Branson’s visit to Willard on October 10, 2014.
WILLARD – On a field that resembled a muddy country road, Forrest Merrill and company moved some earth.
The Willard Tigers controlled the line of scrimmage on offense and defense, braved their way through the rain and the mud, scored 23 first-quarter points and defeated Branson 36-0 Friday night at Tiger Stadium.
The home crowd delighted in the win two weeks removed from Willard’s 46-15 loss to Webb City, a game in which the Tigers say taught them vauable lessons.
At 6-foot-1, 320 pounds, Merrill earned News-Leader All-USA Ozarks preseason honors. After the muddy senior night win, he posed for a photo with his buddies from the line.
“We’re all pretty close, a brotherhood really,” Merrill said.
Four of the front five are seniors who blocked for a backfield trio — of Hunter Yeargan, Robert Richmond and Kyle Smith — that rushed for a combined 191 yards and three touchdowns in about three quarters of work. Senior center Austin McMillen called it a special night for the linemen.
“We’ve known this class has had something special ever since seventh grade, and so it feels really good to come out and perform,” McMillen said.
Despite a loss on its record, Willard (7-1, 5-1) ranks No. 5 in the state in Class 5. The loss came to the No. 1 Class 4 team.
“Webb City, we kind of knew what we had coming that night,” senior offensive tackle Connor Jones said. “We did the best we could playing with them.
“We learned a lot, and we learned a lot just by watching what we do,” McMillen said. “We’ve kind of changed the way we play and we play a little faster now.”
Yeargan gained 104 yards on 13 carries. His longest was a 79-yard touchdown more complicated than Friday night’s weather forecast.
Yeargan took a direct snap and rumbled right, saw that he was contained, doubled back 10 yards, picked up block and turned a corner. He eventually ran over defender and down the left sideline all the way to the end zone.
Give some credit to Yeargan’s blockers, and some credit to Webb City’s linemen.
“(Webb City) were just really good at getting downfield and getting to the second level, and we’ve adopted that at practice and we’ve been working really hard,” McMillen said.
Willard coach Brock Roweton says the loss to Webb City taught his players about giving good effort and having a great attitude.
“Success can be hard, and we saw a really good team that has been really good for a really long time, and they were hungry,” Roweton said. “I think that helped us recognize that we need to play like them, and we need to try to match their level of focus and intensity.”
While Merrill and Jones are road grading tackles, another senior is a heavy equipment operator.
“Tyler Larsen is our guard and he’s kind of an unsung hero,” Roweton said. “He does a lot for our offense and he’s very intelligent, he makes sure that everybody knows what’s going on.”
Branson coach Dan Henderson was impressed with Willard.
“They’re big, they’re huge, and their backs — they’re all big,” Henderson said.
Branson played without junior quarterback Zac Funderburk, who broke his thumb last week. The Pirates moved sophomore Hunter Werling for his first start at QB.
“(Werling) did a great job. He’s a sophomore kid, and we threw him into the fire, and I felt like that gives us the best chance,” Henderson said. “We’re looking to try to find some positives.”
Branson plays host to Webb City next Friday.
Willard plays a 6-2 Carthage team stinging from a loss to Nixa.