Eight SLHS state-champ gridders reaped 13 All-State honors
Two-way first-teamer Sears among seven Wildcats top squad members
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
The 8-man state-champion Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats didn’t get only a heaping, 13-positions helping of All-State whipped cream on their title-claiming 2020 season “cake” – they got seven cherries, one double-size, on top.
When Missouri’s 8-Man Football Coaches Association announced its 3-deep 2020 All-State teams in December, Wildcats from the Southwest Livingston, Hale, and Tina-Avalon co-op club, occupied eight of the 26 offensive and defensive first-team slots, led by 2-ways star Jaeden Sears of Hale.
Sears, for a second year in a row, was voted to both the offensive and defensive first-team lines after playing a pivotal role in keeping the SLHS attack prolific even with the graduation loss of a quarterback who himself was a 2-times first-team All-Stater.
Joining Sears on the 12-members top offensive squad were teammates and fellow seniors Parker Keeney and Chase Neptune at end and Wesley Hughes at quarterback.
On the defense, senior linebacker Patrick Warren, junior lineman Owen Oesch, and senior cornerback Ethan Hoerr – another Hale contribution to the team – joined Sears on the 14-members unit.
The 8-man All-State second team included senior defensive lineman Morgan Anderson, along with Keeney at defensive back, Warren as running back, Oesch on the offensive line, and Neptune as kick returner.
Of the other three 8-man programs in the C-T coverage area, only one player was voted some level of All-State. Keyton Laire of Norborne/Hardin-Central was included on the third team for his defensive line play for the Aggies.
Statistically, Sears’ blocking and reliable snapping helped Southwest Livingston’s “air raid” offense operate at a high rate of effectiveness. The Wildcats passed for over 3,200 yards and about 50 touchdowns and had two rushers combine for over 2,000 yards and nearly 50 TDs, enabling the Wildcats to easily be the top-scoring team in the state with an average of 63.5 points per game. Only twice in their 13 games did they score fewer than 50 points.
As if that wasn’t enough, Sears also played extensively at end with a couple of 5-receptions games and about a half-dozen scores later in the season when Neptune was hurting and also got in some time at quarterback, the spot he was ticketed to occupy until Hughes moved back and emerged in preseason practice as a more-than-capable alternative. In one game, he threw and completed two passes while also catching five passes – three for scores.
On defense, the approximately 6’3”, 215-pounds Sears was tops in the state with 11 quarterback sacks and second on the team and among the top 10 in the state with 139 tackles participated in. In an unexpected high-scoring duel at King City in the regular-season finale, he was credited with being part of 18 tackles and returning a recovered fumble for a score.
Hughes, whose transfer back into the Southwest school district from Illinois perfectly meshed with last year’s graduation of star quarterback Mack Anderson, was as balanced a dual-threat quarterback as the 8-man ranks have seen in a few years.
Whereas many of the best quarterbacks have been primarily passers who run on occasion or mostly ballcarriers who can throw some when an opponent is overloaded to halt the ground game, the Wildcats’ fortunes elevated when Hughes gave his team the flexibility to attack an opponent where it was weakest.
He brought both the ability to throw short, intermediate, and deep routes accurately, if a foe was less-skilled in pass coverage or opted to overplay the running game, and the vision and quickness to carry the ball upwards of 20 times, if need be, as a faster, more-elusive complement to the pounding power runs of Warren when the opponent either played “soft” on defense to take away the pass or wasn’t physically strong enough to handle the strong SLHS blocking provided by Oesch, Mo. Anderson, Matthew Kelchen, and Sears.
By season’s end, Hughes had thrown for 3,210 yards and 49 scores and run for 1,221 and 30 touchdowns. Before opponents knew what he could do with his arm, he twice broke the school record for passing yards in a game in each of the first two weeks of the season. As opponents caught on quickly to the threat he and his plethora of targets posed, his 335-yards in the home win over South Holt/Nodaway-Holt in week two stood as his highest of the season until he torched King City for 394 yards and five touchdowns to end the regular season.
Two of those targets – Keeney and the injury-hampered Neptune – got their just desserts from All-State voters, filling two of the three receiver slots alongside Pattonsburg senior star Cameron Jones (121 catches, 2,060 yards, 25 TDs).
While Neptune repeated as a first-team choice at end, a lower back problem which limited his availability the second half of the season and during the postseason kept his statistics below what they would were a year ago and would have been this year.
Quickly meshing with Hughes, he had 23 receptions for over 470 yards after two games. At those rates, he’d have challenged or surpassed Jones’ state-best receptions, yards, and touchdowns totals, but the back woes prevented that. As it is, his dozen catches for 240-plus yards against South Holt/Nodaway-Holt in the second game of the season have his name on the top line of the Wildcats record book in those categories with totals which could last a good while.
Even with little offensive use the last handful of games in the season, Neptune still managed 50 receptions for 613 yards and 12 scores.
