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Defense pushes Southwest Livingston north to Missouri’s 8-man football state title game

For second state-playoffs game in row, Wildcats stifles potent foe in 52-22 triumph over Drexel; SLHS, North Andrew to duel for crown in Chillicothe next Saturday (Nov. 28)

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
After a 52-22 rout of Drexel/Amoret: Miami at home Friday (Nov. 20), Southwest Livingston High School’s football Wildcats will make the short trip north to the county seat next Saturday (Nov. 28) to face North Andrew in Missouri’s 8-man state-championship game at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II. State runnerup a year ago, SLHS will be after its first-ever state crown, of which North Andrew owns about a handful or more.
  • Southwest Wildcats will third stab at winning a Missouri 8-man football state title
  • Southwest Livingston defense takes ball away five times
  • Patrick Warren, Parker Keeney post two touchdowns apiece

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

LUDLOW — That the Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats would play for Missouri’s 2020 8-man football state championship without ever crossing the county line, as now has become fact, was recognized as a reasonable possibility ever since early October when Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II was announced as site of next Saturday’s state-title game.

That the Wildcats’ defense would be as responsible as their offense for making that happen likely caught many by surprise.

For a second state-playoffs game in a row Friday night (Nov. 20), Southwest Livingston’s defense denied the opposition points for a long stretches of play, permitting the more-heralded, but recently less-prolific, offense to still build a lead comfortable enough that most of the final quarter was drama-free.

One week after holding North Shelby to only six points through 3-plus periods, the underestimated Wildcats’ “D” blanked state-semifinals guest Drexel/Amoret: Miami from the middle of the second quarter until the game’s last minute as the co-op team including students from Hale and Tina-Avalon in addition to Southwest Livingston registered a 52-22 victory which puts the Wildcats in the state finals in Chillicothe for a second-straight year.

Defeated 82-46 by Mound City in the University of Missouri’s Memorial Stadium at Columbia with the state crown on the line last November, Southwest Livingston will duel with North Andrew, a long-time tormentor, at Litton Stadium – a mere 15 miles up the road from the Wildcats’ home – at 1 p.m. next Saturday.

While Southwest was handily silencing Drexel/Miami’s Bobcats last Friday, Grand River Conference-West (8-man) Division champion North Andrew (13-0) was claiming its semifinal by a 42-22 margin over Stanberry.

It won’t be the first time those schools’ teams have clashed in the 8-man state playoffs.

In 1994, four years after Southwest’s first of now three championship-game appearances – a 49-12 loss to Nodaway-Holt at Northwest Missouri State University’s Rickenbrode (now Bearcat) Stadium, North Andrew’s Cardinals won a tough semifinals on their home field, 14-8.

With many returnees from a year ago on its roster, Southwest Livingston (11-1) had one goal in mind this season, second-year head coach Oren Magruder confirmed in the euphoria after the semifinal victory.

“State,” he acknowledged, meaning getting back to the state-championship game and winning it. 

“Since we walked off (MU’s Faurot) Field last year, that was the returning seniors’ goal. They were going to do whatever it took to make it to (the) state (title game).

“I think this was our best offseason since I’ve been here. They attacked the weight room, even with the COVID stuff. We came in – three people per hour and I stayed here all day – and they lifted the butts off. After the summer, it showed. We were bigger, we were faster. The kids were hungry.”

The Wildcats completed the penultimate step of that journey Friday in their third 2020 postseason outing on their home field, thereby earning the right to take the quarter-hour trip north to Chillicothe, the Livingston County seat, next Saturday.

The victory over District 1 champion Drexel/Amoret: Miami initially looked like it would be a matter of too much Southwest Livingston firepower, but eventually it was the Wildcats’ defense which proved most troubling to the Bobcats

Senior defensive back Ethan Hoerr, who made a win-clinching interception in the Southwest Livingston High School Wildcats’ 2019 state-semifinals victory over Pattonsburg/North Harrison/Gilman City in very nearly the same spot on the SLHS field, swoops in to pick off a long third-quarter pass by Drexel/Amoret: Miami Friday night. It was one of three Wildcats interceptions and five takeaways in their 52-22 romp in the 2020 state semifinal at the Ludlow school. Southwest will face North Andrew for the state crown in Chillicothe next Saturday.

Fair-catching the opening pooch kickoff at its 28, SLHS used seven plays to cover 52 yards and take a lead it never relinquished. A 22-yards connection from senior quarterback Wes Hughes to senior end Ethan Hoerr on third and eight put the ball on the DHS 18. Four plays later, on fourth-and-2, We. Hughes darted up the middle for a 10-yards touchdown run 2:57 into the contest. The SLHS quarterback then added a conversion run for a near-immediate 8-0 margin.

