BONNE TERRE, Mo. — Take a long road trip to unfamiliar territory on a cold, grey November afternoon, coupled with the realization they were a step away from playing at Faurot Field for a state championship, and it’s understandable if the Hannibal football players needed a moment to get acclimated.
Two first quarter fumbles led to a 14-7 deficit, but Aneyas Williams and company took over in the second quarter and Hannibal defeated North County 42-26 Saturday in the Class 4 state semifinals and will play for a state title for the second time in program history.
Afterward, the Pirates experienced the gamut of emotions — from relief to overwhelming elation.
“It’s a little bit of everything,” senior linebacker/wide receiver Tyler Hardy said. “We’re not ready to be done yet. We have a job to do, and that is to win state.”
The Pirates (13-0) will face Smithville (12-0) at 11 a.m. Friday on the University of Missouri campus in Columbia. Smithville rallied to beat MICDS in Friday’s semifinal, scoring three times in the final eight minutes for a 40-36 victory.
“It feels great,” Hannibal quarterback Courtland Watson said. “It’s great for our team, our community and our school to go to state. It just feels so great to do that.”
This will be the Warriors’ second state title game appearance as well. Smithville lost to Midway 24-0 in Class 1A in 1969. Hannibal’s other championship game appearance came in 2006 when the Pirates lost 26-0 to Webb City in Class 4.
“It feels great,” Hardy said. “It’s the first time in 15 years we’ve been able to have so much success and do what we do best.”
The Pirates’ best attribute Saturday was resiliency.
The Raiders opted not to boot the opening kickoff in Williams’ direction, instead squibbing a ball the Pirates couldn’t handle. North County recovered the fumble in Hannibal territory and wasted no time taking the lead.
Raiders quarterback Nolan Reed, who had more than 900 yards rushing coming into the game, did most of the damage on the opening drive and cashed in from a yard out to put North County up 7-0.
“We had to come together and we had to chat about what we needed to do and what we needed to get done,” Hardy said. “We don’t hang our heads. If we make a bad play, we just brush it off and we’re right back to it again.”
North County squibbed the kick again, and while Hannibal bobbled it, the Pirates ended up keeping the ball and needed only two plays to tie the game.
A.J. Thomas burst up the middle for 30 yards to the North County 33 and Pirates quarterback Courtland Watson hit Williams on a screen pass that the sophomore took the distance to make it 7-7.
North County answered almost as quickly. Reed continued to do the bulk of the work and cashed in on an 8-yard touchdown run to put the Raiders back up 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
Thomas pounded the middle of the North County defense on several runs early in the second quarter and was able to tie the game again on a 4-yard touchdown run, making it 14-14.
“It took a lot of determination,” Watson said. “I think we had to face adversity. We were playing pretty sloppy. But we faced adversity and overcame that. It shows how great our team really is, honestly.”
After the Hannibal defense came up with a three-and-out, Williams took over.
Williams ran the next touchdown in from 32 yards out. Watson then hit Williams on another screen pass, this one from 53 yards out to put Hannibal up 28-14.
North County added a field goal late in the quarter to make it 28-17 at the half.
The Raiders came out running in the second half and plowed down the field in five plays, with Clayton Chandler banging it in from 2 yards out. The failed two-point try made it 28-23, but North County grabbed a field goal on its next possession as the Hannibal offense bogged down, with Williams getting stuffed on a fourth-and-2 play.
With Hannibal leading 28-26, they were able to get the offense back on track in the fourth quarter.
Following a Pirate drive that ended with a Watson pick in the Raider end zone, the Hannibal defense forced a three and out.
A shanked punt gave Hannibal the ball in North County territory and Watson hit Williams on a 33-yard bomb to put Hannibal up 34-26.
As the Pirates were preparing for the extra point, North County head coach Brian Jones got into it with the officials and was tossed from the game. He was escorted from the field by law enforcement and then law enforcement returned to escort the officials away after the game, according to Bill Shuler, who called the game for KICK-FM.
North County continued to mount penalties for the remainder of the game, and then as the Raiders made their way deep into Pirate territory, Tyler Hardy came up with a fumble after Reed was rocked by a Hannibal blitz.
If that turnover wasn’t the backbreaker, then it would come two plays later.
On second and 7 from their own 30-yard line, Williams took the handoff, went up the middle, bounced to the outside and raced 70 yards for a state title game-sealing touchdown run.
it was his fifth touchdown of the game to go with 122 yards rushing and 137 yards receiving.
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