In their storied histories, Junction City and Booneville have combined for over 50 conference championships and 11 state titles.
Despite their success, meetings between the two schools through the years have been rare, but that changes tonight.
Junction City (4-5), the 5-3A’s No. 4 seed, hits the road to face Booneville (8-2), the 1-3A’s No. 2 seed, in the opening round of the 3A playoffs.
Game time is set for 7 p.m.
The contest is the first between the Dragons and Bearcats since 1986 when Booneville came away with a 6-0 win on their way to their first state championship.
The Bearcats and Dragons each won their last state titles in 2018, and Booneville is aiming for another deep run after reaching the semifinals last year.
“It’s been a good year so far,” Booneville coach Doc Crowley said. “We had to battle some injuries early. We started to get everybody back, and we played a pretty tough non-conference schedule to try to get us ready for this point.
“We’re still trying to figure some things out on both sides of the ball. You don’t want to be doing that this late, but we’ve got a lot of seniors. Those guys went to the quarterfinals as sophomores and the semifinals as juniors, so they’ve got some experience. It’s been a good year, but the real season starts now, so we’ll take it one game at a time and hopefully make a run.”
The Bearcats, whose lone losses this year have come at the hands of Harding Academy and Charleston, did not play last week after Cedarville forfeited, giving Booneville a week off before the start of the postseason.
Crowley is hoping that the postseason experience the Bearcats have will pay off against the Dragons, who moved up 15 freshmen that will be playing in their first postseason game.
“It definitely helps having seven playoff games under their belt,” Crowley said. “But at the same time, it’s 2022, so ’21 and ’20 don’t really mean anything. I think they’ll be able to lean on that experience a little bit. They’ve been there. They know what to expect. They know they’ve got to go out and play and not make any mistakes and try to advance to the next round.”
The Dragons have been on a roll down the stretch having won their last three games by a combined margin of 145-28 over Hampton, Horatio and Gurdon.
“That’s the good thing,” Junction City coach David Carpenter said. “We’ve had several good changes that we’ve made going into the last few weeks of the season and got us some good wins in there. An old statement I made years and years ago, ‘Winning helps.’ Whenever you win some games, that helps out the whole team morale and the way they feel about themselves. The best thing I can say about our guys is they could’ve easily folded up tent once we hit that stretch, but the thing about it was they continued to work and work hard and try to improve on what they were doing. They understood what was at stake for us. They continued to go.”
If there is one battle to watch, it will be in the trenches where Booneville’s ground game has rolled up over 3,300 yards.
“It’s a Wing-T variation,” Carpenter said. “They have folks in at a lot of different places. With the blocking scheme, a lot of it is Wing-T and a lot of it is a veer offense type like the offense Rison runs except they don’t have those backs back there. They’re set at different locations, but the blocking scheme is really the same as what Rison does.”
But Carpenter added that there is one reason why the Bearcats’ offense is so productive.
“The precision that they run it,” Carpenter said. “The offensive line is definitely one of the best ones that we’ve seen by the way that they move and how they come off and block. They look very good at that.
“With the backs, the way they run their offense, they use a lot of different formations, but the backs and the quarterbacks do an outstanding job of carrying out their fakes and once they get the ball, they can really run, so it’s a big challenge for our defense.”
Dax Goff, a junior, leads the charge with 1,564 yards and 21 touchdowns. He averages an astonishing 17.6 yards per carry and hasn’t been held under 100 yards yet this season.
“He’s a powerful runner,” Carpenter said. “He has speed that can go, and with all of the misdirection that they put on, they put him in the position to be able to be successful, going behind that offensive line and with the skills that the young man has, he does a good job. He’s a good running back.”
But Goff is hardly a one-man show.
Senior Trace Hall has 989 yards and 16 touchdowns while averaging 10.8 yards per carry, and senior Cody Elliott has 878 yards and 11 touchdowns while posting an average of 8.1 yards per carry.
“All of them are different types of backs,” Crowley said. “Our fullback kind of carries it more than most in this offense. We lost our returning fullback in Game 1 to Dollarway to a torn ACL, so this is actually our backup fullback (Elliott), and he’s come in and done a tremendous job. He’s only 5-7 and 160 pounds soaking wet, but he runs hard and gives you everything he has.
“He gets through the line quick. Our other two halfbacks, one of them is more of bruiser (Goff), the other one is kind of a shifty guy (Hall). It’s nice having three different guys back there. It’s just a different change of pace. Every time that you feel like you give it to one of them, they have the potential to make a big play. All three have worked really hard to get to this point, and I’m glad to see that hard paying off.”
Hall, who finished fifth in the 100-meter dash at the 3A state track meet last spring, gives the Bearcats a speedy weapon out of the backfield.
“He can run a little bit,” Crowley said. “He’s one of the faster kids we’ve had here for us in a while. He’s a senior, and he’s kind of had to wait his turn. This is his first year to start at running back for us. He’s having a good year.”
On the defensive side of the ball, Goff paces the Bearcats with 68 tackles, including 12 1/2 for a loss.
Senior Chase Plymale leads Booneville with three sacks, and Carpenter said the Dragons’ offense has its work cut out for it.
“They run a 3-4 looking defense,” Carpenter said. “They’re geared to stop the run predominantly, but they’ve had a little bit of trouble with the passing attack as in Charleston and Harding Academy. We throw the ball, but we’re more of a run team, so we’re going to have to do a lot of serious work this week to try to get everything that we’re trying to do in step.”
