The last time McCrory faced Junction City in the playoffs, the Jaguars had to fight tooth and nail just to qualify for the postseason as the 3-2A’s No. 5 seed.
That game, a 37-8 win for the Dragons, took place two years ago and started Junction City on its run to the 2A state title.
But on that night, McCrory had an abundance of freshmen make their playoff debuts, which started the Jaguars back on the path to their usual high standards of success after they finished the 2018 campaign with its lowest win total since 2007.
A year ago, the Jaguars went 9-3 and reached the second round of the playoffs, marking the 11th time in the last 12 years that McCrory had won at least six games in a season, which also includes a state title run back in 2015.
This fall, despite the coronavirus pandemic, the Jaguars are 5-3 and finished second in the 3-2A.
A week ago, McCrory avenged their playoff loss to Magnet Cove from 2019 with a 52-12 shellacking of the Panthers.
Now Junction City comes to town with a berth in the 2A quarterfinals at stake.
For McCrory coach Chris Kennon, there has been a steady growth from those freshmen who now are juniors and a big part of the Jaguars’ success.
“My group of juniors were ninth-graders, so some of them made the trip, some of them actually played and one of them was my second leading tackler,” Kennon said. “They’ve grown mentally and physically and steadily have gotten better every week. We only play two seniors, so we play a lot of underclassmen, and they had a lot of growing up to do throughout the year.”
A month ago, the Jaguars appeared to be in dire straits.
A 32-26 loss to East Poinsett County on Oct. 2 dropped McCrory to 2-3 on the year.
However, the Jaguars responded with a lopsided wins over Cedar Ridge and Cross County to close out the regular season before dispatching Magnet Cove last week.
In addition to the loss at the hands of EPC, the Jaguars dropped two straight in non-conference play to Des Arc and Clarendon.
“We started just terrible,” Kennon said. “We didn’t play good. We were scoring a lot of points early. We lost to Des Arc and Clarendon back to back. We scored 48 points against Clarendon and got beat because we just didn’t make plays on defense. Clarendon has got some great athletes and they got in space and we did not tackle well in space that night, which put us in a bind.
“Against Des Arc, it’s a 10-point game, and we’ve turned it over three times inside the 30-yard line. We had over 400 yards of offense and just couldn’t capitalize. We would turn it over, make mistakes and then we did a poor job of tackling the edge that night. We lost the EPC game and turned it over seven times that night.”
However, the Jaguars have turned things around by cutting down on turnovers and their defense improving.
“I think what we did was we quit turning the ball over for one thing,” Kennon said. “It puts your defense in a bad spot. You can’t turn the ball over that many times and leave your defense on the field that much. That hurts those guys. It puts them in a bad situation.
“I think our secondary has gotten better every game, which has made a big difference in our kids. With our secondary playing better, we can put some more guys in the box and go tackle the run. As the year has progressed, they’ve gotten better at every spot. We’ve addressed some things and it’s gotten much better. As we’ve cleaned it up, we’ve been much more successful.”
Kennon has also been pleased with the growth of the defensive line.
“That’s probably where we were weak at early in the year,” Kennon said. “We were having some not very good D-line play. Those kids have finally come along and we got some technique fixed with those guys. Once their technique got fixed, it’s just gotten better every game. Bryce Holder, Ethan Winningham has gotten much better, Justin Hatch is playing well up there. Once we can get those guys playing well on the D-line, it allows Reid (Kennon) and Lathan (Briley) to really fly around and make tackles.”
When the Jaguars faced the Dragons two years ago, they had a wealth of younger players contributing, and the same holds true for their encounter tonight.
“It was tough,” Kennon said. “As coaches, I don’t think we did a good job early of getting kids in the right spot and what we felt like they could do. We’ve been able to move kids around and shift them to get them to their strengths to where it made the team better. Once we got some adjustments made, I think we did much better.”