C-T 2019 AREA HS FOOTBALL PREVIEWS: All-State quarterback will lead Wildcats in Friday's home opener against East Atchison in battle of state-ranked 8-man teams
LUDLOW, Mo. — Over the past three decades, Southwest Livingston High football has had its ups and downs, but the Wildcats have not taken their fans and supporters on some roller-coaster thrill ride with sudden twists and turns, drastic plunges and slow, steady ascents.
Instead, both the ups and downs have been for extended periods of time.
There were outstanding successes in the early 1990s, including an 8-man-style state-runnerup finish with only a 10-players squad in 1990 (only the third year of varsity-level play at SLHS) and a near-miss of another trip to the state title game in 1994. Then came a slow, but steady, decline in the last years of the 20th century and a difficult opening decade of the new millennium bookended by 5-5 (2000) and 4-6 (2009) marks, but with multiple winless seasons, nary a winning one, and only eight wins in the eight years sandwiched between.
With the arrival of a talented freshman class in 2010-11 and initiation the following year of a cooperative agreement – initially with northwestern neighbor Breckenridge and, in more recent years, with eastern/southeastern neighbors Hale and Tina-Avalon, the ascent begun in ’09 in Ken Boatwright’s only year as head coach allowed new head coach and former Wildcats player Tyler Anderson to quickly restore SLHS football to a consistently-high level of achievement.
Beginning in 2010 – Anderson’s first year as head coach – and continuing through the remainder of his 7-years tenure, Southwest posted five 9-wins seasons and won at least seven games every year while never losing more than three.
After slipping slightly to 6-5 in Eric Fairchild’s first year as coach in 2017, the Wildcats were right back on track last fall, finishing 9-2, their fifth 9-wins campaign of the decade.
Along the way, Southwest Livingston made – after an 18-years absence – the state semifinals three times in a row (2012-14) and have advanced to the district-title game or state quarterfinals (in most years one and the same accomplishment) five times, including each of the last four years.
Now, as the 21st-century’s decade of “the teens” gets set to conclude, after another coaching change, the gridiron Wildcats – with one of the state’s best 8-man players in senior QB/DB Mack Anderson – will try to cap their best decade ever with at least another winning year and, they hope, at least another district championship/state quarterfinals appearance.
Picking up the leadership reins this fall is Oren Magruder, a first-time head coach after assisting at Fayette (an 11-man program) and, last year, as Southwest. He’s being assisted by recent SLHS grad Peyton Hein, one-time Chillicothe High gridder Trent Moore, and Weston Baker.
“My main goal is just for us to compete in practice, games, the weight room, and the classroom,” Magruder shares. “Having a competitive culture will help us to have the type of season that we want to have.
“The key to (won-lost) success is the development of the young guys to replace the production we lost. I feel like we have the athletes to do it, but we lost some very impactful players.”
Graduation 2019 hit the Wildcats’ skill positions hard, including the departure of all-district WR (37 receptions, 800 yards, 18 TDs) and second-team all-conference DE (11 tackles for loss, 7-1/2 sacks, five fumble recoveries, three defensive TDs) Wyatt Maddux. Also now gone are WR/DB Nate Reith (all district on defense with 75 tackles, 4 interceptions, 14 pass breakups), versatile RB/QB/DB Caleb Eddins (also all-district on defense with 64 tackles, 12 pass breakups), and WR/RB/DB Matt Daniels.
Without them, much focus and time during preseason practices has been devoted to “developing chemistry between the quarterback and the all-new ‘skill’ position replacements,” confirms Magruder.
It is anticipated experienced players from other positions will move to the backfield and end positions on offense, the new coach reports.
Balazs Sturgeon (5’9”, 160 pounds, sr.), last year’s leading tackler who saw some limited action at running back, and Dagun Bassett (5’10”, 190, sr.), a starter at guard in 2018, are likely to be in the starting backfield with Ma. Anderson, who still figures to get the bulk of the carries, probably often with Bassett as a lead blocker.
The end spots probably will see a rotation involving juniors Ethan Hoerr, Chase Neptune, Parker Keeney, and Patrick Warren.
