Ludlow-based co-op team will host high-powered Pattonsburg co-op's passing attack at 1 p.m. (Nov. 23, 2019) with state title-game berth at stake
LUDLOW, Mo. — Logic would have suggested that the weather conditions in which the Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon Wildcats met the Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Harrison Panthers in their 8-man high school football district-championship game last year should have worked in Southwest’s favor.
With significant snow having fallen during the week prior to the frigid Friday night game and sub-freezing temperatures throughout the contest, conventional gridiron wisdom was that the heavily-pass-oriented Pattonsburg attack would be impacted negatively more than the Wildcats’, which leaned far more on the running of quarterback Mack Anderson. With fewer exchanges of the cold-stiffened pigskin and less reliance on a passer getting a good grip on it and a receiver well downfield being able to latch onto it, Southwest looked to have a climatological advantage.
It didn’t play out that way, though.
Even when the host Panthers demonstrated that, at least in the early going, they were capable of executing their aerial circus with ringmaster quarterback Steven Willhite, the contest headed into the second minute of its second quarter seemingly destined to be a quasi-typical, high-scoring, 8-man shootout, with the co-op club based in Ludlow trailing 24-22.
Then the game tilted precipitously the Panthers’ way because Southwest Livingston couldn’t get its offense back on the frozen field.
Twice in a row Pattonsburg followed a touchdown with a recovered onside kick that led to another quick score. In about three minutes, Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Harrison turned a 2-points lead into a 20-points gap and eventually rolled to an 82-28 rout.
This Saturday (Nov. 23, 2019) at 1 p.m., 53 weeks later, with better weather (temperatures in the mid 40s and dry conditions) expected that theoretically would less inhibit the pass-happy Panthers and senior gunslinger Willhite, the same two schools’ teams – if not the exact same teams – will tangle again in the postseason, this time deciding which gets a crack at the 2019 state championship at Columbia a week from tomorrow. Both enter the action 10-1.
The rematch on Southwest’s field at Ludlow shapes up much the same as last year’s clash – which team can impose its offensive will on the other.
Entering the state semifinal – Southwest’s first since 2014, its fourth this decade, and sixth ever, Pattonsburg is averaging 77 points and 463 passing yards per game. SLHS is a bit more balanced at 278 rushing yards and and 127 passing yards, but its average total offense of 404 yards a contest is dwarfed by the Panthers’ 560.5.
Although his passes obviously need someone catching them, Willhite indisputably is the linchpin of the Pattonsburg offense. While personally throwing for over 400 yards a game on average, he also tops the Panthers with about 60 yards in ground gains.
While the senior has lofted 474 throws downfield thus far, only 19 – a minuscule 4 percent – have been filched by foes, while 88 – almost 20 percent – have ended with the receiver in the opponent’s end zone. In last week’s 74-62 district-title win over Worth County – a club which blanked Pattonsburg 56-0 in last year’s state semifinal a week after the Panthers’ trouncing of Southwest Livingston, Willhite fired 10 touchdown strikes.
“You have to stop the pass. That’s easier said than done,” Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon first-year head coach Oren Magruder, the assistant to Eric Fairchild for last year’s game. “They have probably the best high school quarterback, as far as throwing the football, I’ve ever seen. He’s got a very quick release, he gets the ball out, and he’s super accurate.”
Willhite has multiple targets to spread the ball around to, including fellow senior Patrick Cowley and juniors Cameron Jones and Brett Emig. Jones had four touchdown catches and Emig three in last year’s game against Southwest.
“We’ve just got to play our defense the best we can and be physical again and see where we wind up,” asserts Magruder.
“They’re a heck of a ballclub.”
Defensively, 6’1, 165-pounds senior linebacker Kaden Koch leads the Panthers in tackles at almost 13 a contest.
Before Southwest fans despite, however, while the challenge of stopping Pattonsburg’s passing game is a huge one, there is legitimate reason for hope.
The Panthers’ defense has not performed anywhere near as effectively as their offense, allowing nearly 50 points a game (520 in 11 games). By comparison, Southwest has surrendered only 272 total, about half Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Harrison’s total.
Saturday’s semifinalists have two common opponents this year and, in both cases, the Wildcats’ performances more than hold their own in comparison, if not surpass Pattonsburg’s.
Southwest Livingston closed its regular season with a 68-14 thrashing of King City/Union Star, a club Pattonsburg outgunned 78-52 in late September. Then, last week, Magruder’s Southwest outfit took charge in the second half to eliminate – by a 56-38 margin – the North Shelby Raiders team which handed visiting Pattonsburg its only loss – 92-88 – only three weeks earlier.
The Wildcats, who have not lost since dropping their season opener big to East Atchison in late August, are getting about 235 rushing yards and 123 passing yards a game from Ma. Anderson.
Defensively, senior linebacker Balazs Sturgeon leads in tackles with an average of 8.3 per game. Lineman Jaeden Sears and defensive backs Dagun Bassett and Ma. Anderson are the other key contributors on defense, but Magruder sees the development of players like Patrick Warren and Owen Oesch as lifting the Wildcats’ “D” to a new level as the season has progressed.
“They’re not overly (big), but Patrick’s a really strong, fast kid and Owen’s a really strong kid,” says the SLHS coach. “They just did an awesome job (against North Shelby).”
With both teams’ offenses seemingly capable of scoring on a high percentage of their possessions, Saturday’s game might well turn again on Southwest’s making sure it handles the various onside-kick strategies Pattonsburg utilizes as a way of trying to gain consecutive offensive possessions, rather than depending on its defense to get stops.
“You have to recover onside kicks. You know what they’re going to do. It’s not any secret,” Magruder says insistently, having watched first-hand last year how not doing so can doom a team.
The Wildcats’ mentor also believes his club – perhaps in response to what happened to it on that 15-degrees night at Pattonsburg last year – has developed more resolve and resiliency in the face of adversity.
“Our kids just keep coming,” he praises. “They’re going to fight you for four quarters. They’re tough as heck.”