Jack Robinson, Festus; Ethan Reissing, De Soto

Festus senior fullback Jack Robinson drags De Soto junior defender Ethan Reissing into the end zone for a touchdown in Friday night’s Class 4 District 1 game. The Tigers beat the Dragons 41-7. Robinson leads Festus with 13 touchdowns this year. 

That defense burned Dragons quarterback Briar Fischer for five interceptions and Festus, the district’s No. 4 seed, cruised to a 41-7 victory at home on Friday against the fifth seed.

Senior cornerback Austin Coale picked off Fischer three times, returning the first for a 35-yard touchdown with 3:41 left in the first quarter. Coale’s returns on the three picks covered 115 yards.

“I give all my credit to my coaches. We entered a new defensive scheme and we played a lot of man (-to-man coverage) this week,” Coale said. “(On the TD return) I stayed back and I knew (the De Soto receiver) was going to run a slant and I gave myself some space and I broke for it and got there at a good time. That’s my first varsity touchdown (on defense) and it was an amazing feeling.”

De Soto won its regular-season matchup at Tiger Stadium by a 38-20 score on Sept. 27, but without their first team all-Mississippi Area Football Conference Red Division QB in sync, the Dragons didn’t have a chance against a fired-up Tigers defense.

One of the hardest things head coaches have to do is say goodbye to their seniors when a season ends. Chris Johnson hugged and consoled the De Soto players after the loss and made sure they knew what they’d meant to a program that ended long losing streaks to Festus and Hillsboro this season.

“When you’re trying to get them to believe in a culture when they’re little freshmen, a way to approach things differently that’s not been done before, it’s hard to get them to understand that,” Johnson said of a group of seniors that finished 4-6 twice (including this year) and 5-5 two times. “We kept telling them to stay the course and it will eventually happen and it did. For four years, these seniors have grinded and showed up before school to lift weights. They stayed after school to lift. The character level is one of the highest I’ve ever had. To see that come to fruition is awesome.”

Festus head coach Russ Schmidt remembered the frustration of seeing the Dragons celebrate on the Tigers’ home field earlier this year.

“We were very disappointed with our effort the first time we played De Soto, but we had a great week of preparation this week and saw tonight what we’re capable of doing,” he said. “When we’re healthy, we’ve got a dynamite team.”

De Soto moved across midfield on the game’s first drive, but senior Jaden Rystrom intercepted a tipped pass at his own 25-yard line. Rystrom started the Tigers’ first series with a 14-yard gain and junior Collin Doyel rushed for 16 on the next play. Rystrom and fullback Jack Robinson carried the load into the red zone and Doyel finished the drive with an 11-yard touchdown run with 3:57 left in the first. Ryan Esparza hit the extra point for a 7-0 lead. Esparza made 5 of 6 PATs.

On the Dragons’ next play, Coale stepped in front of Fischer’s intended target in the flat and had clear sailing to the end zone.

Junior Ethan Reissing returned the ensuing kickoff 20 yards to the De Soto 45, but Fischer’s pass on third-and-16 was incomplete. The Dragons punted and Reissing recovered a fumble at the Festus 29. Senior running back Kameren Brooks gained 18 yards in the first play. On third-and-10, Fischer’s pass sailed high to an open Reissing in the back of the end zone. Bradley Hunt lined up for a field goal, but Brooks couldn’t handle the snap. However, the Tigers were called for a facemask and the Dragons had first-and-goal again. Junior Cayse Martin intercepted Fischer at the goal line on fourth-and-7.

Instead of cutting the lead in half, De Soto was pushed 98 yards in the opposite direction as Festus used 15 plays and 7:57 to take a 21-0 lead. Rystrom and Robinson combined to pick up 36 yards on the ground the first two plays and the Tigers were aided by a roughing the quarterback penalty on fourth-and-16. Robinson capped the drive with a 1-yard run with 3:20 left in the first half.

“That was the death march right there,” Schmidt said. “We talked about it on the headsets. Let’s take the ball down the field and eat the clock and get six points and that’s what we did. We overcame a penalty on that drive that set us back.”

“It was rough to watch,” Johnson said of the turnover at the Tigers’ goal line. “The last time we played them, we hit and clicked on the things we needed to. We got our receivers the ball and got points on the board. There are some nights when it doesn’t happen and that’s what happened tonight. It makes you sick to your stomach because we missed a chance there.”

Both teams were whistled for personal fouls on the Dragons’ next possession, which ended with three straight misfires by Fischer. The Tigers took over with 44 seconds left in the second and a 15-yard chop block on De Soto was the key to them scoring before halftime. Tight end Jordan Meczkowski got free in the end zone and sophomore QB Cole Rickermann found him for a 3-yard TD pass with seven seconds to go.

“We called a waggle and they jumped our running back (Collin Doyel) out of the backfield,” Schmidt said. “Jordan had a drag along the back of the end zone and they missed it. That was a great touchdown catch by our tight end.”

On the Tigers’ first play of the second half, and his first carry of the game, junior Cayden Glaze rumbled 77 yards for a touchdown to essentially put the game away. The Dragons blocked Esparza’s kick and Festus had a 34-0 lead.

Fischer completed passes for 15 yards to Brooks and 25 to sophomore Caleb Coleman before Coale intercepted him in the Tigers’ end zone.

Robinson carried the ball four times for 40 yards and started the running clock with an 18-yard run with 2:09 left in the third.

The mercy timing rule was in effect when Fischer hit Brooks for a 55-yard pass and 33-yard TD to Reissing with 1:46 in the fourth.

“Briar is a great kid and he extends plays,” Schmidt said. “That’s backyard football and that’s what we practiced this week. We ran around relentlessly playing seven-on-seven and that proved very profitable.”

Festus takes a 5-5 record to Farmington (No. 1) for the district semifinals. The Knights are 7-2 and their two losses were to Jackson and Lutheran North, who are a combined 20-0. The Tigers won in Farmington last year 28-21 in the same round.