Crowley said the defensive line has been the key to the Bearcats’ success on that side of the ball.
“The defensive line has been the glue to that group,” Crowley said. “Most of those guys are seniors. Johnny Barnes, Brett Welling and Chase Plymale are our three mainstays up front. Those guys have done a really good job for us. Matt O’Bar is another one. David Hicks starts at nose tackle for us. We’ve got five or six guys on the D-line that play a substantial amount of snaps and I don’t feel like you lose anything when you bring one of them out to give them a break. They’ve done a really good job for us.”
Junction City senior quarterback Decoreon Dubose has been on a roll down the stretch, and in last week’s 31-0 win over Gurdon, he did a little bit of everything.
Dubose had 333 yards of total offense, including 231 yards passing with three scores. For added measure, he intercepted a pass on defense.
For Crowley, the Bearcats’ defense has to be able to make tackles to prevent big plays.
“They’re athletic,” Crowley said of the Dragons. “The quarterback is a very good player. They have a couple of good receivers out on the edge that they like to get the ball to. They make some plays. They can do enough to make you nervous. Being as athletic as they are, it scares you. You’ve got to try to get to the quarterback, if he’s going to run it or pull it down and run it, when you get there, you’ve got to make sure you break down and make a tackle and try to force some turnovers.”
When asked if Junction City compared to anyone that Booneville had played, Crowley said they didn’t.
“We haven’t seen anyone that’s as athletic as Junction City, I don’t think,” Crowley said. “Charleston has got some athletes, but nobody that’s out there on the edge that’s 6-4 and can jump and catch the football. They’re similar to Lavaca. They’re just more athletic.”
Junction City’s win was their third straight, and Carpenter was pleased with the balance in the passing game.
“Our guys were prepared fairly well for the game,” Carpenter said. “The coaches did a great job of putting in the offense and the defense and all of the different changes that we had to make on special teams. All three of those played a good part. We had only one mess-up on special teams and we got that corrected and everything went well for us from then on. That all plays into everything.
“Our receivers did a great job of catching the ball. We hit five different receivers, so Corey did a good job of reading and he checked down several times. That all helped us out. Our linebackers played a pretty solid game and the secondary did well. It was a good game for us to get ready to go into the playoffs.”
Booneville may have a decided advantage as far as playoff experience goes, but the few seniors the Dragons have are also well-versed in making deep postseason runs, and they have been discussing what to expect this week to the underclassmen.
“That’s the thing. They understand what’s at stake for us,” Carpenter said. “They know what we have to do. Once you hit the playoffs, you definitely have to up your game. When we came into practice on Friday, that was one of the key points that the upperclassmen were telling the younger guys, ‘We’ve got to step up with what we’re doing and continue to go.’”
Junction City had to make a lengthy road trip to Horatio last month, and Carpenter said that trip was beneficial in how the Dragons will handle their long trip today.
“We’ve got a good road trip ahead of us,” Carpenter said. “We’ll stop and break our trip up like we did going to Horatio where we’re not just sitting on the bus that long. That’s a big challenge for us. We’re glad we did do the Horatio trip because as we told the guys, ‘These are the kind of trips that we’re going to be making in the playoffs, so how we do and prepare for this game will help us out in the playoffs.’ They have an understanding now of what to do. It’s been several years since we’ve had to make a long trip in the playoffs. It was an experience for us learn what we have to do.”
As the Dragons and Bearcats prepare to meet for the first time in 36 years, Crowley recalled the impact the 1986 game has had in the community.
“That’s a neat deal,” Crowley said. “I think the last time Booneville and Junction City faced other was in 1986 up here in Booneville and Booneville won 6-0. It’s a game that’s still talked about to this day. If you look at the bracket, whoever comes out of this game, you’ve got Barton or Smackover waiting for you and then after that, maybe Osceola or whoever, so if you look at the names, there’s a lot of tradition in the top half of the bracket. It’s pretty cool to see.
“You get to play these teams that have had that success, had those runs and won state championships. It’s definitely a neat deal. When you think of tradition in high school football, to me the smaller school names kind of stand out more than the bigger school names, so it’s neat to face some of these teams.
“It’s small-town football and it’s the king around here. It’s just something a lot of people bring up come playoff time. They beat Junction City and went on to win their state championship. I think there’s a handful of games that people talk about throughout our program’s history, and that one is probably right near the top.”
For Booneville to advance, Crowley said the Bearcats must do two things.
“Taking care of the football and not giving up big plays,” Crowley said. “They’re capable of doing that. We’ve got to make sure we get our defense off the field and get our offense out there and try to take care of the ball, eat up some clock and get after it.”
For the Dragons, Carpenter said preparation would be the key.
“It’s the same thing every week,” Carpenter said. “Defensively, you’ve got to key all of your reads. That’s the stuff that we have to do. Offensively, when we throw the ball, we have to catch all of our reads correctly, the line has to block. All of the things that all of the coaches tell you. It’s the same thing every week, you just have to be prepared totally for what you’re doing.
“They’ve got to read scouting reports, check out everything that we have set up for them and then you have to remember the different formations and things that they do different options out of it, so we just have to be totally prepared for what we’re going and don’t take the long trip as a holiday. Get out there and get after it and play as hard as we can.”