Facing a third-and-15 and leading 14-3, Rock Bridge needed a big play to keep the pressure on Francis Howell. Quarterback Grant Hajicek dropped back, scanned his options and zipped a laser pass over the middle to Hunter Warford for 17 yards. First down, Rock Bridge.

Warford’s catch kept alive a drive that would eventually cover 99 yards, end with a Nate Peat touchdown run, and give the Bruins a commanding 21-3 lead. Rock Bridge sustained four scoring drives of over 60 yards and defeated Francis Howell 35-10 on Friday night, punching the Bruins’ ticket to the district championship game.

In this playoff rematch held in south Columbia, there was no white-knuckle fourth quarter that gripped fans like when the two teams played two weeks ago in the regular-season finale. By the time the clock read triple zeros, the only thing gripping fans in the stadium were other scores from across the state.

The Bruins, who haven’t lost since early September, will face Blue Springs next week at home for the district championship, the first time the program will play for hardware since 2013.

“It’s something most of the players on this team haven’t experienced,” junior Peyton Carr said. Carr, who replaced Nate Peat in the second half, gained 71 yards on 10 carries, to the delight of his teammates and the crowd.

Carr intercepted Howell quarterback Aidan McDaniel early in the fourth quarter, and then capped off the ensuing Rock Bridge drive with a 5-yard touchdown to give his team a 28-3 lead. It was now a question of when, not if, for Bruins fans, who will see their program play for the district championship just two years removed from a two-win season.

“It’s huge,” Rock Bridge coach Van Vanatta said. “Last year, we lost in the second round, and we’re just trying to build this program up and take the next step.”

Vanatta had reason to be excited, and sang his team the highest praises after the game as he had all season. The Bruins opened the game by allowing a field goal, and would not allow any more points until Daylan Dalton scored at the end of the game.

The Bruins responded to Howell’s first field goal with a 66-yard drive, capped off by Marcus Manuel’s catch over two defenders in the corner of the end zone. The Spartans started to inflict damage to themselves, missing two field goals and tossing an interception to senior Javelle Sanders.

A 9-yard touchdown run by Nate Peat with 1 minute, 8 seconds left before the half gave Rock Bridge a 14-3 lead.

“We weren’t a one-man show tonight,” Vanatta said. “Our kids stepped up to the plate and they gave everything they had.”

After allowing 198 yards to Howell running back Gideon Niboh in the regular season finale, the Bruins’ defense consistently knocked him down behind the line of scrimmage. He finished with minus-1 rushing yards on the night, and Howell largely gave up on trying to run the ball in the second half.

“I wouldn’t say that we changed our whole scheme on defense, but we definitely shifted some things to shut him down,” Carr said. “We moved some things around back there.”

Carr and the secondary were playing hard for the win, but also for Martez Manuel, who had to sit the game out because a targeting penalty he was assessed in Rock Bridge’s win over Francis Howell Central last week.

“He put everything on the line for us on the play he went out on, so we just had to go all out for him,” Carr said. “It’s amazing to have him back next week.”

“He came up and smiled and said ‘I’ve got 48 more minutes, coach’, and I said ‘You better go love those boys up,’ ’cause they fought hard for him,” Vanatta said.

Next Friday, Vanatta’s team will face Blue Springs, who won 31-21 over local Kansas City rival Blue Springs South this Friday.

As he spoke to his team, Vanatta emphasized to his players that the win had bought them 48 more minutes of football and nothing else. Anything more, he said, has to be earned next Friday night.

Supervising editor is Theo DeRosa.

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