Given Ma. Anderson’s proven abilities, if healthy, the pivotal factor in whether Southwest Livingston will continue to gain yards and put points on the board with frequency will be its 3-man blocking unit, which should include two returnees.
Center Bryce Wolf (5’6”, 290, sr.) and all-district guard Jaeden Sears (6’3”, 200, jr.) are the holdovers and should provide a solid tandem that opens holes on runs and provides time on pass plays. Multiple candidates have been considered for filling the vacancy created by the reassignment of Bassett to the backfield. They include returning non-senior lettermen Matthew Kelchen, Sullevin Diegelman, Morgan Anderson, and Owen Oesch, along with Remington Woodcock (6’5”, 305, soph.).
With new coaching staff leadership and a good bit of inexperience, Magruder acknowledges there will be mistakes and growing pains, but doesn’t want his players paralyzed or hesitant, due to fear of failure.
“We can’t have our kids worrying about replacing a good player or messing up on a play,” the coach asserts. “We just need to work hard and good things will follow.”
Having the “security blanket” that is the rangy (6’6”, 220) Ma. Anderson – a 3-sports All-State athlete – should help ease the stress level on the newcomers. Either on the ground or in the air, any well-executed Wildcats offensive play will have the potential to regularly go for six points and, with the senior standout’s skills and athleticism, even less-than-perfect work by the unit on any given play could be turned into a positive pickup, just by the quarterback’s raw ability to overmatch one or more defenders.
A year ago, Ma. Anderson was among the 8-man state leaders in passing and rushing yards, throwing for 1,856 yards and 32 touchdowns on over 50 percent accuracy, while also running for 1,730 yards (averaging more than 10 yards per carry) and 33 more scores. Add in three kick-return TDs and he was second in the state in touchdowns scored (does not include TD passes thrown). As a result of his play, he was the Highway 275 Conference first-team all-conference quarterback and second-team All-State.
When opponents have the ball, he’ll be counted on to be a stalwart last line of defense from the safety position after being second-team all-Highway 275 last year (83 tackles, eight for loss, one interception, 12 passes defended).
Joining him, at different times, likely will be Hoerr, Neptune, and Keeney at the corners.
Linebacker Sturgeon (104 tackles, four for loss, three sacks, one fumble recovery) will be looked to as the SLHS defense’s playmaker, initially operating in tandem with Warren (6’, 190).
Bassett is back on the line at end after being all-district as a tackle in 2018 (65 tackles, seven for losses). Ja. Sears returns at the other end with Wolf and Oesch (5’10”, 200, soph.) sharing time at tackle. That could be a good unit with multiple underclassmen vying to back them up and provide occasional rest.
After being shredded by Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Daviess star quarterback Steven Wilhite in last year’s district championship/state quarterfinal loss, the Wildcats will need to improve their pass coverage to achieve greater success this season, since Wilhite and several of his top targets are back and Pattonsburg figures to again be in Southwest Livingston’s district.
As the 2019 season dawns this week, the Wildcats will be put to the test immediately by conference foe East Atchison.
“This game sets the tone for the rest of the season,” Magruder asserts. “They’re going to be a very talented team. Last year, we beat them in a shootout that we were able to pull out in the end and that gave us confidence for the rest of the season.”
Three weeks after that home opener against the Tarkio-Fairfax co-op team, the Wildcats will journey to Mound City to square off with the defending state champions, who won big at Ludlow last season.
“You have to give them a ton of respect. They’re a very physical and athletic team that is well-coached,” observes the Southwest coach. “Even though they lost some good players, I expect them to reload.”
In a change from last year, the final regular-season game will be at home against King City/Union Star, rather than facing nearby rival Norborne/Hardin-Central.
As for the conference-championship race, again Mound City is considered likely to set the standard and East Atchison formidable, as well. Based on last year’s experience, Magruder sees aspects of nearly every 275 foe – from having returning quarterbacks to power running backs to overall physical style to offensive creativity – that could make them legitimate tests for his squad.
All in all, though, it seems likely Southwest should be in the hunt for a top-3 league finish again after placing second behind Mound City last season.