After a faltering start to the Class 6 2019 MSHSAA championship game, the De Smet Jesuit High School football team turned the corner for a 35-20 victory against Joplin.
De Smet head coach Robert Steeples, a member of the school’s only other championship football team, was quick after the game to thank God and cite the team’s faith in overcoming adversity.
Steeples said: “The first thing I want to say is to thank God. Thank God for the adversity. Thank God for these young men and the opportunity to coach them. We’ve always emphasized keeping faith and character first.”
By stressing those things, he tells his players, everything else will fall into place, including a state championship.
Quarterback Michael Wheeler said his four years with the team has taught him many lessons, which he attributes to God. “He’s always been there for me. This team is special, and I thank God for that,” Wheeler said.
Joplin scored on its first drive, a third-down, 66-yard screen pass. De Smet missed two field-goal attempts after getting deep in the Joplin territory. Then Joplin scored again on a 13-play drive. Things looked bad for De Smet, but the team kept plugging away. After a big stop on defense, Rico Barfield rushed for a touchdown after a six-play drive to put De Smet on the scoreboard.
Joplin’s Zach Westmoreland slashed De Smet’s defense with two receptions and a score to plus a catch for a two-point conversion to put his team ahead 20-7. De Smet came back with a quick drive on a 3-yard TD pass to Ra’Shod Smith-Harvey to end the half trailing 20-14.
After the slow start, Steeples said, the focus turned to keeping players’ motivated. At halftime, the message was to “give it everything we have.”
De Smet appeared to do just that, scoring 21 unanswered points in the second half. They piled up 544 yards on offense. Wheeler threw for 206 yards. Barfield rushed for 116 yards, Taj Butts added 99, Michael Weeler had 66 and Darez Snider gained 46 yards on the ground. Jordan Johnson led De Smet with 84 yards on five catches.
Wheeler praised his teammates, noting that “our defense had our backs.”
Steeples said it seemed like an eternity before the game concluded. He praised Joplin for giving it their best shot. Both teams, he said, showed character and resiliency that should make the state proud.
The Spartans’ coach praised all facets of his team, especially the defense for forcing three fumbles and two interceptions. To lead a team to a championship is “a life-altering accomplishment” and also is humbling, Steeples said.
He cited De Smet’s soccer team’s recent state title and last season’s baseball team’s championship as setting the tone for his team.
Carter Edwards, a junior linebacker for De Smet, said the varsity struggled his freshman year, and it was important to the players to turn things around. “We’ve faced so much adversity, not just on the field but off the field, so this feels amazing,” he said.
Prayer sets the tone for the team as well as a theme of “I got your back. We always have someone’s back just like God’s got our back,” Edwards said.
De Smet had only one close game this season, a 32-31 win over Chaminade College Prep. The Spartans racked up four shutouts, including the semifinal win, and never scored less than 31 points in a game.
The teams, De Smet and Joplin, had identical 13-0 records entering the game at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium in Columbia. De Smet had scored 45.2 points a game and Joplin average 49.4. De Smet’s defense allowed only 7.7 points a game, and Joplin allowed 20.5 on average.
De Smet defeated Raymore-Peculiar 37-0 on Nov. 23 to reach the finals. Earlier in the playoffs, De Smet defeated Francis Howell, Christian Brothers College High School and Pattonville by wide margins.
De Smet previously won the state championship in 2005 and has been in the final four just two other times, 2010 and 1975.