Tim Rulo was conflicted while trying to process the close call.
South Callaway's head coach sat on the bench in the moments after the Bulldogs' narrow 14-13 loss to state-ranked and undefeated Tipton last year at Mokane. The Cardinals' escape act allowed them to claim the Mid-Missouri Conference title in their final year as a member.
While trying to ease his disappointment, Rulo was comforted by the confidence the Bulldogs acquired in playing on even terms -- almost -- with Tipton.
"I was just overwhelmed, because in so many ways it was amazing," Rulo recalled Wednesday night. "It stunk that we lost, for sure, but it was just an amazing game and our guys played really well.
"... It's games like that when you play quality opponents, at the end of the night you can say, 'We can play with teams -- whether they're state-ranked or bigger than us, or whatever -- when we play the style of football that we're trying to play here at South Callaway.'"
With conference consequences no longer on the line, the Bulldogs and Cardinals will clash again tonight (kickoff at 7) in a showdown between undefeated teams at Mokane.
Tipton, now a member of the Kaysinger Conference, is 6-0 and ranked No. 2 in Class 1. South Callaway is also 6-0 -- its best start in school history -- and received two votes this week in the Class 2 poll. The Bulldogs secured their first-ever MMC championship two weeks ago.
"We knew Tipton was a good program and would be a good test for us," Rulo said. "It's a great game to get us ready for districts. It's definitely a game that's going to prove the strength of scheduling because they play great football there and coach (Tony) Braby does a great job with his guys.
"Hopefully our guys are excited about just how close we came last year ... and now finishing the deal."
Rulo is counting on the Bulldogs to be partly driven tonight by discontent that stems from last season's near-miss against the Cardinals.
"Hopefully they recycle that feeling as motivation for this year, and hopefully that was motivation in the offseason," Rulo said. "Now on the eve, or the verge, of going to play them, hopefully it's even more motivation."
Tipton rushed for 218 yards and three touchdowns in its Kaysinger opener last week, a 28-12 victory over Cole Camp. Sophomore halfback Dallas Peoples topped the Cardinals with 139 yards on the ground and scored on runs of 62 and 3 yards.
Meanwhile, Riley Brant -- a 5-foot-5, 137-pound sophomore -- has taken over at quarterback for Tipton. Brant replaced junior Zach Knipp during the Cardinals' 35-7 win over North Callaway on Sept. 24, then earned the start last week.
"They have multiple weapons, it's not just one guy like it might have been (in the past)," Rulo said. "(Brant) is quick; his athleticism is what impresses me the most."
South Callaway's defense yielded just 157 total yards and produced one turnover last week in an 18-7 win at Orchard Farm. The Bulldogs are allowing a scant 8.2 points per game.
"It's making sure that you take care of (Tipton's) weapons, that you are defensively sound," Rulo said, "that guys are running to their correct gaps and being responsible. We've been trying to simulate that in practice the best we can.
"... The big thing is not giving up the big play. You've got to make them earn it; you've got to improve, get better, figure it out, adapt and then just keep making them have to earn the yards."
South Callaway's running game throttled Orchard Farm last week, accumulating a season-high 346 yards on 62 carries. Senior back Bryan Lechner paced the Bulldogs with a game-high 99 yards rushing and had a 5-yard touchdown run.
Sophomore quarterback Jason Kimminau also scrambled 14 yards for a touchdown and supplied South Callaway's other score on a 12-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Will Brandt.
Rulo explained that executing the game plan will be the Bulldogs' top priority against the Cardinals' 5-3 defensive scheme.
"We have to go out and make the plays, being able to run them crisp enough that it's something they can't simulate in practice," Rulo said. "(Tipton) seems to be a little more aggressive this year, they seem to blitz a little bit more than we've seen in years past."
Rulo figures that the early going tonight will be meaningful in dictating what direction the Bulldogs' prospects take.
"Ultimately, we need to go out and play physical right away," Rulo said. "We've got to make sure at the beginning of this game we are ready to go. This can't be something where we wait until the second quarter to show up.
"... The reciprocation you're going to see from Tipton is you're going to see them turn it up, you're going to see them try to raise their level. So we have to be able to have our own next gear to play at."