With contributors from eastern neighbor schools Hale and Tina-Avalon, Wildcats will need to beat defending 8-man state champion Mound City a second time this season to capture state's 2019 8-man crown Nov. 30 at Columbia
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
LUDLOW, Mo. — An oft-used sports saying about a team trying to rise to an elite level goes, “If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best.”
The Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon football Wildcats will need to put a new spin on that conventional wisdom, though. They’ll have to beat the best twice – one might even postulate they’ll have to do so three times – to be officially crowned the best 8-man squad in Missouri in 2019.
The Ludlow-based Southwest Livingston club will make its second-ever state championship game appearance – and first since 1990 – when it and the 2018 state-champion Mound City/Craig Panthers (10-2) square off on the artificial turf of Memorial Stadium’s Faurot Field on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia at midday Saturday. Kickoff time is set for 11 a.m., preceding the Class 6 11-man title contest.
Unusually-balmy weather is predicted for game time. Saturday’s projected high temperature at Columbia is in the mid to upper 60s. That likely would produce a game-time temperature in the low 60s under clearing skies.
Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon, getting notable contributions from players from all three schools involved in their cooperative, defeated Mound City/Craig 58-34 at Mound City during the fourth week of the regular season, albeit in a contest in which the Panthers had one of the better players missing.
Still, they have beaten “the best,” only to need to repeat it to take the ultimate prize.
Not only that, last Saturday at home, they staked out an early 20-0 lead and eventually posted a 74-68 triumph over the team that many who follow Missouri 8-man football closely expected to emerge as this year’s “best” – the Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Harrison Panthers.
Mound City/Craig’s co-op contingent had a much-less-stressful time punching their ticket to Columbia, waltzing past out-classed Drexel 52-6 at Drexel in last weekend’s semifinals.
While observers justifiably could debate whether Southwest Livingston’s regular-season victory over Mound City/Craig is tainted to a degree by the absence then of the key Panthers player, as its record reflects, Mound City/Craig stumbled one other time along the way. Southwest’s Wildcats have not – reeling off 12 consecutive victories since losing their season opener by an unexpectedly-wide 68-22 margin to East Atchison (Tarkio/Fairfax co-op).
Two weeks after Southwest Livingston handed the defending champs their first loss, East Atchison shaded Mound City/Craig 58-56 at home when the Panthers were at full strength, personnel-wise.
Perhaps ominously for the area squad, Mound City/Craig avenged its East Atchison loss two weeks ago, going to Fairfax in the district finals and prevailing 48-26 over the previously-undefeated Indians. After Pattonsburg had lost to North Shelby in week eight of the regular season, East Atchison had emerged as the new top prospect to win it all at Columbia.
Mound City/Craig has played very good defense in the postseason, holding East Atchison to 32 less points in their rematch while intercepting five passes – one of which safety/quarterback Landon Poppa returned for a touchdown to tie the game 6-6 early.
At Drexel last Saturday, the Panthers built a 58-0 lead over a quick foe before surrendering a late, consolation touchdown.
Top defenders for Mound City/Craig include Poppa, linebacker T.j. Hopkins, and lineman Blake Hayes.
Offensively, Mound City/Craig prefers to run the ball, although it has not been nearly as prolific at that as Southwest Livingston with imposing 6’6”, 220-pounds senior quarterback Mack Anderson and a tenacious set of blockers.
In defeating East Atchison, the Panthers rushed for a bit under 300 yards as a team, about 90 less than Ma. Anderson netted personally in the Wildcats’ win over Pattonsburg. Running back Dylan George ran for about 220 of the MC/C yards and three scores in that district final.
At Drexel in the semifinals, Mound City/Craig had two long touchdown runs (31, 55 yards) by Hopkins and a 55-yarder by Poppa, who also threw a 25-yards scoring strike to George. Poppa, while the linchpin of the Panthers’ offense, is listed online as averaging “only” about 95 yards rushing and 50 passing per game.
While the defending champions’ defense has had success the past two games, those came against a pass-oriented attack and another that featured quickness more than power. In taking on Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon, it will have to thwart a power-running offense that tries to angle the tough-to-tackle Anderson off tackle or around end to either side of the formation. However, while such plays involve both blockers and Ma. Anderson trying to overpower the defense, the senior not only brings thundering power, but also breakaway straight-ahead speed. If he gets through an initial crease, his combination of size and speed makes him extremely difficult, if not impossible, for potential downfield tacklers to get him off his feet.
As a result, he averages nearly 250 rushing yards a game, yet also is able to exploit the defense's necessary fixation on trying to slow or stop his runs by throwing well enough to average over 125 passing yards, too.
According to stats posted online by the Missouri 8-man Coaches Association, the Wildcats quarterback leads all 8-man ballcarriers this season with 2,978 yards and 62 touchdowns, both reputed to be a new 8-man records for the state. However, he also is the No. 4 passer in the state, in terms of yards averaged per game, and has connected for 19 air scores. His favorite target is junior flanker Chase Neptune, who is listed on the coaches’ group’s website as fifth in the state in receiving yards with 872. Neptune’s 52 catches are tied for third-most in Missouri 8-man ball.
Defensively for Southwest Livingston, junior Jaeden Sears – one of Hale’s contributions to the team – is the leading tackler with 8.6 per game, according to an online stats service, but he has plenty of help battling the run from the likes of seniors Dagun Bassett and Balazs Sturgeon, as well as safety Ma. Anderson.
When opponents throw, the Wildcats demonstrated in the win over Pattonsburg and its star quarterback Steven Willhite that its air defense is vastly improved from years past. Neptune, Ethan Hoerr, and Ma. Anderson all have the ability to cover and tackle in space and Ja. Sears, Patrick Warren, and Bassett have shown the capacity to get some heat on passers, forcing errant throws.
To acclimate its players to the ersatz grass surface at Faurot FIeld, Southwest Livingston/Hale/Tina-Avalon has spent some time this week practicing on north neighbor Chillicothe's artificial turf field.
In playing in the state-title game Saturday, this year’s Wildcats figuratively are walking in the shoes of the school’s fabled “Mighty 10” 1990 squad, which – with only 10 members – advanced to the state finals at Northwest Missouri State University’s stadium in only the program’s third year of existence. Southwest, then using only players from its only student population, dropped that 1990 game to Nodaway-Holt 49-12.
This year’s Wildcats head coach, Oren Magruder, has made a point – in his inaugural season in charge – of connecting the current squad to the Wildcats’ past, including that 1990 group.
“I have guest speakers come (to practice) every Thursday to talk to the team and tell them what it means to be a Wildcat and what it means to play on this field,” the coach told the C-T after last week’s semifinals win.
“The first speaker of the year was Mark Anderson, who was on that 1990 team that went to the state championship and he still remembers it.
“There’s nothing like this. These kids won’t forget this and, even more important than the game, they’re going to remember each other and they’re going to remember the times we had.”
They’ll remember it especially well if, come about 2 p.m. tomorrow, they officially are recognized as “the best” in the state for 2019.