WARDSVILLE — For each of the past four seasons, a different team has taken its turn to try to knock the Blair Oaks Falcons off the top of the Tri-County Conference standings.
It was School of the Osage in 2016, then Eldon in 2017 and Southern Boone last year. Each came up short, and the Falcons have won four straight conference titles.
Tonight, the Hallsville Indians will try to knock the Falcons off their perch in a battle of the two remaining undefeated teams in Tri-County play. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. in Hallsville.
"We talked to our players — this was probably back in May or June — and said, 'That's a game we want to circle, that's a game we want to go play,'" Blair Oaks coach Ted LePage said. "This is going to be a lot of fun this week, because this is a team that really has it going on."
Hallsville (4-1), which received votes in Class 2 in this week's Missouri Media Rankings, knocked off Southern Boone — then ranked No. 6 in Class 3 — for a 33-21 win last Friday in Ashland.
Hallsville's only loss came in Week 2, a 28-26 decision at Ava, which is now ranked No. 6 in Class 2.
The Indians are led this season by Justin Conyers, who comes to Hallsville after posting a 54-20 record in six years at Battle, which included a Class 5 state championship in 2014.
"You see the same thing that he did at Battle," said LePage, who previously coached against Conyers during his tenure at Jefferson City. "The kids play with an edge and they play with confidence. They think they're going to win the football game. They go out there and they're doing exactly what they're asked to do.
"He creates an excitement and a buzz within his players, and you see that it carries over to the field."Hallsville returns seven offensive starters and eight defensive starters from last year's team that finished 3-7.
LePage doesn't remember the record. Instead, he remembers how his Falcons trailed the Indians 14-0 just more than three minutes into last year's contest in Wardsville.
"We showed (our players) the first three series from last year, when we were down 14-0," LePage said. "It got really quiet in the locker room real fast.
"We know first-hand how effective they can be when they're focused and ready to play football, which they will be Friday night."
Hallsville's triple-option offense will be led by a pair of returning all-conference running backs in seniors Cooper Crane and Mason Huskey. Both players have gained around 500 yards rushing through five games this season.
The Indians have 16 seniors on the roster, similar to the upperclassmen leadership the Falcons faced earlier this season in Boonville.
Leading the Hallsville offense is senior quarterback Jake Ashburn, a newcomer to the football team who was an all-conference baseball player last spring.
"It starts with the quarterback," LePage said. "The quarterback's able to read it, he does a good job of distributing the ball, he makes the correct reads."
LePage said Hallsville runs a speed option, a read option and a jet sweep option within its triple-option offense, running the ball on close to 80 percent of its offensive plays.
"They're able to spread you out and still run triple-option," he said. "That's hard, that's really hard."
LePage said he is impressed with Hallsville's offensive line.
"They really do a good job of hitting their landmarks with their line," he said. "They're not real big, they're not the biggest team we're going to see, but they may be as physical as any team we've seen."
Senior wide receiver Emmitt Carlos has been Ashburn's top target this season. Carlos also returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week against Southern Boone.
One of Hallsville's two early scores last season against Blair Oaks also came on a kickoff return.
"We've worked on that, and we're going to continue to work on it," LePage said. "That's always a work in progress. The kickoff and the kickoff return game is such a different form of football, because it's so wide open. A great athlete can make a great play, and they have guys back deep that are able to do that."
LePage noted he has inserted some defensive starters on the kickoff team.
"They're in a competition to make tackles," he said. "That's the mentality you want on that."
Hallsville will operate with a 3-3-stack defense this season. Leading the Indians' defense is senior Nelson Pipes, a returning all-conference linebacker who has received an offer to be a preferred walk-on as a longsnapper at Missouri.
Last Friday, Hallsville held Southern Boone to 339 yards of offense and forced two turnovers.
"They basically have six to eight to nine guys in the box," LePage said. "You never know where they're going to come from.
"That's the thing about a 3-3-stack team. They can send two guys off the edge and drop everybody else, they can send two guys up the middle, they can send one guy, they can send no guys."
Hallsville held Southern Boone scoreless through the first three quarters.
"On the defensive line, they're very aggressive, up-the-field guys," LePage said.
In last Friday's 56-6 win against Eldon, Blair Oaks finished with 421 yards of total offense.
"They're starting to get the feel again of that gleam in their eye that, when we get the ball, we're going to score," LePage said. "I like that, that mentality that nothing is going to stop us."
Notes: Blair Oaks (5-0) stayed put as the unanimous choice at No. 1 in Class 3 in this week's Missouri Media Rankings. Also in Class 3, Boonville (4-1) moved up one spot to No. 7 following a 35-14 win against School of the Osage, while Southern Boone (4-1) dropped two spots to No. 8 with its loss to Hallsville. The Indians were the first team outside the top 10 in Class 2 with nine points. Hallsville's field is a grass playing surface. Tonight's game is the only time during the regular season Blair Oaks will not play on artificial turf. Tonight is Hallsville's Homecoming game. The Indians are off to their best start since 2014, when they won seven of their first eight games. That season, they defeated Blair Oaks 42-28 in Wardsville. Blair Oaks junior running back Josh Bischoff injured his right knee in last week's game against Eldon and will not be available to play tonight. As of Wednesday, LePage said they are still awaiting the results of his MRI. "It really was a freak injury, he was turning and just happened to catch it," LePage said.