In a preview of its eventual pivotal role in the game, Southwest’s defense forced a three-and-out on Drexel/Miami’s opening series.

Magruder shared, “The secret about our defense is it’s actually been pretty good all year.

“(The 84-66 regular-season-finale win over King City) was kind of a (radar) ‘blip.’ Our offense has scored fast all year, so our points per game given up is a little higher.”

The coach admitted to dialing up a little extra motivation for the defense, even after its strong showing against North Shelby.

“I really challenged them. I said,  ‘You got called the worst defense left in the state (playoffs),’ (by some media or online source),” Magruder disclosed. “… I’m always looking for bulletin-board material, so I took it and ran with it.

“They came out with a little bit of a (proverbial) chip (on their shoulders) and that’s what we needed. They came out aggressive.”

Following a booming 41-yards punt that produced a touchback, the Wildcats’ offense again fashioned an extended march that again reached “the promised land.”

Begun by a 21-yards We. Hughes keeper and extended by senior end Parker Keeney’s hard-fought 6-yards reception at the Bobcats’ 6 on a fourth-and-3 play, Southwest Livingston boosted its advantage to 14-0 on Patrick Warren’s 6-yards inside burst at the 4:06 mark of the opening frame

Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats senior Patrick Warren gains some of his 138 rushing yards during Friday’s 52-22 home win over Drexel/Amoret: Miami in the state semifinals at the Ludlow school. In addition to his rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, Warren also intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble in helping lead another very stout performance by the SLHS “D.” Southwest Livingston now will play for Missouri’s 8-man championship for a second-straight year next Saturday (Nov. 28) at 1 p.m. when it meets North Andrew at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II.

When, as the period neared its end, the SLHS repelled a Drexel/Miami threat with a 7-yards loss on a second-and-1 play from the Wildcats’ 4 and, on the very next play, a Warren fumble recovery at the 20 after an off-target toss on an attempted Bobcats sweep, it seemed the stage might be set for a Southwest Livingston rout of its foe. A score on the possession Warren earned with his recovery could make it a 3-scores game and shred its west-Missouri opponent’s confidence.

However, perhaps getting a bit greedy or overanxious, following an incompletion, a We. Hughes deep throw toward Keeney came up short and was intercepted at about midfield.

Reprieved by its takeaway, Drexel/Miami used a 25-yards gallop by big, hard-running sophomore Jacob Coffey to escape a third-and-19 jam and eventually completed a 38-yards, 9-snaps touchdown drive in unlikely manner. As Coffey, who repeatedly used spins as contact came to blunt their impact and keeps his feet, tried to power in from the SLHS 3 on a fourth-and-2 carry, the ball came loose. However,fellow back Cory Cumpton dove on it in the end zone. Even when SLHS stopped the conversion try, the visitors were within a score at 14-6 with 8:09 left in the first half.

“We didn’t tackle well in the first half,” assessed Magruder, “but that Coffey kid’s really good and he forced a lot of those (missed) tackles.

“We kept leaning on (him), kept beating on him, and started getting him on the ground and wrapping up a little bit better in the second half.”

In fact, on the last play of the third period, any legitimate Drexel/Miami hope of a big comeback went out the window when, as Coffey spun again during about a 10-yards gain, he was drilled by a Wildcat and left for the rest of the night, injured.

Praised the SLHS head coach about the Bobcats back, “He’s got great balance, he’s fast, elusive. You can’t replicate (in practice) that spin move.”

The clubs then swapped lightning bolts on the mostly-clear, calm, and unseasonably-mild night.

On the play of the ensuing Wildcats possession, We. Hughes launched a high, deep throw that led Keeney perfectly, allowing him to run under it about seven yards deep in the end zone for a 31-yards touchdown reception. Hughes again danced in for the 2-points conversion only 23 seconds after Drexel had scored.

The Bobcats weren’t rattled, though. Recovering an onside kick at its own 39, Drexel/Miami was third and two and the Wildcats’ 38 when Coffey, sweeping to the right side, avoided a couple of tackles near the line of scrimmage while barely staying in-bounds and ended up going the distance. With a successful 2-points conversion, the Bobcats were down only 22-14 with still 6:06 left to play in the first half.

By the time the visitors scored again, however, the outcome was long resolved in Southwest’s favor.

With the game still 22-14 as the second half commenced with the visitors getting the ball first, Southwest Livington’s defense started turning the game clearly the Wildcats’ way.

On the second D/M play, another hurried toss on a sweep attempt was off-target and Southwest Livingston recovered at the Bobcats’ 33. Even with a would-be We. Hughes 27-yards touchdown carry negated by a holding penalty, the hosts weren’t denied.

