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No. 2 Southwest Livingston, No. 1 North Andrew seek 8-man crown in Chillicothe Saturday

SLHS eyes its first-ever football state title after 2019 runnerup finish; NAHS owns six

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Senior defensive and offensive lineman Owen Oesch of the 2020 Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats drags down South Holt/Nodaway-Holt ballcarrier Drew Quinlan during the Wildcats' 70-38 home win on Sept. 4. SLHS will need tough run defense this Saturday when they meet North Andrew for Missouri's 8-man state championship in Chillicothe.
  • Southwest Livingston seeks its first-ever state football title, while North Andrew owns six
  • Kickoff at Chillicothe's Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II will be 1 p.m. Saturday
  • North Andrew runs the ball a high percentage of the time, while Southwest is more balanced
  • Southwest Livingston has won only one of four previous state-playoffs games against North Andrew
Painted by team supporters, a downtown Chillicothe business' windows display local support for the Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats, who will play North Andrew for the 8-man state championship in Chillicothe Saturday, Nov. 28, at 1 p.m.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

This Saturday, Southwest Livingston High School’s Wildcats, owning an 11-1 record on the season, will face a big, heavily-run-oriented team representing one of Missouri’s historically-elite 8-man football programs for the right to be crowned state champion.

Sound familiar? It ought to. It’s the same scenario as one year ago. Only the name of the opponent and the location will be different.

Saturday (Today when this story appears in print) at 1 p.m. on Bob Fairchild Field at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II, Southwest Livingston will do battle with undefeated, 6-times state champion North Andrew to decide 2020 supremacy in the state’s 8-man gridiron ranks.

The schools’ first football meeting since 2015 – exactly 30 years after their first – also will be their first in the state finals, but not their first deep in the postseason.

The Wildcats and Cardinals have squared four times previously in the state semifinals (1990, 1994, 2012, and 2014) with Ludlow-based Southwest claiming the initial meeting and Rosendale/Bolckow-based North Andrew the last three (see related story below).

Defeated 82-46 by Mound City for that school’s state-high eighth 8-man title, the 2019 SLHS squad put quite a cap on their program’s – now cooperatively incorporating students from Hale and Tina-Avalon in addition to the host/namesake – huge bounce-back decade.

After multiple winless seasons and no winning ones between 2000-2009, the next decade began with a 6-3 mark and then went on to produce at least a district finalist the rest of it.

Having lost in the state semifinals to North Andrew in the first half of the teens, the Wildcats finally broke through to make their first appearance in the state-championship game in a generation last year with a thrilling 74-68 shootout win at home over Pattonsburg/Gilman City/North Harrison.

Facing a Mound City team it had defeated in midseason when the Panthers were not at full complement, personnel-wise, Southwest Livingston traded blows with the physically-bigger, more-physical foe for about 1-1/2 quarters on the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Faurot Field in Memorial Stadium before the Panthers’ punishing, 3-pronged running attack bludgeon it the rest of the way.

According to SLHS second-year head coach Oren Magruder, predictably, that experience fueled the many returning Wildcats players to try to earn that opportunity again as seniors, but with a different outcome.

“Since we walked off that field last year, that was the returning seniors’ goal,” he told the C-T minutes after last week’s semifinal victory over Drexel/Amoret: Miami. “They were going to do whatever it took to make it to (the) state (title game).

“… They didn’t like the way it felt. We got run off the field last year versus Mound City and so they wanted a chance for redemption.

“They’ve worked hard. Being senior-led – and we have some really good seniors, they’ve pushed everybody and they’re pushed them the right way.”

A couple of youthful supporters of Southwest Livingston High School's football Wildcats paint a downtown Chillicothe business window Wednesday (Nov. 25) as a show of local support for the team, which will play North Andrew for the 8-man state championship in Chillicothe Saturday, Nov. 28, at 1 p.m.

NAHS Coach Dwyane Williams’ team enters undefeated, but not unchallenged. It has two victories by seven points or less and another by 10. Its closest call was only two week ago in the district finals when the South Holt/Nodaway-Holt squad Southwest Livingston hammered by 32 early in the season fell to the Cardinals only 26-21 on the NAHS field.

