By Jason Avery
If Junction City’s playoff run has shown one thing, it’s that the game truly is not over until the clock reaches triple-zero.
After two thrilling come-from-behind victories, Junction City stands one win away from reaching the 3A state finals, but standing in their way is a team that has enjoyed one of the best turnarounds in the state.
Tonight, Junction City (12-0), the 6-3A’s No. 1 seed and the only team remaining in the 3A ranks that is unblemished, plays host to Osceola (11-2), the 3-3A’s No. 2 seed and winners of 11 of its past 12 games, in the 3A semifinals.
Game time is set for 7 p.m. from David Carpenter Stadium.
The Dragons, who knocked off Harding Academy and Clinton in dramatic fashion after a first-round bye to reach the semifinals, are seeking their first trip to the state finals since 2014 when they captured their third consecutive 2A state crown.
The Seminoles, who have knocked off Cedar Ridge, defending 3A state champion Prescott and Charleston by a combined score of 130-41, are in the fourth round of the playoffs for the first time since doing it in consecutive years in 2008 and 2009, which also marks the last time the Seminoles reached the 11-win plateau. They are looking to reach the state finals for the first time since 1998 when they played for the 4A state crown.
For Junction City coach Steven Jones, getting the opportunity to play for a spot in next week’s state championship game is something his team is looking forward to.
“We’re excited to play 48 more minutes this week,” Jones said. “We’ve had two big wins in a row for us that were both down to the wire, and we’re looking at a good opponent this week. They’re very well-coached. They’re a very good football team.”
Junction City is no stranger to seeing athletic teams, and the Seminoles certainly rank close to the top of that category.
“They’re very athletic. They rank right up there with McGehee as far as overall athletic talent and team speed,” Jones said. “It’s a little bit of a different scheme than what we’ve seen with McGehee and the last two weeks. Now we see somebody that kind of does what we do.”
At this time a year ago, Osceola had long completed a dismal 2-8 season.
Now first-year coach Robert Hooks has the Seminoles one win from the state finals, and he credited his team for buying into what he wanted to accomplish.
“I’d say the strength and conditioning program, and our mentality,” Hooks said of the Seminoles’ key to success. “Winning is a mentality. I think that with our strength and conditioning program, we’ve been able to change the mentality. The kids and the coaching staff have really bought in and are believing. We had the ball bounce our way early, and developed some confidence. With that confidence, we’ve just been kind of riding the wave, and we’re still surfing right now.”
As far as the Dragons are concerned, Hooks said his team will have to be wary of their ability to make big plays.
“I think that they’re a very explosive team both offensively and defensively,” Hooks said. “They fly around to the ball and make big plays. They do a good job. They’re well-coached. I think they look like traditional Junction City football.”
Osceola has been very impressive in their run to the semifinals, crushing Cedar Ridge 52-7 before dispatching Prescott 41-20 and snapping Charleston’s 12-game postseason home winning streak with a 37-14 win last week.
Hooks said a major factor is that his team has not lost any confidence when adversity has struck.
“Our kids believe that until that clock says zero, zero, zero, we think that we have a chance to win the football game,” Hooks said. “We’ve been down seven, we’ve been down 14, but we haven’t been rattled in games. We’ve been able to finish. That’s one of the biggest things. A lot of teams can start well, but it’s about finishing. That’s one of the main things that Junction does well, too. They’re not going to be denied. They finish games. That’s something that I think we mirror each other in as far as that. We’re going to play four full quarters.”
Osceola’s defense has also done a solid job in forcing turnovers, including three last week at Charleston.
“Any time you can win the turnover differential, you give yourself a chance to win the football game,” Hooks said. “We want to win the turnover margin, and the ball, the ball, the ball. That’s what we want. We want the ball. That right there has helped us a lot.”
Against Charleston, the Seminoles were able to limit the Tigers’ offense to just 209 yards of total offense, including 39 in the second half.
“The biggest thing was our guys up front were able to apply pressure, and the secondary was able to give us time to get to the quarterback,” Hooks said. “I think our defense was the difference in the game.”
Jones said the Seminoles have used a variety of looks on defense.
“They’ve mixed in a few different things this season,” Jones said. “Against Charleston, they went cover zero and put everybody right around the ball, and Charleston’s receivers had a tough time of getting off the ball and being sharp in the passing game and running routes.
“Against Prescott, they did more of catch-man where they played off a little bit. They mix up a little bit of what they do. They’re very sound and very well-coached. Coach Hooks has done a great job with the Seminoles.”
