Season to remember in year to forget

Southwest Livingston football ascended to 2020 state throne amid COVID-19, opponent challenges

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats hoist the 2020 state-championship trophy on Bob Fairchild Field at Chillicothe's Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II after dominating North Andrew 52-34 in the Nov. 28 title game. It was Southwest's first-ever state title.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

LUDLOW — The roots of Southwest Livingston High School football’s first-ever state championship effectively extend back a decade. The genesis of their march to 2020 crown occurred 52 weeks before the title became reality only 15 miles from home in Chillicothe. The key developments along the way occurred not only during the fall season of play, but also during spring and summer.

When, having managed to successfully navigate the many challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wildcats decisively defeated long-time tormentor  North Andrew 52-34 at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II on Nov. 28, a year to forget had produced a season to remember.

“We’ve had some great young men, some great leaders,” Oren Magruder, SLHS head coach who guided the amalgam of Southwest Livingston, Hale, and Tina-Avalon student to the summit in 2020 after placing second in the state in his first season in charge, stated to media in a post-championship-game news conference. “They’ve really pushed everybody to greatness. They didn’t settle.”

After a successful start to the Ludlow-based school’s program’s varsity-level competition in the late 1980s, including an unsuccessful appearance in the 1990 state-title game and a semifinals loss (to North Andrew) in 1994,  the Wildcats’ fortunes faded sharply as the school’s population and roster size dwindled.

When the 2000s dawned, Southwest Livingston – usually with a roster of only around 15 or fewer players – entered a decade in which it never won more than three times in a season between 2001-08 and, under a series of head coaches, suffered several  winless seasons.

As the first decade of the millennium neared its end, a veteran football coach, Ken Boatwright, came to the area and agreed to serve as Southwest’s head coach. Benefitting from the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s approval a few years earlier of cooperative agreements between adjacent school districts, allowing students from a school which does not offer a particular sport to participate in the partnering district’s program for that sport, Boatwright helped get the Wildcats, now with a roster routinely in the upper teens or higher, pointed in a new direction with a near-.500 (4-6) record.

While Boatwright opted to call it quits after that one year, Southwest Livingston alumnus Tyler Anderson, who had been an assistant coach for four years, moved up to the head coaching post, buttressing the physical brand of play Boatwright had introduced while coincidentally benefitting from the presence of a dynamic freshman player, Ethan Crowe.

With Crowe in tow and several older teammates chipping in, Anderson’s first squad opened the second decade of the 2000s by doubling the wins total of the prior year, finishing 8-2 when they dropped what essentially was their district-title game in the final game of the regular season.

Through six seasons of T. Anderson's oversight, three under Eric Fairchild after Anderson stepped down to accept a job with a construction company, the rest of the decade would see at least seven wins a year every year for the blue and white and, after a district-semifinals loss the next season, an appearance in the district-championship game each year the rest of the decade, including three trips to to the state semifinals. Finally, in 2019, in Magruder’s first year in charge, came the return to the state-title game for the first time in a quarter-century.

Second-year head coach Oren Magruder of Southwest Livingston High School's football Wildcats, assistant coaches Trent Moore, left, and Shannon Hein are joined by transfer senior starting quarterback Wes Hughes intently watch the team's defense perform in the first quarter of the Nov. 28 8-man football state championship game at Chillicothe's Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II, which Moore helped inaugurate as a junior member of the 2012 Chillicothe High School football Hornets. Southwest Livingston defeated North Andrew 52-34 in the game for its first-ever state championship in any team sport.

When that championship game at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s Memorial Stadium in November 2019 resulted in being pulverized 82-46 by a bigger Mound City squad which never threw a pass, it was believed by some observers that, with 6’6”, 220-pounds All-State quarterback/linebacker Mack Anderson having exhausted his eligibility, Southwest’s best chance at finally being a state champion had slipped away for the foreseeable future.

However, the bitter taste that blowout left in the mouths of a sizable core of potential returnees – several of them who had been selected All-State on one or both sides of the ball – and a fortuitous bit of fate combined to push back open the Wildcats’ window of opportunity.

“We got pushed around last year a little bit,” acknowledged Magruder to media after this year’s title was secured.