Williams attributes his team's “crunch-time” poise to the six seniors on the roster.

"They have just done a fantastic job of absorbing the game plan each week," he told an interviewer recently. "We preach sticking together. These guys seem to have adopted it a little bit more than most teams do.

“Those (close calls) have made us a little more battle-tested. All the things that have happened for us have allowed us to be in those moments and them not be too big for us." 

By comparison, SLHS’ Wildcats – aside from its one, injury-marred loss to Mound City – has won by 18 or more every time except for its deceptive 34-22 district-finals win over North Shelby two weeks back. Southwest led that game 34-6 at halftime and played it close to the vest offensively the rest of the way.

Asked to summarize the challenge North Andrew will present to his squad, Wildcats second-year head coach Oren Magruder told the C-T this week, “They are super physical and well-coached. Their line does an awesome job firing off the ball and sustaining blocks. Their backs run hard through contact and can take it ‘to the house’ when given open field.

“On defense, they are super-aggressive and tackle well. All of their players run to the ball and they are very assignment-sound. 

As for the controllable keys to potential victory for his club, Magruder shared, “We need to win the point of attack on both sides of the ball and play super clean. They thrive on taking the ball away, so we can’t give them any ‘freebies.’ 

“Our line has to be able to sustain blocks to allow the skill players to work in space. Our defensive line has to fight off blocks and get penetration to slow down their run game.”

Personnel-wise for North Andrew, quarterback/linebacker Carson Thomas is the main cog, but not the only impact player.

Both he and running back are among 8-man’s top six in the state in rushing yardage with Ecker over 1,600 yards and Thomas beyond 1,400 in the option offense NAHS uses.

Thomas averages about 190 total yards from scrimmage a contest, meaning he usually throws for only about 80 yards a game. He has had a hand in just over 35 touchdowns (less than half the total of SLHS quarterback Wes Hughes) and Ecker in 30-plus.

On defense, illustrating the aggressive approach Magruder referenced, linebacker Clayton Linville is the state’s top tackler with about 30 more than second-place Patrick Warren of Southwest.

Thomas has over 110, about 15-20 less than Wildcat Jaeden Sears, and Wynston Walker has about 100, including around 40 behind on the opponent’s side of the line of scrimmage – most in the state by a wide margin. Linville is third in the state in tackles for loss (TFL) with around 25 and Thomas is in the seven with 20-plus.

Walker is second to Sears in sacks with 10 with teammate Brewer Wheeler owning at least eight and Thomas at least seven, according to statistics listed online.

As for defending the pass, which more-balanced Southwest Livingston will do some and perhaps a lot, Cardinal Keaton Hannah had filched six opposition throws entering last week’s semifinal win over Stanberry and Ecker had five, virtually identical totals to Southwest’s top pass defenders.

With multi-seasons star Mack Anderson as a 2019-20 senior, his and others’ losses through graduation figured at the time to make getting that return trip very difficult, even with multiple returning 2019 All-State honorees like Chase Neptune, Sears, and Warren. However, Dame Fortune or the good Lord had their backs and filled the huge void that multi-times All-State Ma. Anderson was leaving.

Between then and the start of the 2020-21 school year, a former Southwest Livingston school district family whose father is a minister who went to serve at an Illinois church about five years earlier relocated back to the Ludlow area, bringing with it two sons who would be a freshman and senior this gyrating school year.

The Hughes family’s teenaged sons – senior Wes and freshman Will – joined the football program and the elder one was a seeming gift from above. Wes Hughes, while nowhere the physical specimen the 6’6”, 220-pounder with speed and power Ma. Anderson was, nevertheless came in with his own athleticism, just in a different package.

With blockers (from right) Owen Oesch, Matthew Kelchen, and Patrick Warren, along with a teammate obscured by Warren at left, having shielded him from North Shelby Raiders pursuers, senior quarterback Wes Hughes of the Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats gains yardage on a left-side keeper during the fourth quarter of SLHS' 34-22 8-man District 2 championship game at Ludlow Nov. 13. Southwest will face North Andrew for the state championship in Chillicothe Saturday (Nov. 28) at 1 p.m.

