Josh Caldwell didn’t experience many victories, big or small, during his time at Lee’s Summit North. The Broncos only won two games his senior year, after all.
So when Caldwell’s Missouri team rallied for a thrilling 22-21 victory over the Kansas squad June 19 in the 23rd annual Country Mart Kansas vs. Missouri High School Football All-Star Game, the Broncos running back savored a celebration worthy of a state championship.
“You don’t how much it means to me,” Caldwell said among the happy throng of Missouri players on the field at Blue Springs High School’s Peve Stadium. “I didn’t win very many games in high school.”
Caldwell got to do more than take part in a celebration though. He played a key role in sparking a Missouri offense that struggled through the first half. When Missouri decided it could get yardage running up the middle, Caldwell was ready to do so. He finished with a game-best 64 yards on 14 carries and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown that almost completed Missouri’s comeback.
“We figured out they weren’t as good as we thought they were (up the middle), so we were like, ‘Hey guys, we’re going to run it right down their throats,” Caldwell said. “We just had to stay calm, stick together and hopefully win it back.”
Missouri stayed calm despite falling behind 14-0 midway through the second quarter. At that point Missouri had only one first down, which came on a 9-yard Caldwell run.
“Even though they were backed in a corner, we knew they were going to scratch and claw their way back into the ballgame,” Missouri coach Greg Smith said. “We went in the locker room, made some adjustments, the kids came out and I had belief in them. It was too early to go into panic mode.”
Missouri got on the board in the final minute of the first half on a 14-yard run by Ezra Vaoifi of Fort Osage, and tied the game when quarterback Matthew McCullough of St. Joseph LeBlond threw a 26-yard TD pass to Grain Valley’s Hunter Ramirez with 8:14 left in the third quarter. Vaoifi’s two-point conversion made it 14-14.
It took Kansas less than a minute to go back on top 21-14 on a 67-yard TD pass from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Danten Cosentino to Shawnee Mission South’s Nick Oliver. The score remained 21-14 until Caldwell bulled through the left side for a 4-yard TD with 9:05 to go in the fourth quarter.
Fort Osage lineman Dalton Miller paved the way for Caldwell, who rushed for 1,182 yards and seven TDs his senior year.
“I just told him I’m going to follow you into the end zone,” Caldwell said. “He pulled, I saw him, he hit the block and I separated from him and got in.”
Caldwell’s score didn’t force a tie because Missouri, which lost its starting kicker just before the game, opted for and missed a two-point try.
But Missouri’s defense came through on Kansas’ first play after the score, forcing a safety when a botched lateral rolled into the end zone.
“We thought we could put the dagger in their heart if we got the two,” Smith said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work, but thankfully the defense bailed me out on that decision.”
Missouri’s defense, which included Lee’s Summit defensive back Jonathan Gilkey, held Kansas to 14 rushing yards. Gilkey was credited with one solo tackle for loss.
Missouri’s defense was on the field in the final seconds as Kansas made one last drive. When the horn sounded with Kansas on the Missouri 36-yard line, the Missouri players began the celebration. Missouri now has four straight wins in the series, which is now deadlocked at 11-11 with one game canceled due to lightning.
“Right now, it’s more relief than pride,” Smith said. “At some point the pride will hit but right now I just relieved to get out with a win. Kansas played hard tonight.”