The Mark Twain football team overcame a lengthy losing funk to move one win away from its third straight berth into the district championship.
The Mark Twain football team hit rock bottom Sept. 29 when Montgomery County soared to a three-touchdown blowout to hand the Tigers their sixth consecutive defeat.
But coach Karl Asbury's team didn't quit.
Three weeks later, Mark Twain (4-6) finds itself in completely different territory — winner of three straight and one game away from its third straight berth into the Class 1 District 5 championship.
“Honestly it's a big boost the way we've been playing,” junior Nathan Davenport said. “Once we realized we do have talent with the players we have, we got to being what we could be and that's when we started picking things up.”
The success began Oct. 6 with a 35-14 win over Van-Far during which the Tigers rattled off 373 yards rushing.
It was the start of a new trend.
Mark Twain ran for 470 yards on 40 carries en route to a 59-14 win at Clopton/Elsberry in the regular season finale to secure a No. 4 seed in the district.
Last Friday in a 36-32 comeback win over Knox County in the district quarterfinals, running back Jace Barton ran the ball 29 times for 212 yards and three touchdowns, while quarterback Lincoln Talbott ran for 125 more and a score.
Talbott connected with receiver Conner Grossmann late in the fourth quarter for the only touchdown by either team in the second half.
“Everyone wants to peak at the right time at the end, and that's where we are right now,” Asbury said. “We've got a good nucleus, and we're playing well at the right time.”
Coming up next for Mark Twain is a road test against the best squad it's faced all season: undefeated Monroe City, the No. 1 ranked team in the state.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Friday in Monroe City.
This will be the fourth straight year Mark Twain and Monroe City have met in the playoffs. Monroe City won 56-18 in 2014 before the Tigers won 42-0 in 2015. The Panthers were 28-12 victors a year ago.
“They're a very good football team,” Asbury said of Monroe City. “You look at the records and maybe it shouldn't be a close game, but you never know what happens. Last weekend in college football, seven teams got upset. We're going to go out there and try our best, and hopefully that's enough.”
After starting 1-6, the Tigers share their coach's optimism entering the semifinal matchup. They've already overcome their share of odds this season.
Mark Twain features a roster full of youth, including a pair of sophomores who have stepped up on both sides of the ball: Barton, the Tigers leading rusher, and Avery Epperson, a linebacker who is tops in tackles.
The sophomore class proved it could win together when they went undefeated in their final junior high season.
Now it's a matter of proving themselves at the next level.
“We've been playing ball since we were little-bitty together, and we've just kind of merged as a team,” Epperson said. “We definitely have started to execute and come together as a team to win ballgames.”
While starters including Talbott, Grossmann and top lineman Aidan Epperson will be lost due to graduation after this season, the majority of Asbury's crew will return next year with a season of valuable experience under their belt.
“Experience does play a big part,” Asbury said. “By Week 8, 9 and 10, these guys have now got experience and they're seeing that growth that we've been wanting.”
As of late, they've been getting the desired results, too.
“We went on that 6-game losing streak, and we were all like, 'We've got to win a game somehow,'” Avery Epperson said. “Then we worked hard in practice and finally started winning. It's contagious.”
Mark Twain faces a tall order Friday against last year's state runner-up. The Tigers, however, enter the game with more confidence than even they could have imagined one month ago.
“It's going to take a lot of hard work and a lot of dedication, and there's probably going to be a lot of adversity we're going to be facing,” Davenport said of Friday. “But I think if we play hard-nose football like we can it'll be a good game.”