OSAGE BEACH — Now that the postseason is here, Devin Johnson is hoping the regular-season grind his School of the Osage Indians endured this fall was worth it.
Osage, battle-tested by a rugged Tri-County Conference schedule, opens play in Class 3 District 5 tonight by traveling to Salem for first-round action (7 p.m. kickoff).
There is a familiar foe atop District 5.
Blair Oaks, 9-0, the state's top-ranked team and five-time defending Tri-County champion, is seeded No. 1 in the district, finishing with 47.91 district points. Buffalo (7-2) is No. 2 with 41.36, Springfield Catholic (6-3) is No. 3 with 35.83, Salem (6-3) is No. 4 with 32.55, Osage (3-6) is No. 5 with 23, Logan-Rogersville (2-7) is No. 6 with 22.11, Eldon (1-8) is No. 7 with 17.89 and St. James (0-9) is No. 8 with 14.43.
In other district first-round games tonight, Blair Oaks hosts St. James, Buffalo hosts Eldon and Springfield Catholic hosts Logan-Rogersville.
In semifinal games Nov. 8, the Blair Oaks/St. James winner plays the Salem/Osage winner while the Buffalo/Eldon winner takes on the Catholic/Rogersville winner at the location of the highest seed.
The district championship game is set for Nov. 15.
Blair Oaks is the defending Class 2 state champion, currently ranked No. 1 in Class 3 in the Missouri Media Rankings and has won 47 consecutive regular-season games.
The Salem Tigers, of the South-Central Association (SCA), comes in with a 6-3 record and winners of three of its last four games while Osage improved to 3-6 after last Friday's 44-24 road victory against conference rival Eldon, snapping a five-game losing skid.
Both schools feel they are sharpened by journeys through their respective conferences.
The SCA has not been as imposing as usual this season, but still boasts a pair of state-ranked squads in unbeaten Ava (ranked No. 5 in Class 2) and Thayer (No. 3 in Class 1). Longtime postseason stalwarts Liberty: Mountain View and Mountain Grove are also in the SCA, although both had sub-par years in 2019.
The Tri-County is as strong as ever, with five of the eight conference schools receiving votes in the state rankings at some point before knocking each other off this fall.
"No one in our district is as battle-tested as teams from our conference," said Johnson, Osage's coach.
For the Salem Tigers, shifty junior running back Caden Camden passed the 1,000-yard rushing barrier during a 27-21 win last Friday against Cabool and has 1,026 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries.
Salem sophomore quarterback Garrett Connell is also closing in on 1,000 yards in his first season as a varsity signal-caller. He has hit on 56-of-124 passes for 929 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
His top target has been junior wideout Dawson Mock, who has 23 catches for 501 yards (21.8 yards per reception) and five touchdowns, while senior tight end Carter Chilton has 10 catches for 105 yards and a TD and Camden has six catches for 78 yards and two TDs.
Senior linebacker Brenden Smith has 77 tackles — including 22 solo — to lead the Salem defense, while Connell, a safety, has 52 tackles, including 25 solo. Camden, a safety, has 51 tackles, three fumble recoveries and one fumble return for a touchdown; junior linebacker Dylan Thompson 42 tackles, and senior lineman Earl Jarvis has 33 tackles.
"Salem is a good team and very variable on offense," Johnson said. "Their running back is shifty and their quarterback is mobile and can flick it 40 yards in the air on the move. We've got to be ready for that. Defensively they don't give up big plays often and they're big up front."
The Indians are coming off perhaps their finest game of the season.
Against Eldon, the Indians scored on six consecutive possessions. The game was tied at 16 at halftime before Osage reeled off 28 unanswered points to take control, including a 60-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback Drew Edwards to senior wideout Logan Havner to begin the second half.
Edwards ended with 156 passing yards on just five completions — three to Havner for 85 yards. Senior running back James Hutchcraft accounted for 102 of the team's 200 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns. In all, Osage had 374 yards of total offense.
"We played pretty well," Johnson said. "It was one of our best games all year. We executed well in all phases. In the first half we couldn't get off the field, allowing (Eldon) to convert six fourth downs. In the second half we were very efficient. We only ran 33 plays for 374 yards."
Salem first-year coach Dylan Wyrick doesn't see a losing team when he watches film on Osage — he sees a squad with athletes all across the field.
"They have a lot of good athletes," Wyrick said. "They're big and physical. I'm really impressed with the size in their backfield. They run the ball hard and rotate a couple of guys at quarterback."
Leading the charge for the Indian offense the past couple of seasons has been Edwards and Hutchcraft.
Edwards has completed 68-of-128 passes for 984 yards, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Also seeing action at quarterback is sophomore Brockton McLaughlin, who has passed for 189 yards and a touchdown.
Havner is Osage's top receiving target with 38 receptions for 544 yards and four touchdowns while senior wideout Matt Hans has 13 catches for 140 yards.
Hutchcraft paces the Indian ground game with 680 yards on 136 carries and six touchdowns while Edwards has 188 yards on 56 carries and two TDs.
Defensively, Hutchcraft, a linebacker, leads Osage with 83 tackles while senior lineman Rudy Escobar has 67 tackles and Edwards, a linebacker, 55 tackles.
Escobar has six sacks while senior lineman Matt McCubbin has seven tackles for loss, including two sacks.
"They run a lot of veer," Wyrick said of Osage. "They remind me a lot of Mountain Grove on both sides of the ball. They're better than Mountain Grove; more physical."
Wyrick is hoping home-field advantage, which will be played on natural grass that is sure to be chewed up and muddy after a week's worth of rain, will mean something.
"A home game — that's huge," he said. "It's tough to play on the road; hard keeping them focused. Our kids get to play at home in front of their family and friends. And that allows us to go over more last-minute details. And it helps keep the kids fresh."