The return of quarterback Chris Swingle and a revitalized second-half defensive effort by the Blue Springs South football team helped coach Greg Oder’s Jaguars wrap up a 5-4 regular season with a tense 35-23 victory over Liberty that was much closer than the final score might indicate.

The Jaguars had missed three scoring opportunities that would have made it a two-possession game in the second half before hard-charging running back Emery Ester broke free from three would-be Blue Jay tacklers to score his final 3-yard TD with just 47 seconds showing on the Norris Patterson Stadium clock.

“That was when I knew we had won the game,” said Swingle, who completed 15 of 26 passes for a career-best 323 yards and two touchdowns. “Our defense was so amazing the second half, and we were finally able to punch in that last touchdown. It felt so good to know we’d won and finished (the regular season) with a winning record.”

Swingle suffered a broken bone and torn ligaments in his foot and missed much of the season. His return has breathed new life into the South offense.

“Tonight was all about Chris Swingle, my teammates and our defense,” said Swingle’s favorite target, Brandin Dandridge, who caught eight passes for 212 yards and two scores. “I am so proud to be a part of this team. To see Chris come back from that injury and see how he played and to see our defense make so many big plays – this is a special night.”

The first half featured a flag-happy officiating crew and 51 points - 28 by the Jaguars and 23 by the 6-3 Blue Jays.

Dandridge caught a 31-yard Swingle pass to give South an early 6-0 lead (the extra point hit the goal post), but the Blue Jays came right back to take a 7-6 advantage on a 38-yard run by Devon Bryant, who was part of a Wildcat offensive package on a short fourth-and-1 play.

South came back to take a 14-7 lead on an 11-yard run by Ester and an Ester 2-point run, but once again the determined Blue Jays tied the score on a 31-yard pass from A.J. Cambric to Jackson Redmond.

For a moment, it appeared the Jaguars had taken control of the game as South linebacker Amel Cofield intercepted a Cambric pass and returned it for a 21-yard score. South’s Cameron Klim then picked off the Liberty quarterback and Swingle connected with Dandridge on a 65-yard bomb that made the score 28-14 with 5:57 left in the half.

Then things got interesting.

Swingle was called for grounding the ball passing out of the end zone, resulting in a safety,even though his pass hit running back Chace Mason’s lower body.

Following a colorful discussion between the South coaching staff and officials, South kicked to the Blue Jays and four plays later Jackson caught a 10-yard TD to make the halftime score 28-23.

“We knew we couldn’t give them anymore points in the second half,” said linebacker Josh Watson, who had 14 tackles (four for losses) and was named the U.S. Army Defensive Player of the Game, “and we didn’t. We really didn’t make any changes, we just played better defense and didn’t let them have any big plays.”

Colton Pogue, an outside linebacker who played quarterback in Swingle’s absence, said it was fun to go out “and hit people.”

“I had a blast,” said Pogue, who had two second-half tackles for big losses. “It’s so much fun to watch Chris play quarterback and move back to my linebacking position. Our linebackers did a great job tonight.”

While South kept the Jays out of the end zone in the second half, the game was not decided until Ester’s late touchdown.

“We could have made our lives a lot easier if we’d have scored a little bit earlier in the second half,” said Oder, who actually showed a brief smile on the field after the game. “Chris played really well and our defense, even though it was a little inconsistent in the first half, really played well the second half.”

When asked about his pick six, Cofield pointed to his teammates.

“He (Cambric) was hurried, and I was in the right place at the right time,” Cofield said. “Our defense really played well, especially the second half. Josh and Colton made some big hits – it was a fun night to be a part of this team.”

As the South players walked out of the visitor’s locker room to their buses, no one had a bigger smile on his face than Swingle, a senior who has played three varsity games this season.

“Emery had a great game (77 yards and two scores), and Brandin made me look good on a lot of his catches,” Swingle said. “It’s just so great to be back. I’m proud of the job Colton did while I was gone, and he really got after it tonight at linebacker.

“This is a good time of the season to be playing our best football.”