Despite losing the one fumble, the Indians also won the turnover battle. Yust had a fumble recovery and Jacob Walker and Graham had interceptions as the Indians forced four turnovers.
Seneca will now have a week to prepare for a tough John Burroughs team that is coming off back-to-back seasons as state runners up.
"We have to stay focused," Rawlins said. "We have to have a good week of practice."
While Scheible wasn't thinking about next week's opponent, he was thinking of his team. He'd challenged them to become a team of significance — to be a team people would remember and talk about for years to come. Whether the Indians win or lose next week, their goals might have already been met.
"They're still adding to it," Scheible insisted. "They've still got chapters to add right now.
"They're still going."