Football won't be 'official' CLAA league title sport in 2021-22

Area high school conference had voted in January 2020 to crown grid champ starting this fall

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

In a course correction from a plan adopted at its regular semi-annual meeting in January 2020, conference sponsorship of football as a championship-level sport in the Carroll-Livingston Activity will not occur this fall, casting doubt on whether it ever will.

The conference – formed among seven small (and now much-smaller) schools of Livingston and Carroll counties in the early 1950s, but long since having expanded to contiguous counties – will have students from 10 of its 12 2021-22 member schools eligible to compete in one of four prep football co-op pigskin programs this fall, as was planned almost 18 months ago when a vote at the semi-annual conference meeting passed to begin sponsoring football as a conference-championship sport this fall.

However, that decision apparently unilaterally was undercut by a school currently riding high as the state’s defending champion in 8-man football, but, not so long ago, a struggling program.

Even though the conference representatives voted to move in the direction of having all four CLAA football-playing schools compete against each other during their regular seasons to determine a conference champion, school officials at Southwest Livingston – one of the conference’s founding members – opted not to go along.

“We told (other CLAA schools’ representatives) then (leading up to and at the January 2020 meeting) that, until other (football) programs in the conference were up to being competitive with our program, we would continue to compete in the Highway 275 Conference,” Burnie Schneiderheinze, Southwest Livingston superintendent, told the C-T by phone Monday morning.

The current roster of football programs at CLAA schools – all of them, like Southwest’s, operating under the Missouri State High School Activities Association’s cooperative-program provision which allows students from multiple schools to participate in a sport not hosted by their particular school, but available at a geographically-adjacent district, as long as both districts contractually agree – includes the Braymer/Breckenridge, Norborne/Hardin-Central, and Keytesville/Brunswick/Mendon: Northwestern combos, in addition to the Southwest/Hale/Tina-Avalon arrangement.

Of the four programs, the one “led” by Keytesville is virtually brand-new. It will be in only its second year of existence this fall after being winless in 2020.

Like Keytesville’s “Thunder,” the Braymer-hosted program had a challenging 2020 season (beyond the impact of the COVID-19  pandemic), winning only its season-ending clash with the Thunder in Braymer’s first year of membership in the CLAA. Prior to 2020, it had competed in the Grand River Conference for about eight years.

The Norborne/Hardin-Central combo was a middling team, results-wise, as it has been for the last several years.

However, only a decade ago, their respective “shoes” were on other feet, which could lead some to view the Southwest Livingston snub of its fellow conference members as myopic and high-handed.

Through the first decade of the 2000s, Southwest Livingston, which has played 8-man-style football throughout its approximately 35-years history of having a team, had very little success on the gridiron. Even after becoming an early participant in MSHSAA’s cooperative setup by combining with northern neighbor Breckenridge, the Wildcats’ results were only a bit better for multiple years until a sharp improvement – in no small part aided in recent years by expansion of its program to a 3-schools co-op with Hale and Tina-Avalon – was realized early last decade and has continued to the present.

While the Ludlow-based school’s team was routinely losing by wide margins between 2000-2010, Braymer,  Norborne, and Hardin-Central – none of them in the CLAA ranks at the time – were still routinely putting competitive-to-strong teams on the field nearly every year – Braymer still in 11-man Class 1, while former 11-man small-school regional powers Norborne and Hardin-Central had downshifted to 8-man play. Had those schools’ teams been matched against SLHS’ Wildcats back then, as occasionally happened, the games would have been extremely-one-sided against Southwest.

Over the past decade, as the Wildcats’ program was experiencing its ascent, precipitously-declining student populations sent Braymer’s participation numbers and results plummeting, leading to its change to 8-man ball. After a brief improvement and even with the start of a co-op agreement with tiny Breckenridge, that adjustment has not prevented a continuation in the decline of the Bobcats’ scoreboard fortunes in recent seasons. That does not automatically preclude improvement in the future, however.

The Norborne/Hardin-Central Aggies have remained a competitive team throughout their decade-plus of 8-man play after merging in a football cooperative.

The fledgling Keytesville-led program had undeniable and expected “birthing pains” last year which weren’t helped any by the COVID-19 situation on top of some injury issues. Whether the Thunder will be improved – either by a little or lot – this coming season remains to be seen, but the decision, which some and perhaps many had anticipated, by Brunswick to join its two central and western Chariton County neighbors in the co-op arrangement, could aid that.

While Southwest Livingston graduated a lot of its top players from its state champion and state runnerup teams of the past two seasons, the Wildcats look to have enough returnees and incoming youngsters to keep them solidly competitive on a regional and perhaps state basis in 2021. They would figure to dominate both the Braymer-  and Keytesville-led co-op programs, if facing them, but might get an argument from Norborne/Hardin-Central.

Having likely dominance of a league opponent or two is not any different, however, from what the strongest teams in many – if not most – conference, including the CLAA, experience in other sports. Indeed, there are several Highway 275 Conference teams Southwest Livingston has routinely routed – often with the games called off at halftime – in recent years.

Given that incorporating three games against the other CLAA football programs, beginning this year, still would have left two-thirds of its 9-games regular-season schedule available to fill out with challenging non-conference opponents from among the growing ranks of 8-man programs, Southwest Livingston’s decision to ignore the expressed wishes of its fellow CLAA members to have conference football competition in favor of what it considers its own self-interests could create some hard feelings among other league schools and individuals.

In the absence of Southwest Livingston’s participation and, thus, a CLAA conference title to chase, Braymer/Breckenridge, Norborne/Hardin-Central, and Keytesville/Northwestern/Brunswick will continue to compete in the year-old revived Central River Conference’s “CLAA” division.

That division includes those three and defending champion North Shelby, so each of the three CLAA conference and division members, like Southwest, will play up to six non-conference games. However, none will be against the Wildcats.