Far smaller, but quicker, faster to accelerate to top speed, able to cut more quickly and elusively, and with a more-than-adequate passing arm, We. Hughes quickly demonstrated in preseason practices the wherewithal to handle the quarterbacking duties.

That meant the bigger and more-powerful, but slower, Sears – All-State on both the offensive and defensive lines as a junior in 2019 and projected by Magruder as the heir-apparent at quarterback – instead could be utilized elsewhere on offense this season.

When he humbly and graciously, according to his coach, acceded to Magruder’s vision of what would best serve the team’s attack, the Hale senior was restored to the offensive line, shifting over to center from his 2019 guard post. Teaming there with fellow holdover Owen Oesch and Anderson’s younger brother Morgan, the Southwest Livingston offense which had figured to lose some significant potency from the prior year instead was just as good, if not better.

Only an early-game injury to We. Hughes’ throwing hand in their regular-season rematch with Mound City, resulting in a loss in the last few minutes, kept SLHS from being outright Highway 275 Conference champion (instead they shared it with East Atchison and South Holt/Nodaway-Holt, clubs they defeated by a combined 56 points the first two weeks of the season), undefeated to the current time, and quite possibly the state’s top-ranked team, rather than being No. 2 to North Andrew’s No. 1 entering Saturday’s showdown.

Statistically, We. Hughes leads 8-man play by having had a hand in 79 Wildcats offensive touchdowns and is second in total offensive yardage (passing, rushing, receiving) with around 370 per outing.

Meanwhile, Sears has been his usual ferocious self on defense, leading the state in quarterback sacks while participating in, by Magruder’s count, 139 total tackles, one of the top eight totals in the 8-man ranks. On offense, his, Oesch’s, Mo. Anderson’s, and fill-in Matthew Kelchen’s blocking has led to not only big passing numbers by We. Hughes, but his 1,200-plus rushing yards and running back Patrick Warren’s approximately 870.

On top of that, the nagging injury that limited Neptune in the middle of the season and sidelined him entirely for several weeks late in the campaign prompted M. Kelchen’s insertion at center with Sears shifting to wide receiver’s position where he not only can serve as a fourth powerful blocker, but also is a legitimate receiving target and a difficult matchup for much smaller defensive backs.

While the power-running Warren and slashing We. Hughes provide an effective, complementary rushing threat, smallish, but tough, seniors Parker Keeney (63 receptions, 999 yards, 18 touchdowns – tied for third-most in the state) and Ethan Hoerr (37 catches, nearly 650 yards) have picked up most of the slack in Neptune’s absence.

Given Neptune’s brief, but effective, appearance in last week’s semifinals win over Drexel/Miami and the circumstance of playing for the state championship, if he returns to more-extensive use, allowing Sears to shift back to center for most plays, it could boost what already is 8-man’s highest-scoring offense in 2020. With a single catch that went for 25 yards with a good run after the reception last week, Neptune moved past 800 receiving yards for the year, the state’s sixth-highest 8-man total.

On defense, while Sears leads Missouri in sacks and is in the top five in TFLs, Warren is, as mentioned, No. 2 in total tackles with 150. In last week’s victory to clinch the repeat appearance in the state-title game, Warren not only had a team-high 14 tackles, but also a key interception (his fifth) and fumble recovery in Wildcats territory and a forced fumble.

Oesch (16 TFLs) anchors the defensive line and Hoerr and Keeney are willing tacklers in addition to having good pass coverage skills that don’t figure to come into play all that much Saturday. In last year’s state-championship game, Mound City did not throw a pass and North Andrew’s offensive style is very similar, in terms of running the ball a very high percentage of the time.

Hoerr (five for the season) and Keeney (three) each had a pass theft against Drexel/Miami. If, again, Neptune is well enough to play anything near full-time at safety, he’ll further negate any passing threat, but also be a bigger, stronger run defender in the middle of the field than Keeney, who shifted to safety in his absence with Hunter Colliver taking over at left cornerback.