The coach, a self-admitted motivation junkie, didn’t let his returning players’ memory of that fade, although it turned out he probably needn’t have worried about ath.

“If you look at our white board (in the team locker room) right now,” the coach said in the post-title-game media session, “since the first day of summer camp, it’s said, ‘What are you willing to sacrifice to become a champion? 82-46.’

“I always wanted them to remember. I always wanted them, if there was a chance of them coasting or thought of them coasting (through a practice or a game), that they’d remember how that felt, because I never forgot it.”

Senior Patrick Warren, an All-State 2019 linebacker who repeated that honor in ’20 and added the state laurel as a power running back, told reporters there was no way he or his returning teammates from the state runnersup were forgetting or cutting any corners.

“We didn’t like the way it felt,” declared Warren.

Even when the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools and their facilities from late March into June and July, “We tried to get into the weight room as much as we could, even though they shut it down (to group use),” he related. “Whoever had (weight-training equipment) at their house, they lifted.

“Then come the second week of July (when facilities were reopened), we really busted our butts in the weight room.”

Whether the motivation of the eventually-one-sided loss in the previous November’s championship game and the devotion to becoming physically stronger would have been enough for the 2020 Wildcats to scale the state summit a year later can never be known with certainty. What became indisputable fact, however, that those factors, when combined with an unselfish attitude, strong season-long play, and the intercession of fate did achieve that goal.

Even while the prospective returning 2020 Wildcats did what they could to better prepare themselves during the spring months when their only school experience was virtual instruction and learning, fate was taking a hand.

In Illinois, a minister who had moved there with his fairly-young family from southwestern Livingston County to answer a call from a church about a half-dozen years earlier was preparing to relocate. Among the options being considered, a return to the Dawn-Ludlow-Utica-Mooresville area served by the Southwest Livingston R-1 School.

Was his family, which had stayed in some touch with its old friends and classmates in Missouri and now included sons set to enter their senior and freshman years of high school, willing to retrace its steps? If so, what sort of reception would the children receive from their former and potentially-future classmates?

Oldest son Wes, only peripherally aware of SLHS’ state runnerup finish in football the prior season, decided to phone ex-classmate Warren to get a feel for the potential reaction.

Likely remembering that his grade school mate had been at least decently athletic, Warren received the idea enthusiastically, excited to add another potential contributor or two (in freshman Will Hughes) to the program that still had its sights set high despite Ma. Anderson’s and other important players’ graduation. What Warren nor anyone, least of all Magruder, knew at the time of those late April or early May conversations was just how impactful the older brother would be.

However, even as it started to become clear that Wes Hughes would bring highly-valuable and welcome athleticism and quickness and talent to the team – hugely-important characteristics in 8-man football, a potentially-problematic situation loomed.

Once the Hugheses arrived and Magruder got a chance to see Wes’ skillset, the coach realized the “newcomer”warranted consideration for playing time at quarterback because of his throwing ability.

However, knowing he’d need to replace All-Stater Anderson in 2020, the head coach had practiced and, on occasion in blowout victories, used then-junior All-State offensive guard Jaeden Sears at quarterback in 2019.

With the athletic, 6’3”, approximately 215-pounds Sears, a Hale student, having spent most of the offseason the heir-apparent to play quarterback, what would be his reaction to having to fight for the sport’s glamour position and, potentially, not getting it?

If forced to compete for the job after having worked to develop his throwing skills during the offseason, would he selfishly feel betrayed and decide to skip out of the sport altogether, costing the Wildcats an All-State defensive talent as well as possibly its most-effective quarterback? If willing to compete for the job with We. Hughes in preseason practices, would he choose to quit if he felt he’d done as much or more than the “newbie,” but the coach felt differently?

With enormous ramifications resting on his approach, Magruder, likely sensing he knew enough about Sears’ character that his reaction wouldn’t be totally selfish, decided to take it one step at a time.

He visited with his returning All-State lineman and explained that he wanted to see how the new “air raid” offense he was installing would function both with the taller, stronger Sears and quicker, sharper-throwing Hughes behind center. The returning Wildcat said he was willing to go that route.

In an exclusive interview with the C-T after the championship-game victory, Magruder picked up the storyline of what he characterized as “the most-selfless move ever” at that point.

