Balanced Southwest Livingston Reigns as Missouri 8-Man Football Champ
In program’s third title-game appearance, Wildcats seize opening, pull away from nemesis North Andrew 52-34
- Southwest Livingston gains its first state gridiron crown in third try, 33rd year of program
- Southwest Wildcats scored 32 unanswered points in decisive mid-game stretch
- Punishing loss in state-championship game a year earlier Southwest's flame all season
- Senior-heavy Southwest Livingston team showed diversity with strong ground game, defense
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Fueled by the memory of a state-runnerup finish by blowout a year ago and featuring a more-balanced offense and tougher defense, the 2020 Southwest Livingston High School Wildcats – including players from neighboring Hale and Tina-Avalon schools – seized control of Saturday’s 8-man football state-championship game clash with long-time nemesis North Andrew with 32-consecutive points and never were endangered the rest of the way in a convincing 52-34 triumph.
Thirty-seven years after the sport was inaugurated in the R-1 School District – reportedly over some strenuous objections, 33 years after the program’s first varsity-level high school game, and exactly 30 years after they first played for a state championship, the Wildcats today stand atop the state’s 8-man football ranks after never playing a 2020 playoff game outside the county borders, including Saturday’s title game at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II.
“We’ve had some great young men, some great leaders,” Oren Magruder, second-year SLHS head coach, shared with the C-T following Saturday’s victory about what keyed the ascendance to consecutive state-title-game appearances and, now, the title.
“They’ve really pushed everybody to greatness. They didn’t settle.”
Multiple holdovers from the squad which Mound City punished 82-46 without throwing a pass at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Memorial Stadium 52 weeks earlier provided leadership throughout the offseason and through the championship game.
One of those returnees – senior linebacker/running back Patrick Warren – joined Magruder and transfer quarterback Wes Hughes at the official post-game news conference and confirmed the way last year’s title-game loss went down as the germination point of this season’s ultimate success.
“We didn’t like the way it felt,” Warren, who rushed for 105 yards and was in on a dozen tackles, told reporters of the reaction he and teammates like Jaeden Sears, Chase Neptune, Owen Oesch, and Ethan Hoerr among others had to getting run over by the larger Mound City players.
“… Right after, we all busted our butts in the weight room. Then, the coronavirus happened. We tried to get into the weight room as much as we could, even though they shut down. Whoever had (weight-training equipment) at their house, they lifted. Then come the second week of July (when facilities reopened), we really busted our butts in the weight room.
“That and God is the only reason we’re here.”
The head coach, who served one year as assistant under Tyler Anderson before moving up when Anderson quit coaching for construction work, noted the work ethic wasn’t limited to the top-level players, but permeated the roster.
“A lot of them, they didn’t play that much their freshman or sophomore years, but they turned themselves into football players,” he shared during the media gathering. “… They didn’t play much until they were juniors, but they lifted so hard. They wanted to be great.”
Great effectively describes the Southwest Livingston performance on both sides of the ball from the middle of the opening period until the eventual outcome was crystallized early in the fourth.
The offense – leaning heavily on the run and short pass to try to exploit and counteract the pressure defense North Andrew utilizes – put the ball in the end zone on five of its six first-half opportunities, including the first four. At game’s end, the Wildcats had run 36 times for 258 yards – with both We. Hughes and Warren topping the century mark in yards gained – and completed 15 of 26 passes for 183.
“When they rush five guys, it makes it really hard to do anything but throw quick passes,” Magruder told reporters. “We were having success with the run game, so why go away from it.”
Meanwhile, their defense quickly adjusted to the nearly-run-exclusive Cardinals offense and, after slowing it on NAHS’ second touchdown drive in as many first-quarter possessions, blanked it until the final 2-1/2 minutes of the third period. Having moved back ahead 14-6 when quarterback Carson Thomas pushed across the goal line with 2:15 left in the opening frame, North Andrew was down 38-14 by the time it scored next almost exactly two quarters later.
“I joked with the boys, ‘We’ll be okay because we always stink on the first drive on defense anyway,’” the Southwest coach recalled commenting on the sideline after NAHS’ game-opening, 8-plays, 47-yards touchdown march. “That’s pretty true all year. I don’t know if we’ve stopped anybody on the first drive all year.
“The second drive, you kind of saw us settle in and, instead of (allowing) eight yards a carry, they were getting three yards a carry. They were still getting first downs, but you saw us start to slow them down and frustrate them a little bit.”
One of the game’s pivotal developments occurred just before North Andrew took its second and last lead on that second possession.
On a fourth-and-1 carry from the Southwest 9, sophomore tailback Hayden Ecker – the Cardinals’ leader in rushing yards and touchdowns coming in and who had scored the game’s first touchdown on a 4-yards run 3:16 into the contest – gained two yards to earn a fresh set of downs, but was hit low and hard by Warren and came up injured. Exiting with about four minutes left in the first stanza, he did not return.