We. Hughes dashed up the middle and then to the left (west) sideline for a 39-yards gain to the 1 on the next snap and then threw a wide receiver screen pass to Keeney, who stepped into the end zone for a 1-yards touchdown pass at 10:25 of the third stanza. Another We. Hughes-Keeney hookup on the conversion play meant the SLHS lead had doubled to 30-14.

The fourth Wildcats takeaway of the night – a Hoerr interception of a deep, fourth-and-11 desperation pass – quickly was followed by a 25-yards catch-and-run connection with senior running back Chase Neptune to midfield and a long, post-pattern TD throw to Keeney from there on the next snap. The 2-plays, 65-yards “march” following Hoerr’s theft made it 36-14, Southwest, less than 3-1/2 minutes into the second half.

After a turnover on downs by the struggling Drexel/Miami offense was essentially negated when We. Hughes was picked off a second time on the next play, the visitors had perhaps their last chance to make a game of it down the stretch.

The Wildcats’ defense would not let it do so, however.

On a third-and-11 play from the Bobcats’ 31, a heavy pass rush by multiple Southwest Livingston linemen forced an underthrown pass that Keeney lunged to intercept at the SLHS 33. A couple of plays later, Warren burst up the middle for 25 yards to the Drexel 15 before, on fourth-and-13 from the 18, We. Hughes hit versatile big man Jaeden Sears with a well-placed, back-shoulder fade just across the Bobcats’ goal line.

The quarterback’s extra-point run upped the ante to 44-14 with a mere 27 seconds remaining in the third stanza and effectively sewed up the Wildcats’ “W.”

Just to be sure, SLHS’ “D” stopped on its next two possessions, as well, in the process accidentally knocking the Bobcats’ top offensive player, Coffey, from the game with an injury on the last play of the third period. With those two “stops,” it meant Southwest’s defense had held the opponent scoreless on 8-consecutive possessions, stopping half of those with takeaways.

After the last of those eight “stops” gave it possession at its own 25, Southwest Livingston called Warren’s number on five plays in a row. The third of those produced a 34-yards gallop to the D/M 5 and the last was a 2-yards touchdown run. When We. Hughes hit Hunter Colliver on the conversion attempt, the Wildcats led 52-14 with a mere 2:32 remaining.

“Patrick’s about as strong a kid as we have on the team. If he hits you enough times, it isn’t fun,” Magruder declared. “He runs really hard, he’s very strong, and, as the year has gone along, has really learned how to run ‘behind his pads,’ so he’s an absolute load.”

Drexel/Miami’s only points of the last 2-1/2 periods came with 57 seconds to go when it concluded a 3-plays, 41-yards drive against Wildcats reserves.

“It took all of us to get back to (the state final) and it was exciting to get every dressed player at least one snap during the game,” Magruder noted.

Statistically, the game saw Warren rush for 136 yards on 17 carries with two TDs, Keeney catch nine balls for 108 yards and another two scores, and We. Hughes complete 15 of 28 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns, while also netting 83 yards on 10 carries – one of which found paydirt.

“The plan was we were bigger than them up front and we wanted to wear them down and run the football,” disclosed Magruder afterward.

“We knew they were going to be aggressive, so any time we held the ball, it was going to be bad for us. We really tried to focus on quick screens this week, getting the ball out of (We. Hughes’) hands, so he wasn’t taking the hits.”

Fortunately, Wildcats receivers were getting open quickly and the quarterback was on target early on. We. Hughes racked up eight completions in his first 10 throws, mostly on short throws.

That allowed the hosts to claim the upper hand early and bought time for the run blocking to find its stride.

“Early on, our offensive line really struggled,” the SLHS coach reviewed. “I don’t know what happened, but we weren’t picking up the blitz and stuff like that.

“We went in at halftime and got some things adjusted and fixed the blocking assignments and that was enough to start springing the run game.”

Southwest Livingston unofficially finished with 220 rushing yards.

On defense, Warren had both a fumble recovery and interception while posting a team-high 14 tackles.

Jaeden Sears was in on 13 tackles and recovered a fumble, while fellow defensive linemen Glen Holt was part of 11 stops – two for losses, Morgan Anderson six with half of them for losses, and Owen Oesch six with one behind the line.

In addition to their air thefts, cornerbacks Keeney (11) and Hoerr (10) had double-digits tackles.

In a positive development which the Wildcats hope will be able to be sustained to the championship game, injured senior All-State running back/wide receiver/defensive back Neptune returned to limited action after missing several contests. He had the one reception and was part of four tackles.