After missing his freshman season in 2010 due a broken collarbone, Ethan Fugitt took the words of then-new Oak Grove football coach Pat Richard to heart.

“I’ve been in the weight room since the eighth grade, but since Coach Richard got here sophomore year, he said if you put in the work, great things will happen,” Fugitt said. “That’s what I’ve been able to accomplish.”

Specifically, he’s transformed himself from a 175-pounder starting at safety in 2011, to a middle linebacker a bit over 200 pounds last year, to a 235-pound freak who lowered his 40-yard dash time to 4.6 seconds. As the middle linebacker again this year he leads the team with 91 tackles, and after starting at halfback in Oak Grove’s often-fullhouse backfield for two years but not carrying the ball too much, he has tallied 1,266 yards with 18 touchdowns on more than 10 yards a tote in 2012 and remained a stellar blocker.

Basically, the senior captain is a giant reason the fourth-ranked Panthers are Class 3 District 7 champions with an 11-1 record and have a Saturday afternoon home matchup with top-ranked and defending state champion Maryville in the state quarterfinals.

He’s been everything Richard could have hoped for.

“And then some,” the third-year coach said. “We’ve put more and more on him.

“He gives us another threat. Last year teams loaded up against Aaron (Graham, who rushed for 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns last year) and forced our quarterback and fullback to produce. This year they can’t load up on one side. Defensively he’s been pretty amazing.”

“Aaron had a great season last year,” Fugitt said. “Getting better, it gave me the chance to help him. It’s teamwork – I block for him; he blocks for me; I have a great line that blocks for me.”

When Richard considers Fugitt the poster child of how football players can develop with a lot of elbow grease, he means it literally.

“I wish I could make a poster of him for kids to see if they don’t think it’s worth the hard work,” Richard said. “He’s made himself into a great player.

“He’s a polite, yes sir, no sir type of kid. He’s the hardest-working kid I’ve ever coached – truly, truly special.”

Fugitt’s work ethic certainly has rubbed off on plenty of teammates.

“He’s the hardest-working guy I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Skyler Hulse, a senior starter at offensive tackle and defensive end. “I’m very excited to see how he turns out in college.

“I don’t think this team would be where it is without his example.”

Fugitt’s work habits allowed him to drum up some college interest during an extensive summer camp tour – he has offers from Missouri State and Missouri Western – and he believes the team’s success this season will help the recruiting process and possibly bring Division I interest.

Right now, he’s enjoying that success. While the junior Graham is getting fewer carries this season (1,332 yards, but at 8.7 per carry), the Panthers still are averaging 356 rushing yards and 45 points. In addition to Fugitt’s numbers on the ground, senior fullback Tyler Brown has 606 yards, quarterback Austin Blackston 235 and backup halfback DaWaun Johnson 259.

It’s a backfield Hulse definitely enjoys blocking for.

“With (Brown) being small and agile, teams don’t see him behind the line,” he said. “Aaron has the quickness and shiftiness to run by guys, and Ethan can bulldoze through anyone. I don’t know if you could have a more diverse backfield.”

Oak Grove’s win Monday over Hogan Prep came in the same round that last season saw the Panthers fall to Center on their home turf. With bad taste from 2012 out of his mouth, and all the gaudy numbers he and his teammates have compiled in the process, it’s a lot for Fugitt to take in.

“It’s gone beyond what I dreamed about,” he said. “We had great team bonding in the offseason – it was our best offseason yet – and we’ve accomplished going through conference and districts, and now we get a chance against the defending state champs.”

Follow Mike Genet on Twitter: @genetEJC