“Our kids are physical,” asserted Magruder. “That’s what the weight room will do for you. They like to lift and they like to hit.”
Although Thomas finally scored from the 1 four plays later, without the threat of both Ecker and Andrew Coff (who had to shift from offset back to tailback) as complements to the stocky, strong Thomas, the Southwest Livingston defense’s already-developing effectiveness in slowing the single-dimension NAHS attack turned into outright stopping it.
Magruder says there was not any strategic change on his team’s part to take Ecker’s absence into account.
“We just do our job,” he told the C-T, echoing the mantra preached by NFL coaching legend Bill Belichick. “We don’t really focus on anybody too much.
“If it’s something like we need to change the defense a little bit, we’ll do that, but I’ve always believed that, if we contain and fill gaps and tackle, we’ll be fine with the defense we’re in.”
Particularly instrumental in nullifying the power running game North Andrew utilized was SLHS’ 4-man defensive front of senior ends Morgan Anderson and Sears and junior Oesch and sophomore Glen Holt inside. Not only did they tie up the 5-man line the Cardinals had with a double-tight-end formation to keep linebackers Warren and Neptune free to roam or shoot gaps, but they made lots of plays themselves.
Oesch had a monster game, racking up nine solo tackles – more than twice the total of his next-highest teammate (Anderson with four) – and sharing the team lead in total tackles participated in with 14, according to official statistics.
Fellow linemen Anderson (6), Holt (9), and Sears (10, including a 9-yards sack which briefly knocked Thomas out of the game in the fourth quarter) joined in denying North Andrew much up-front push after the opening series.
“We’ve got some really good guys up front,” Magruder agreed when asked by the C-T about the performance the defensive line had given, “and, when they do their jobs and they fill gaps and they have to take five guys to block our four and allow Patrick and Chase and Parker to fly around and make tackles, that’s what makes our defense special.
“Those front four have been awesome this year.”
Just as the defense was strong with the load well-shared – a half-dozen Wildcats were credited with being in on at least 10 tackles, with cornerback Parker Keeney matching Oesch’s 14 and Neptune right behind with 13, the offense spread the wealth around.
As usual, We. Hughes, whose family had moved from the Ludlow district to Illinois while he was in grade school and then returned last spring, was the fulcrum with his legs, arm, and mind.
Charged with making final determination of when to make it a running play or pass, based on his pre-snap survey of the defense, the now-senior handed off 16 times, carried the ball 20 times, and threw on 26 occasions. Between his passing and running, he accounted for 335 yards from scrimmage, throwing to Hoerr for three scores and dashing into the end zone himself twice.
He replied to a question during the formal post-game media session that he had not kept in overly-close contact with his former grade-school classmates during his years in Illinois, but did know of the success the football team had experienced while he was gone.
As the family was considering where to move last spring, he contacted Warren to see what reaction there might be if he ended up back at the Ludlow-based school that serves the Utica, Dawn, and Mooresville communities of western and southwestern Livingston County.
“When I talked to Patrick for the first time in like seven years or something like that in May or whenever, right before we moved,” We. Hughes shared, “I asked him, ‘You cool with me moving back?’ and he goes, ‘Duh? Yeah.’
“That was the first time we talked (at length since the Hughes family left). We went outside and talked for about 30 minutes to an hour.
“He goes, ‘Well, if you’re moving back, let’s go win a state championship,’ and I went, ‘Okay. Let’s do it.’”
To better identify with where his old friends and new teammates were coming from, psychologically, We. Hughes indicated he reviewed the video of last year’s title-game loss to a Mound City team Southwest had defeated during the regular season. Knowing now that he’s contributed to salving those wounds and making school history adds to the joy of Saturday’s accomplishment.
“It didn’t feel good to me to watch my friends go out there and give it their best and not come out on top,” he shared, “so it’s special to be the first ones.”
“It made my life a little easier, Wes coming back, because he can really spin it (throw spiraling passes),” Magruder said of the senior’s impact in minimizing the impact of the graduation loss of multi-time All-Stater Mack Anderson after last year.
For the many Southwest Livingston fans at Litton Stadium who also attended the 2019 title game at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Memorial Stadium, there was an ominous early feeling when North Andrew pushed the ball down the field and into the south end zone without much difficulty after accepting the opening kickoff.
Even when the SLHS offense "did its thing" – scooting 55 yards in five snaps and terminating its answering scoring march with a 16-yards connection between We. Hughes, as he stepped up in the pocket, and Hoerr on a right-to-left crossing route, those Wildcats fans – their numbers swelled far beyond last year’s turnout by the proximity of the game site (only 15 miles from Ludlow) and many Chillicotheans and other county residents who turned out on the sunny, mild, and somewhat-windy afternoon – had their concerns only mildly assuaged.
