By Jeremy Jacob, Sports Editor
Despite mixed results at the end of the season, North Callaway football likes the direction it’s headed.
The Thunderbirds’ 2022 season ended with a 71-14 loss to No. 1 state Blair Oaks (10-0) in the District 4 Class 2 Tournament semifinals. No. 5 North Callaway (7-4) closed out the season winning six of their last eight games, with both losses coming against state-ranked teams and their first loss of the year against state-ranked Macon.
Senior quarterback Braydn O’Neal finished with 269 yards of total offense: 194 through the air on 10 of 31 passes and 75 yards on 13 carries. North Callaway rushed for 80 yards on 27 carries, making it the fourth time this season the Thunderbirds have finished with fewer than 100 rushing yards; two of those times came against state-ranked Bowling Green and Macon. For defense, senior Davis Woods led with 11 tackles, and senior Brandon Speight picked up a sack.
Head coach Kevin O’Neal said his team had its toughest test yet Friday at Wardsville. Quarterback Dylan Hair was terrific as ever, scoring six touchdowns while putting up all of his 311 total yards in the first half, but the Falcons are the best team in the state because they have great players around them.
“They’re good at every position on the field,” O’Neal said. “His offensive line is solid, his quarterback is really good and he’s got really good receivers to throw to. It is difficult to remove everything. You try to take something away from them and they have something else for you.”
North Callaway didn’t fare well early on when Blair Oaks jumped out to a 14-0 lead after the Falcons missed a kickoff. Three more Hair touchdowns later and Blair Oaks had a 43-0 lead after one quarter.
Braydn O’Neal in his last game as a Thunderbird found AJ Siegel for a 37-yard touchdown that he brought down on the sideline after beating a Blair Oaks defender. Hair scored two more touchdowns that contributed to Blair Oaks’ 64-6 halftime score. O’Neal had 179 total yards at the half.
“Obviously we didn’t do very well,” Kevin O’Neal said. “You can’t do the little things wrong against a really good team. If you do, they’re going to blow it up, and that’s what happened.
“They are good on defense. They make you earn every yard you gain. We couldn’t really get a running game going, and we struggled in our passing game as well.”
O’Neal connected with Siegel once more for a touchdown on a 33-yard play to make it 71-12 — 71-14 after a two-point run by lineman Speight.
North Callaway improved on their record from a season ago, but will have to move on without seniors like O’Neal, Siegel and Speight, who were part of the 10-team Missouri Eastern Conference team selections during game week. Each of the three made the first team along with Sergio Moreno at wide receiver, and three were unanimous, including Moreno, O’Neal at defensive back and Speight at defensive lineman. O’Neal, Speight, Moreno, Siegel and Eli Henry all had offensive and defensive picks, while Landon Oney was selected as the second-team offensive lineman and Kyle Pennell was the second-team linebacker.
“I’m proud of our seniors and proud of the growth we had during the year,” said Kevin O’Neal. “It’s a culture that we’re working to build, and our seniors, from the moment I took the job in March, were on board. You always hate when a class disappears, and when your child is part of that class, it’s a little harder. They are all going to be great youngsters thanks to the life lessons they have learned from football.
“I think our program is going in the right direction, but we have to keep improving. We work hard to improve every week (this season). Three of our four losses were to qualified teams this year, and that’s where we want to go. We want to be that classified team, but we have work to do.”