With over 2,300 yards passing and 2,700 yards rushing as a team, Osceola ranks as one of the most balanced offenses in the state regardless of class, which is led by senior quarterback D.J. Flie.
“We have a good senior leader at quarterback who is able to run the football and is another coach on the field,” Hooks said. “He’s checked us into good plays. I credit the offensive line for being able to protect when we need.
“I would say over the last four to five weeks, the offensive line has gotten a lot better. We were pass-heavy early in the season, but as the season went on, we’ve been able to be a more balanced football team, which is going to win you some ballgames. If you’re one-dimensional, it’s easy for teams to key on you and beat you, but if you’re balanced, it makes it tougher for opponents to match up with you.”
Jones compared Osceola’s offense to Clinton from the standpoint of having several players that can shoulder the load.
“They’re definitely a balanced offense, and they’re able to get the ball to a lot of different guys,” Jones said. “They’re a lot like Clinton in that they have a lot of guys that have gotten a lot of carries this year and have really spread out the rushing yards throughout the team. In the passing game, the quarterback has been very efficient. They like to take a lot of shots and go vertical. They’ve got guys outside that can go get it.”
A big key to the Seminoles’ success on offense is the versatility of their players moving around to different spots.
Despite having over 5,000 yards of total offense, the Seminoles do not have one player with over 1,000 yards rushing or receiving.
Senior Derrell Brown Jr. leads the Seminoles with 859 yards rushing and 759 yards receiving, but Hooks said that versatility is by design.
“In order to make this offense work, that’s what you need,” Hooks said. “You need guys who are versatile. What I tell my guys is I don’t want a guy just to learn his position, I want you to learn the whole offense. That way, you make yourself more marketable and more versatile where we can do a lot more things.
“If one guy goes down, we want to have the next-man-up mentality. One thing about it, and this has happened, you never want to leave the huddle, because you may never get back on the field. Our scout guys have really given us a great look, and I think we have about seven, eight guys that can play receiver or running back. I’m not afraid to play any of those guys.”
While the Seminoles have pulled away and won each of their three playoff games by wide margins, the Dragons have needed rallies in the final stages of regulation to advance to the semifinals, and Jones has been pleased with his team’s resolve.
“The last two weeks, we’ve definitely been tested and challenged,” Jones said. “We had our backs against the wall in both games. We were trailing in the fourth quarter, and our guys continued to find a way to win. They just keep fighting. We’ve got a very scrappy group. You just look at the way that they carry themselves and their body language. They never feel like they’re out of a game.”
Against Clinton last week, the Dragons jumped out to a 36-13 lead midway through the third quarter only to see the visitors roar back into the lead before Shuvasceiaye Frazier’s touchdown with nine seconds left gave the Dragons the lead back for good.
“We jumped out and got a big lead, and I think we relaxed a little bit,” Jones said. “That’s not something you can do at this time of year in the playoffs. You’ve got to continue to keep the foot on the pedal and continue to be aggressive and blocking and tackling throughout the game. We just kind of got comfortable a little bit and Clinton very quickly got us out of that mindset and made it a very tight game. Clinton is a very good football team, and they showed that in the way they fought back.”
Junction City was also short-handed on their game-winning drive after senior running back Hishmma Taylor departed the game, but Jones said he is fine and will play tonight.
“He’s good to go. He got the wind knocked out of him there late in the game,” Jones said. “He’s a very tough player, and he’ll be ready to go Friday night.”
If the Seminoles are to advance to the state finals, stopping the Dragons’ playmakers and winning the battle up front will go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.
“We’re going to have to stop their playmakers,” Hooks said. “We’re going to have to know who they are and not let those guys beat us. We’re going to have to at least stalemate them up front. Their lines are good, so we’re going to have to win some battles up front. We’re not going to win every battle, but we need to win the majority of them. If we can do that and stop their playmakers, we’ll have a chance. That’s the only way.”
Penalties have been a season-long issue for the Dragons, who have committed 36 penalties in their two playoff games, and curbing those along with turnovers will be of paramount importance if the Dragons are to move on.
“In the last few weeks, the keys have really stayed the same,” Jones said. “We’ve got to cut down on penalties and take care of the football. If you look at the film, you kind of gauge your performance off of that, and there weren’t a lot of penalties that were called that weren’t warranted.
“All of the penalties were penalties. Some of those penalties are going to happen when you snap the ball so many times. You’re going to get holding calls occasionally, but the penalties that are killing us are still selfish penalties where there’s no need to do what we’ve been doing. We’ve challenged our kids to not let their emotions get the best of them. It’s an emotional game, and they’re kids out there playing, but they’ve got to control themselves.”