With 10 new starters on defense this season, few expected the Carthage football team to finish the regular season 7-2.
Especially after the Tigers fell to 2-2 with losses to Webb City and Ozark in which Carthage allowed a minimum of 65 points.
But since the loss at Ozark on Sept. 14, Carthage hasn't lost a game, and the Tigers' defense hasn't allowed more than 22 points in a contest.
"I don't know if I've ever been a part of a team that has improved as much as this team has, from the beginning of the year to now," Carthage head coach Jon Guidie said. "They've made great strides. A lot of that was simply lack of experience and as those kids gained experienced each week, they got better and better and I thought the coaching staff did a great job of staying with them. They kept teaching and kept coaching and right now we're playing pretty good football."
Guidie said a big part of the improvement is due to the character of those defensive starters.
"Absolutely," he said. "They could have folded. There were back to back weeks where we gave up 60-plus points in weeks three and four, and the first week we gave up 47. Everybody was doubting them and there was a lot of negativity surrounding that side. Those kids kept their composure, kept fighting and here we are."
Carthage finished the regular season with a 49-22 win at home against Willard last week, and the Tigers finished third in the Class 4, District 4 bracket. Undefeated Webb City earned the top seed, 8-1 Hillcrest finished second, and 4-5 Republic finished fourth, while McDonald County, Marshfield, Carl Junction and West Plains finished fifth through eighth.
Quarterback Jordan Musser finished the regular season with 1,817 passing yards and 22 touchdowns while completing 75 of 125 attempts. E.J. Morgan has been the Tigers' leading receiver, with 39 catches for 790 yards and 11 touchdowns, while running back Seth Beckner has 23 catches for 742 yards and 10 scores.
Beckner gained 1,592 rushing yards on 181 carries with 21 touchdowns, and Cameron Priester tallied 545 yards and 10 scores on 61 rushes.
While other local teams are facing a rematch against a regular-season opponent in the first round of district play tonight, Carthage will host a stranger in 3-6 Marshfield. The Tigers haven't faced the Bluejays during Guidie's eight-year tenure, and Carthage is preparing for an aerial assault.
"We haven't seen that type of style of offense either," Guidie said. "We don't see that around here. They're no-huddle, spread it out, empty sets, zinging it all over the place. They have a very capable quarterback in Blayne Armstrong, a 6'4 kid who's a Division 1 prospect. He was 23 of 24 last week against Springfield Catholic. They have very good receivers and all four of them can play. Two of them can play for anybody. It's a whole new challenge for us defensively."
Page 2 of 2 - Armstrong completed 176 of 276 passes for 1,853 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, with Logan Findley and Willie Totten catching most of them. Findley has 56 catches for 735 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Totten has 52 catches for 575 yards and three scores.
"It is what it is for us," Guidie said. "We're not particularly deep anywhere, and defensively you just have to apply pressure. You can't let him just stand back there and pick you apart because he will, he's that good. Your defensive backs have got to stay in coverage."
The Tigers have seen Marshfield line up in two different defensive fronts this season, including a 4-4 front early on.
"I think by this point in the season our offensive line is pretty solid at recognizing fronts and being able to adjust," Guidie said.
Should Carthage win, the Tigers are looking at a probable road game against Springfield Hillcrest next week, assuming Hillcrest defeats seventh-seed Carl Junction tonight, but Guidie is only concerned with Marshfield.
"We have to play as intense and as focused to start the game defensively as we do in the second half," he said. "We've been playing very good defense in the second half, but it takes us awhile to understand the game speed. That's what we're focusing on.
"It's always nice to play here, it really is," he said. "I wish we could have taken care of business and got that second seed, but we get the first playoff game here which is important and it is what it is after that."