When North Andrew moved steadily, although more slowly this time, toward the Wildcats’ end zone again, Southwest faithful feared a repeat of last year’s debacle, in which Mound City scored touchdowns all but the last time it had the ball in the title game, might be in the offing.
However, after the Cardinals completed their drive and converted for two points to make it 14-6, the action became a blue wave.
“Once we slowed down the run game, it made it hard for them to execute their offense,” Magruder observed.
Starting the ensuing possession at its own 21, Southwest gained nine yards on a short throw to Warren, then got superb blocking from the line of guards Anderson and Oesch and center Matt Kelchen on a straight sweep of left end. Slowly pacing himself as he ran laterally to the wide side of the field to give his linemen time to get in front of him, Warren finally turned the corner and, with just enough room to stay inbounds, rumbled 50 yards to the end zone. We. Hughes’ conversion run knotted the score again at 14-14 and Southwest Livingston was on its way.
Following the game’s first defensive stop, the Wildcats’ “jail-break” offense swooped 60 yards in six plays and only 1:09, capping the series with Hoerr snaring a quick wide-receiver screen pass to the right side and, behind Oesch’s wipeout block, scampering 29 yards for the go-ahead score with 8:55 on the second-period clock.
We. Hughes’ 10-yards scoring scamper 1:59 before halftime and Warren’s conversion run made it 30-14 at intermission. Hoerr’s third score on a 19-yards catch-and-run with a slant pass which was seemingly tipped and nearly intercepted made it a 24-points lead with 4:31 remaining in the third quarter.
“Hoerr was phenomenal. We kept going to him because he kept making catches, kept getting open,” Magruder said.
“We want an offense that’s going to be able to take advantage of anything, any matchup we like, and I felt like that’s what we had” with Hoerr at right end.
North Andrew finally scored again with 2:06 on the third-period clock, but failed to convert, keeping it a 3-scores game after three frames. When, 63 seconds into the fourth, We. Hughes completed an 11-plays, 56-yards touchdown drive with a 4-yards keeper and Kayden Sturgeon ran for the conversion, it was a 4-scores spread – 46-20 – and, given North Andrew’s lack of quick-strike ability, the SLHS victory effectively was secured, even though nearly a full quarter remained.
Just to be sure, the Wildcats squeezed one last TD – on a 3-yards Warren run – between a pair of consolation Cardinals scores the rest of the way.
Statistically, Southwest Livingston out-gained partially-defanged North Andrew 441-309 with many of the Cardinals yards coming essentially meaninglessly in the middle of the field without putting points on the board in the second and much of the third quarters.
Of the victorious Wildcats’ yards 258 came on land and 183 by air while all but 48 of the Cardinals’ were afoot.
Individually on offense, We. Hughes ran for 152 yards on 20 carries, while, bulwarked by his unexpected sweep-for-6 scamper, Warren totaled 105 on a modest nine totes. Throwing the ball, Hughes was 15 of 26 for 183 yards and the three scores.
Hoerr snared four throws for a game-high 74 yards and Sears, who would have been the team’s quarterback this year had not the Hughes family moved back and instead played center much of the year until Neptune’s back problems prompted a relocation to end/wide receiver, had the game’s most catches with five for 50 yards.
On defense, Neptune – recovered sufficiently to play virtually full-time on defense and likely would have filled in on offense, if needed – added a late interception, the game’s only turnover, to his 13-tackles day.
“It was a complete team effort, everybody,” Magruder acknowledged. “We have so many good athletes, it’s really hard to cover everybody.”
In a major positive for it, Southwest Livingston played turnover-free football, while getting one takeaway on a late Neptune interception when he shifted from linebacker to a free safety spot. The Wildcats looked to have another “pick” from Warren early in the second half, but, in an apparent ruling of simultaneous possession as he and a Cardinals receiver reaching for the pigskin stepped out of bounds, the ball stayed with NAHS.
Southwest Livingston also had at least three near-misses on recoveries of onside kick attempts in the early going, but those eventually became irrelevant.
For North Andrew, sophomore Coff, who entered the game as his team’s third ball-carrying option, but ended up the tailback after Ecker’s departure, netted 128 yards, but needed 32 carries to get that. Quarterback Thomas, bruised during the third period in addition to being briefly shaken up by Sears’ sack, managed only 64 yards on 21 carries.
North Andrew was limited to just less than four yards per carry on its 67 rushing attempts by the stingy SLHS defenders and barely four yards per play on its 73 total snaps.
Conversely, Southwest Livingston, viewed by many as more of a passing team, averaged seven yards per run and just over seven on its 62 offensive plays.
“We’re ‘whatever it takes to get the job done,’” Magruder said of his team’s offensive approach.