NEW MADRID -- Two of the top four teams in Missouri Class 3A will collide Saturday when Salem travels to New Madrid County Central for a semifinal showdown at 1:30 p.m.
Salem (11-1) brings a solid postseason tradition, having reached the final four the last four seasons.
Running the triple option out of a Wishbone set, the Tigers have gained 4,121 yards and scored 51 touchdowns, beating their opponents by an average score of 33 to 9 this year.
"We're just happy to be where we're at," said Salem coach Bill Schuchardt. "We've over-lived our expectations of what we thought the season would be. Our kids are playing real solid and real hard together."
For NMCC, this level of the playoffs is a first. Still, head coach Steve Rogers feels his team belongs. The Eagles are hoping to replace Salem in the state championship game.
"These guys have worked hard since August to get where they're at right now," he explained. "If we can cut down on mistakes and take care of the football, we're going to be in the ballgame. We haven't been embarrassed all year."
The Eagles' top priority is containing Salem fullback Joe Harris. The 6-foot-1, 229-pound junior has rushed for 1,250 yards, averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
"Their best play is a quick, fullback dive," said Rogers. "Everything revolves around their big fullback. If we can stop him, we definitely will force them to do some things they're not accustomed to doing. When he's diving, it pulls everybody in and their play action works. Their outside option and wide game then works."
Salem's gameplan is no secret.
"We're going to lineup in the Wishbone and we're going run the triple option," said Schuchardt. "That's what we've done for the last 21 years. Our gameplan is to run the football. If we can't do that, we're probably in big trouble."
The Tigers do have to deal with some adversity.
Starting quarterback Tyler Dillon went down with a torn ligament in his right knee in Monday night's win over Duchesne, and will not play.
The 6-foot-3, 165-pound junior has played an important part in the offense all season, rushing for 795 yards with 15 touchdowns and passing for 352 with 6 TDs.
"I would say that is a major blow," said Schuchardt. "You're taking out a kid that has started 12 games at quarterback for us. It's a great challenge for our program, but it is only high school football. We will overcome that."
The Tigers will look to senior backup Chris Case (5-11, 168) to step in and fill the void. Case has carried the ball just once this year and attempted just three passes.
"We have a lot of confidence in him," said Schuchardt. "Our success has been due to a total team effort on offense, defense, and special teams. It's not a one-man show, or just one side of the ball. It's getting everybody involved and coming together."
Halfbacks Matt Wisdom (5-10, 165) and Eli Connell (6-1, 192) also carry the ball on a regular basis. Wisdom has 907 yards on the season, while Connell has gained 703.
Tight end Craig Pryor (6-2, 175) leads the receiving corps with seven catches for 159 yards.
"They're a real good football team," said Rogers. "We will have our work cut out for us to play with them on Saturday."
Defensively, Salem will be one of the best NMCC has seen all year. Linebackers Michael Sankovitch (6-1, 195) and Brian Steelman (5-7, 188) have both put together outstanding seasons. Sankovitch leads the team in tackles with 122, while Steelman checks in with 118.
Nose guard Will Mahurin (6-2, 205) has 97 tackles with six sacks, and defensive tackle Justin Frankenreiter (6-0, 210) has 73 tackles with two sacks.
"They're not just a one-man team by any stretch of the imagination," said Rogers. "They've got a real good defense and excellent special teams. They've been in the (semifinals) four years in a row, and it's no coincidence. They're a well-coached, well-disciplined team."
While the playoff experience would seem to be an advantage, Salem downplays its significance.
"I doesn't matter if you've been in 100 of these games," said Schuchardt. "At 1:30, somebody is going to kickoff and we're going to play. Everybody makes a big deal out of us being in the final four for the last four years, but I don't think being there has anything to do with it. These are high school kids who get excited about playing football. I think both sides are pretty excited about it."
NMCC (11-1) can definitely be excited about the banner season it has had up to this point. Along with winning the school's first quarterfinal game, several records have fallen along the way.
Running back Dereke Tipler beat out former greats Kelvin Anderson and Ricky Smith, setting school records for yards in a career (3,615) and touchdowns in a career (58). He has 30 touchdowns this season.
Quarterback Brian Murph has also put up gaudy stats, passing for 1,034 yards while rushing for 637.
Wide receiver/running back Desmond Sims, lineman Chad Nolen, linebacker Lionel Smith and defensive back George Strickland have also played at an all-state level this season.
"(Murph) has done an excellent job for us," said Rogers. "He throws the ball well, and he runs the offense well. When things break down, he can make things happen with his legs. Desmond is a Division-I athlete, whether we play him at running back or receiver. Dereke is a returning all-state running back, and has carried the majority of the load for us. Then you've got George Strickland, Terrance Smith, and a number of other guys that have stepped up bigtime for us this year."
Against a very good schedule, the Eagles have put up 463 points, while allowing 190.
"I expect to see a very skillful football team that has great athletic ability," said Schuchardt. "They're very well-coached. They're a team that is hungry for a state championship. They've been working on this for about three years with this group of kids. They think it's their turn."
NMCC's only loss of the season came against Sikeston (6-4) back on Oct. 5. The defeat appeared to wake the sleeping giant, as the Eagles rattled off six straight wins.
"Big things were expected this year," said Rogers. "It has been fun so far, and I expect a great effort out of the guys Saturday."
Salem's only loss came the same week against West Plains. The Tigers have won six straight, including an overtime thriller over Versailles in the sectional round.
"We haven't played anybody like (NMCC) all year," said Schuchardt. "I'm sure they've played a lot better people that we have. They're a good football team. We've got a decent team and we're coming to play."