NEW MADRID -- New Madrid County Central sent Salem home, and now they're headed to the dome.
Speed and athleticism trumped Salem's vaunted ground attack in Saturday's Class 3A semifinal, as the Eagles gutted out a 43-23 victory on an unusually hot November afternoon.
With 2:22 left in regulation, NMCC dumped the coolers on first-year coach Steve Rogers and his assistants as the celebration began.
"Nothing compares to this," said Rogers. "This is the greatest feeling I've ever had in football. Just to see the guys go out and execute our gameplan, as much as I like to talk, it's still hard to describe. I'm shell shocked, I'm fatigued, I'm whipped and I'm wet, but I'm a happy man. We're going to the dome."
NMCC (12-1) will now face No. 1 ranked Platte County at the TWA Dome in St. Louis for the state championship Friday at 3:15 p.m.
"We beat a very good football team today," said Rogers. "They've got a very rich tradition, and have been in the semifinals for the last four years. We caught a couple of breaks, took advantage of some matchups, and fortunately the ball bounced our way. It was a great ballgame."
NMCC quarterback Brian Murph led the charge, pulling the Eagles out of several jams by making big plays all day. He completed 5-of-8 passes for 129 yards with two TDs. He also broke loose in the third quarter for a 56-yard touchdown run. "I'm partial, but Murph is the best all-around quarterback in the area," said Rogers. "You've got guys that can throw the ball for 1,500 yards and you've got option quarterbacks that run for 900 or more yards. (Murph) is the total package. I've been tooting his horn since the beginning of camp, and now maybe people will finally start believing he is an excellent, excellent quarterback."
Dereke Tipler, NMCC's career rushing leader, was in usual form. He scored two touchdowns in the game, finishing with 138 yards on just 12 carries. Wideout Desmond Sims caught four passes for 104 yards and scored two TDs.
"The team that had the best athletes won," said longtime Salem coach Bill Schuchardt. "They did exactly what everybody says they do. Sometimes it looks like sandlot, but they get six points out of it. They get themselves in a hole, but they've got good enough athletes to get out of it."
As expected, fullback Joe Harris was the heart and soul of Salem's offense. The 6-foot-1, 229-pound bruiser rushed for 71 yards in the first half but struggled in the second, finishing with 92 yards on 21 carries.
"Joe was pretty well spent by the second half," said Schuchardt. "Once (NMCC) knew that was what we were going to do, they really loaded up the middle and brought the blitzes. And we couldn't get to the perimeter."
Said Rogers, "Once we got him stopped, they starting throwing the ball, running option and doing some things they didn't want to do. We felt like we were in control of the ballgame at that point."
Salem flexed its muscle early. After the Eagles failed to convert on 4th-and-1 on their opening drive, the Tigers used Harris to chip the ball down to the Eagle 20.
From there, running back Matt Wisdom broke free for a 20-yard score to put Salem up 7-0. On NMCC's second possession, the Eagles were able to move the ball down to the Salem 7 before the drive stalled, and kicker Jake Kimball missed a 24-yard field goal on his first attempt of the season.
Salem had the momentum, but quickly lost it, as backup quarterback Chris Case fumbled the snap and NMCC recovered. Case was filling in for starting quarterback Tyler Dillon, who was out with a torn ligament in his right knee.
"We had some costly penalties and turnovers," said Schuchardt. "You've got to play clean when you're in the state semifinals, and we didn't. We made some mistakes."
NMCC took full advantage of the field position as Murph hooked up with Sims for a 32-yard touchdown strike. Murph then improvised after a botched snap on the PAT, throwing a pass to Vaughn Shephard to put the Eagles up 8-7.
After forcing a Salem punt, Murph went back to the air early in the second quarter, hooking up with Tipler for a 25-yard gain on another busted play.
The pass set up a 40-yard touchdown run by Tipler to increase the Eagle lead to 15-7. Salem was able to answer the score with a successful 80-yard drive that was kept alive with a confusing penalty on a Salem punt.
"(NMCC) clipped while it was still a loose ball," explained Schuchardt. "There was no change of possession at that time, so the penalty was enforced from the previous spot, and it gave us a first down."
When it was all said and done, the officials gave Salem the ball on the NMCC 35. The Tigers moved the ball down to the 1, then Harris punched it in. Harris followed with a conversion run to knot the score at 15 with 2:02 left in the half. The Eagles were able to put one more score on the board before the break as Murph found Sims for a 10-yard TD pass to make it 22-15. The Tigers' only completion came at the final second as Tim Fain hauled in a 50-yarder.
Salem opened the second half with a bang as Wisdom returned the kickoff 67 yards. The Tigers were unable to put together a scoring drive though, and things quickly went downhill from a Salem standpoint.
Murph increased the lead to 29-15 with a 56-yard touchdown run to bring NMCC fans to their feet. But the crowd got even louder after the score, as a bald eagle unbelievably soared over the stadium with seven minutes left in the third quarter.
After another Salem punt, NMCC put together 64-yard drive capped off by a 1-yard TD by Tipler. Midway through the fourth quarter, NMCC scored its final touchdown as speed merchant Terrance Smith intercepted a Case pass and returned it 35 yards to paydirt.
Salem's second string was able to tack on another touchdown in the final moments of the game to make the final score 43-23.
NMCC hasn't gotten the best fan support in recent years, but that wasn't the case for Saturday's game. The stands were full and people were lined all along the gates on both sides, creating the kind of atmosphere the game deserved.
"I've coached most of these kids since eighth grade, and I love them like my sons," said Rogers. "I came into town today and saw all the signs hanging up and starting bawling in the cab of my truck. I had to drive around the football field two or three times to get myself together, because I didn't want the kids to see me crying like that. Our whole coaching staff loves these young men. Coach (Jim) White does a great job with the line, Coach (Arlen) Pixley and Coach (Matt) Hartman do a great job with the offense, and Coach (John) Jones does a great job with our defense. It helps to have great players, but I'm also fortunate to have a great coaching staff." NMCC will definitely have its hands full against undefeated Platte County in the state championship game Friday. The Pirates are 13-0, and have been favored to win 3A all year.
They defeated Salem in the state championship game last season 32-9, and beat Carl Junction in Saturday's other semifinal game, 36-6.
"(NMCC) has earned the right to go play for the state championship," said Schuchardt. "(Platte County coach) Chip Sherman is one of my best friends. They play very strong and aggressive football, and they have a lot more speed than we do. It's going to be a very physical game. I don't know if they've got as many quality athletes as (NMCC) does, but they've got about seven state championship wrestlers playing for them. They're very strong. I'm paying eight bucks to go watch the game. It's going to be exciting."