“He and Wesley actually graded out very close in the quarterback (battle),” the coach recalled. “At the end of camp, (I told him) ‘I hate to do it, because I feel like you’re good enough to play receiver or running back or something. You deserve to get touchdowns, but we need you on the line right now.’ (Projected starting center) Matthew Kelchen wasn’t around (due to health restrictions), so we were having a hard time with snaps and blocking and stuff.

“I said, ‘For the betterment of the team, I need you to play center,’ and he goes, ‘Coach, all I care about is the betterment of the team. Let’s go win!’

“That’s the kind of kid he is and that’s kind of reflective of all the kids on our team is that they’re willing to accept a little bit less of a role because they want to win.”

And win they did, right from the start.

In the season opener, against an East Atchison (Tarkio-Fairfax) team which had defeated the Wildcats soundly at home in the 2019 opener – Southwest’s only loss prior to the state final, We. Hughes threw for four touchdowns and a new school record 325 yards – a record 223 of them to holdover wide receiver Chase Neptune – as SLHS returned the blowout favor against the more-highly-ranked East Atchison club on its field by a 54-30 margin.

The next week, against a highly-touted South Holt/Nodaway-Holt team also ranked above the defending state runnersup, Southwest Livingston bolted to a 28-points first-half lead in its home opener. It then responded to the visitors’ rally which narrowed the gap to eight points in the third period by posting the game’s final 30 points to win going away, 70-36.

With Sears and fellow offensive linemen Owen Oesch and Morgan Anderson doing the “grunt” work that led to over 180 rushing yards – 144 of them unofficially from the quick, elusive We. Hughes – while providing him with the time necessary to break his week-old passing record with 344 yards and another three scores, the Wildcats had quickly re-established themselves as an offensive juggernaut and strong contenders to return to the state-championship game. They’d also underscored that Magruder’s decisions and Sears’ choices undeniably had indeed made the team better than it otherwise might have been.

What ultimately became the only blemish on Southwest Livingston’s ledger in 2020 came in the fourth week as a daunting early schedule concluded with a rematch of the 2019 state finalists that nearly gave the Wildcats sweet revenge.

An early-game injury to a finger on We. Hughes’ throwing hand played a role in then-unbeaten Mound City holding a 14-0 halftime lead and 20-6 third-period advantage. However, by late in the fourth quarter, the host Wildcats had surged in front twice, the last time at 36-34 on the now-largely-1-dimensional We. Hughes’  fourth touchdown run of the game and a successful conversion pass with 2-1/2 minutes left. However, Mound City went back down the field for the game-winner in the remaining time.

Southwest would not lose again.

Running through lesser competition with ease in weeks five through eight as, against the odds, they were able to play each of their scheduled opponents on the planned date, the Wildcats wrapped up the home-field advantage for the district playoffs when they outdueled King City in an unexpected 84-66 shootout on the road in the regular-season finale. In noteworthy manner, they’d continued to prosper even with senior standout Neptune, a 2019 All-Stater as a receiver and defensive back, missing most or all of many of those games with lower back problems.

By then, it had been about a month since MSHSAA had announced that, due to COVID-19 precautions, the 2020 8-man state-title game would be played in Chillicothe.

By outdistancing North Shelby for the top rating in its district, Southwest Livingston had kept alive a scenario in which it might never have to leave its home county or travel farther than 15 miles to capture a state crown which looked more and more to be within its reach.

After a romp in the district semifinals, the Wildcats got what turned out to be their toughest test of the postseason when they turned back North Shelby only 34-22. That final score is a bit deceiving as SLHS built a 34-6 lead by late in the third quarter and played conservatively on offense the rest of the way.

That set up a state semifinals battle with undefeated Drexel which, because both teams had played only at home during the postseason to that juncture, took place at the Ludlow field because Southwest was the District 2 representative and the year also was an even number.

The Wildcats scored first – and second – and never were caught, although Drexel did get within 22-14 on a long run by All-State back Jacob Coffey midway through the second period. As they’d done when challenged by the South Holt/Nodaway-Holt rally back in week two, the Wildcats reeled off 30 unanswered points, knocking Coffey from the game with an injury just as the third quarter ended in a foreshadowing of a key development in the next week’s title game.

