Oct. 25 Game Recap: Kirkwood 36, Ladue 35


Ben Rives

The Kirkwood defense squares off against the Ladue offensive line.

The Pioneers stumbled into the visitors’ locker room at halftime Friday, Oct. 25. Only a few players dared to look at the Ladue 28, Kirkwood 7 score on Ladue’s new, high-definition jumbotron as they jogged in. Most of the Kirkwood student section had cleared out. Only a few faithful alums sat through halftime, which featured the Mayor of Ladue praising the new stadium and football success. 

After all, the Ladue Rams are the defending state champions of their class, and they hadn’t lost in 23 consecutive games. Yet when the final whistle blew, the jumbotron projected a score seemingly unimaginable at halftime: Kirkwood 36, Ladue 35. The Rams’ winning streak ended. 

Ben Rives
Kirkwood’s offense meets in a huddle before the play.

Ladue began to go to work immediately in hopes of their 24th straight victory. On Kirkwood’s first drive, the Rams foiled a fake punt, resulting in a turnover on downs. The Pioneers rebounded quickly, though, as Cole Johnson, junior, intercepted a Ladue pass on the team’s opening drive. The turnover led to a Kirkwood possession, which eventually resulted in a 6-yard touchdown pass from Kannon Nesslage, junior, to Will Lee, junior. 

Kirkwood’s offense was stymied for the remainder of the quarter, though, scoring no more points. Defensively, problems with the Pioneer’s secondary exacerbated the team’s lack of cohesiveness on both sides of the ball, allowing 28-yard and 59-yard touchdown passes. Ladue led 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.

Ben Rives
Ladue’s new stadium features a jumbotron with a scoreboard.

“We were giving up on ourselves [during the] first half,” Jay Maclin, senior, said. “We could’ve been up by a lot.”

The first quarter defensive woes appeared to subside in the second quarter for Kirkwood. Maclin intercepted a pass, and the Pioneers held off Ladue for the first eight minutes of the second quarter. 

With under four minutes left in the half, however, the Pioneers were in trouble again. The Rams struck on a 72-yard touchdown pass that was followed by a 94-yard run less than two minutes later. At the half, Ladue lead by 21 points — Kirkwood’s largest halftime deficit of the season.  

“We just went in there [at halftime] and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to block, got to tackle, and got to execute in the end,’” Farrell Shelton, varsity football head coach, said. “[We needed to] just stick to it, keep grinding away and finish. That’s what we talked about all week.” 

Yet Shelton’s halftime advice did not prove immediately effective, as Kirkwood’s offense continued to sputter. Looking to jump-start their offense, Kirkwood again tried a fake punt. This time, it turned into a 28-yard run by Lee, which kept Kirkwood’s drive alive. Just four seconds into the fourth quarter, the Pioneers were able to capitalize on the fake, with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Nesslage to Lee.

“I gotta be a dog out there,” Lee said. “I knew they couldn’t guard me. I just had to score.”

Hayden Davidson
Junior wide receivers Cole Johnson, Will Lee and Jackson Fortner line up before the snap.

Kirkwood’s momentum, however, would be short-lived. Just over a minute later, the Rams intercepted a pass from Nesslage, returning it for a touchdown and putting Ladue back up by 21. With just over 10 minutes left on the clock, and the score 35-14, Kirkwood had to score at least three times to win. It seemed unlikely; the student section was vacant now, and few alumni remained — but, on this fifty-degree October night, the team persisted.

“We knew we had to believe in ourselves,” Maclin said. “A lot of people didn’t believe in us [and] they left. We believed in ourselves, [and] we played as a team.”

Kirkwood would get the first of those three scores on a 41-yard pass from Nesslage to Johnson to make the score  35-21 Ladue. After a missed field goal by Ladue, the Pioneers got their second touchdown. With under two minutes left, Nesslage threw a 65-yard pass to Maclin, who weaved between defenders deep into Rams’ territory. Later in the drive, Cameron Macon, senior, was able to get into the end zone on a two-yard run

“[My receivers] always do their jobs,” Nesslage said. “They get open, which makes my job easy because I just need to hit them when they’re open.”

The Pioneers then faced a one touchdown deficit. Even with the momentum, though, Shelton still believed that last score would be the most difficult for his team. 

Ben Rives
Junior Cole Johnson (1) finds an opening between blockers Cameron Macon (4) and Alex DeYong (74).

 “I think the biggest thing is to make sure you finish, and that’s all we’ve talked about,” Shelton said. “We’ve played some very good teams this year, and we’ve lost because we didn’t finish the game.”

But Kirkwood was determined. Still on their side of the field, Ladue fumbled, and Lee recovered, scooping up the ball and running all the way into the end zone. 

“I feel like in the second half we wanted it more,” Lee said. “We were more engaged, and they were lackadaisical. We were ready.”

Instead of choosing to kick the extra point and accepting a 35-35 tie with just over a minute left, the Pioneers sent their surging offense back out for one more play. The plan was for Maclin to flip the ball to Johnson after the snap, and then for Johnson to deliver the ball to Nesslage in the endzone, completing the two-point conversion

“We had been practicing that for weeks,” Shelton said. “It goes back to the summer, [when] I told the kids if we ever get a chance to go for the win, we’ll always go for the win.”

Hayden Davidson
Junior quarterback Kannon Nesslage prepares to call for the snap.

Kirkwood executed the play, similar to the Philly Special featured in the 2017 Super Bowl, as Nesslage dove into the end zone to grab Johnson’s pass. Kirkwood now led by one.

“I was making sure I didn’t drop it, and that I was in the endzone,” Nessslage said. “Once I saw [the referee’s] arms go up, I was very excited.”

“I had faith in my teammates,” Johnson said. “With the game on the line, you just do what you [have] to do to win a ballgame.”

The game was not over yet, though. Ladue’s offense marched down the field on what would be their last drive of the game. With just 22.5 seconds left, they found themselves in field goal range, looking to erase Kirkwood’s comeback. Before the ball could be snapped, the Pioneers called a timeout to ice the Ladue kicker, a tactic largely employed to increase the pressure on the kicker in hopes that they miss. It worked. The field goal attempt sailed right, and Kirkwood ran the clock out on their next play.

Ben Rives
Senior wide receiver/defensive back Jay Maclin gains substantial yardage after making the interception.

“[This game] shows that we don’t have any quit,” Nesslage said. “We can be down, but we’re always going to play until the last second and the last whistle, and that’s what we did tonight.”

KHS (5-3) will play at home next Friday (Nov. 1) against the Northwest Lions (5-4) in their first game of districts. Nesslage said it is important for Kirkwood to use this game as fuel for future matchups.

“[We need] to carry on this momentum,” Nesslage said. “[We need to] use it to keep driving us forward and help us make a run in the playoffs.”

*Full game stats courtesy of stlhighschoolsports.com (see box score and scoring summary here)