Another part of the reason, besides the physical ailment, why his numbers dropped was because of the development of Keeney and Hoerr as highly-viable alternative targets for Hughes.
Keeney became the main “deep” threat once Neptune wasn’t able to play full-time and he flourished. He finished with 63 receptions for 999 yards and a team-high 18 receiving scores. On a team with less depth at the receiver spot – as underscored by Hoerr’s 3-TDs showing in the state-title-game win, Keeney almost certainly would have topped 70 catches and 1,000 yards.
He had a pair of “highlight” games late in the regular season as Neptune needed more time off. In a hastily-arranged Saturday game at faraway Jasper. he caught eight balls for 124 yards and scored of 20, 27, and about 43 yards. Two weeks later at King City, he snared 11 throws for 212 yards and another three scores.
Perhaps his most-important catch of the season came in week two against South Holt/Nodaway-Holt when he made head coach Oren Magruder’s fourth-and-long game from inside the Wildcats’ own 20 pay off late in the third quarter. With SH/N-H having cut a 28-points first-half deficit to eight and with a golden chance to tie the game awaiting it if it got the fourth-down stop, Keeney streaked down the left side and gathered in Hughes’ perfect throw for a 38-yards gain. Four plays later, Hughes’ 21-yards scoring run began a game-closing run of 24 unanswered SLHS points as they won, 70-38.
Defensively, Oesch teamed with Sears and Mo. Anderson and linebacker Warren, as well as others like fellow underclassman Glen Holt and senior Hunter Woodcock, to make the Wildcats effective at both thwarting the opposition’s run game and putting pressure on the passer.
The only non-senior Wildcat included on the All-State teams, junior Oesch was credited with 63 tackles and two sacks on the season, but he saved his best showing for the biggest stage.
In the state-championship duel against unbeaten North Andrew in Chillicothe, Oesch was nearly unblockable after the Cardinals’ opening drive. He finished with a team- and game-high nine unassisted tackles – one for a loss – and shared the team lead for overall tackles with Keeney at 14.
Warren’s rugged style probably epitomized the step Southwest Livingston took in elevating itself from 2019 state runnerup to champion.
Defensively at linebacker, he was a punishing tackler, as evidenced by his hit that sidelined North Andrew’s top running back for the day late in the first quarter of the title game, yet had the mobility to help provide short- and intermediate-level pass coverage and reliable open-field tackling.
He not only led the Wildcats with 154 total tackles – highlighted by 21, including two for losses, at King City, but also shared the team’s interception lead with Hoerr with six pickoffs – easily the most by a linebacker in the 8-man ranks. He narrowly missed a seventh in the championship game when the ball was pried out of his hands to the turf as he was falling along the North Andrew sideline early in the second half.
On the offensive side, with more speed than his straight-ahead, battering-ram style hinted – as shown by his 50-yards touchdown sweep of left end against North Andrew, he averaged over eight yards per carry on the season. He racked up 872 yards and 17 TDs as a ballcarrier and also was an adept outlet receiver who had double-digits receptions and at least three touchdowns through the air.
Hoerr, whose thrilling late-fourth-quarter interception inside the Wildcats’ 5 of Pattonsburg All-State quarterback Stephen Wilhite’s throw had cemented their trip to the 2019 state-title game, remained a stalwart pass defender as a senior, joining Warren in amassing a team-most six picks.
However, despite their limited sizes, his and Keeney’s aggressive and sure-handed open-field tackling on “edge” running plays, as well as downfield after pass completions, was highly-important to the Wildcats’ defensive success, too. Hoerr finished with 75 total tackles.
Keeney, a second-team All-State pick at defensive back as he saw action mostly at the corner, but also at safety, came away with four pass thefts and 89 total tackles, including 17 at King City and 14 (two solo) in the state final.
The least flashy, in terms of eyecatching plays, of Southwest Livingston’s All-Staters was defensive end Mo. Anderson. While he got involved in his share of plays, including a couple of important ones in the championship win over North Andrew, he tended to be strong positionally, allowing the likes of Sears and Warren to roam freer and make more noticeable tackles “in space.”
Still, having made huge strides over the course of his last two seasons, Mo. Anderson managed to get in on 60 tackles overall.
Rounding out Southwest’s cadre of All-State honorees, Neptune, as he did a year ago when he was first-team on both offense and defense, drew a second-team nod this time as a kick returner. Although not used much in that capacity late in the season, in part because opponents tended to try onside kicks, rather than risk kicking the ball deep to him or others, his opportunities for returns diminished as the season went on, but he did have two long touchdown runbacks – one against Mound City/Craig and one at Jasper.
Norborne/Hardin-Central’s Laire, a junior from Norborne, produced an impressive 72 tackles with four sacks and three fumble recoveries, reports Aggies coach Kirk Thacker.
“I’m very proud of his accomplishment and hard work this year,” Thacker commented, terming Laire’s selection, “well deserved.
“He did a great job anchoring the left side of our defense.”