Having disposed of Drexel 52-22, Southwest Livingston, still ranked only No. 2 in the state by an informal media group, reached the championship clash in nearby Chillicothe with undefeated and top-ranked North Andrew as the foe.

While Southwest had defeated NAHS in the 1990 semifinals and again during the 1994 regular season, its semifinals loss to the Cardinals that latter year began a long, long run of dominance over the Wildcats for the Rosendale/Bolckow area school.

The teams spent the better part of two decades in the same Platte Valley Conference and, from the turn of the century until North Andrew switched to the Grand River Conference-West, most of their annual meetings were runaway wins for NAHS. Even when Southwest Livingston’s fortunes turned around a decade ago, they mostly continued. The lone Southwest Livingston win in more than two decades prior to this year’s state-championship clash had come in a 2011 regular-season meeting.

Against that backdrop of futility against the Cardinals, the 2020 Wildcats’ offensive versatility, physical style of play on both offense and defense, and being backed by a sizable advantage in the number of fans among the 900-plus who bought tickets to the title game (about triple the number of fans which have been attending the 8-man  title game since it was melded into the Show-Me Bowl with the 11-man title contests, according to information shared with Dan Nagel, Chillicothe High athletics director, by MSHSAA administrative officials) projected to make them neither an underdog nor favorite for the ultimate showdown.

Once the contest began in glorious and mild, if rather windy, weather, the teams swapped touchdowns on each one’s first two possessions, but the second North Andrew possession proved to be a double turning point.

During it, the Wildcats’ physical defense, led by Sears, Warren, and Oesch, shortened the gains 6-times state champ North Andrew had achieved on its first series by about half their distance. Then, late in the second Cardinals drive, a hard hit by Warren on North Andrew’s top running back knocked him out of the game with an ankle injury.

“Our kids are physical,” Magruder noted in his post-game remarks. “That’s what the weight room will do for you. They like to lift and they like to hit.”

That led to Southwest blanking the Cardinals for more than 24 consecutive minutes. By the time the Wildcats’ “D” was scored on again after the second NAHS TD that followed the key injury by four plays, Southwest had gone from trailing 14-6 to leading 38-14. When the Wildcats answered their long-time nemesis’ third touchdown with their sixth early in the final period, the first-ever SLHS championship was in the bag and the previous year’s pain was fully healed.

Magruder agreed, upon being asked by the C-T, that knowing Mack Anderson, who had been directly involved in probably 75% or more of the team’s offensive yardage the previous two years, no longer would be around to be a “security blanket” that would make them competitive every time out forced the most-experienced returnees to prepare themselves to shoulder more of the load this past season.

“Absolutely,” he replied to that theory. “Also, part of it was me putting in an offense that was going to put those guys in a position to succeed.”

While acknowledging he seized on every bit of “bulletin-board material” he could find along the way to keep his team fired up and motivated during the season and right up until the state final, Magruder mused that it might not have been necessary.

“I don’t know that they need much,” he reflected about the senior-heavy core of his 2020 roster. “They’ll play in a gravel parking lot, if that’s what it takes.”

He detailed that, while the team had its share of standouts who had been keys to the successes of not only the 2019 and 2020 teams, but also the very good 2018 team for which he been an assistant to T. Anderson, a good bit of credit for reach the top of the mountain this season belonged to players who had pushed themselves to develop and contribute what they could.

“A lot of them, they didn’t play that much their freshman or sophomore years, but they turned themselves into football players,” the coach praised. “… They didn’t play much until they were juniors, but they lifted so hard. They wanted to be great.”

The state championship safely tucked away, Magruder conceded that, because 11 members of the 2020 team – including two each from Hale and Tina-Avalon – were seniors, once the initial celebration was over and the first rush of joy had passed, there was a fleeting thought that sobered him momentarily.

“It’s kind of bittersweet because these kids have meant so much to me,” he admitted in response to a reporter’s inquiry.

“It’s pretty awesome to win state, but it’s really hard to think about, with the legacy they’ve left, not getting to be their football coach any more.”

He observed, “To start to take those names off (the team roster board in the team’s locker room at the Ludlow field) and get ready for next year – I’m not ready for that yet. I’m going to try to enjoy this a little bit longer.”