State football champ Wildcats open defense at home Friday

Southwest Livingston has many standouts to replace; Marceline looks strong

Paul Sturm
Chillicothe News
Lineman Owen Oesch of the Southwest Livingston High School football Wildcats, right, blocks to create time for quarterback Wes Hughes to dash through a gap in the North Andrew defense and gain good yardage during the second quarter of last Nov. 28's Missouri 8-man state championship game win by the Wildcats. Oesch was one of only eight non-seniors of the SLHS title winners.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

With a greater degree of normalcy to their offseasons, but no guarantee that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t throw a monkey wrench into the season somewhere along the line, C-T-area high school football teams are set to begin their 2021 seasons Friday.

For Southwest Livingston’s Wildcats, they’ll spend the next 2-plus months proudly wearing the description “defending state champions” for the first time after capturing Missouri’s 8-man gridiron crown without ever leaving the confines of their home county last fall.

Their 52-34 championship-game win over North Andrew at Chillicothe’s Jerry Litton Memorial Stadium II featured a senior-heavy, but not senior-exclusive, lineup. That will make approaching the heights of the past two years – the Wildcats finished second in the state to Mound City in 2019 – very difficult for new coach Pake Croy’s inaugural SLHS squad.

While Southwest Livingston is dealing with refabricating an excellent team, one area school has a team coming off an outstanding season, but with a fully-intact lineup, looking for even greater accomplishments this fall.

The Marceline Tigers went 10-2 last year, narrowly missing out on an appearance in the 11-man football state semifinals in Class 1 when they lost 13-7 at home to Adrian in the quarterfinals.

With all of their starters from last season back for their senior campaigns, the Tigers figure to have the greatest postseason potential of any of the 10 teams in the C-T coverage area.

Of those 10, four – Southwest Livingston, Hamilton, Brookfield and Norborne/Hardin-Central – have new head coaches.

After his two banner years leading the strong Southwest program he inherited, Oren Magruder migrated back toward his home area to become head coach of Salisbury’s moribund 11-man program.

After five years at Hamilton – including winning the Class 1 state crown in his first season after coming south from Bethany, Caleb Obert has moved north to Iowa. Replacing him as leader of the vaunted Hornets of Penney High is first-time head coach Alex Lloyd, a Northwest Missouri State University graduate who previously has been an assistant at Princeton and Farmington.

Another youngster getting a quick shot at leading a program is Cory Luke, former 8-man star at Stanberry who just graduated from Central Methodist University at Fayette last spring. He takes over at Brookfield from Scott Stevens, who shifted to the athletics director’s post.

The decision by long-time Norborne/Hardin-Central coach Kirk Thacker to shift south to Orrick created an opening which Andrew Watson, a HCHS staff member, will fill with the Aggies.

While Croy and Luke assume command of program’s hard hit by graduation, Lloyd has a pair of Missouri Football Coaches Association 2020 Class 1 All-State honorees to work with in junior first-team defensive lineman Fisher Nixdorf and senior third-team linebacker Tucker Ross. Both were 2-ways starters last fall, Ross at quarterback on offense, where he was second-team all-KCI Conference a year ago, and Nixdorf on the offensive line, where he was all-conference first team and all-district (by the Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association).

Additionally, eight other 1- or 2-way starters are back, including all-district tight end and all-KCI first-team defensive end Andrew Rich, who’ll shift to split end on offense. That group includes 2-way linemen Ethan Trosper and Gideon McBee, WR/LB Jared Potts, RB/DBs Corbin Henderson and Clay Finch, WR/DB Nate Wyckoff, and OL/LB Silas Prothero. Potts is swapping spots with Rich and Prothero will move up onto the D-line.

Those 10 returnees will help ease the pain of the graduation loss of multi-times All-State running back Sawyer Morrow, but figuring to really offset the loss is the addition of two transfers from nearby Cameron.

Seniors Ty and Bryson Speer started multiple years for the Dragons and helped lead that program to its best season in years last fall. Now, T. Speer, who can play either quarterback or running back and likely will start in the secondary on defense, and B. Speer, who could see time at both running back and wide receiver on offense and at linebacker on defense figure to help Hamilton to a potentially-banner year.

Also expected to compete for playing time are junior OL/DL Austin Snow, sophomore OL/DL Dawson Miller, and freshman RB/DB Sawyer Ford.

“We have a lot of returning talent and a high ceiling,” observes Lloyd.

Hamilton will debut for 2021 with a tough assignment Friday, welcoming Higginsville. The Hornets, who figure to be a contender in the KCI, will be at home each of the first three weeks.

At Ludlow, Southwest Livingston’s Croy has first-team All-State defensive lineman and second-team offensive lineman Owen Oesch back to try to rebuild around, but a half-dozen of his 2020 teammates who also were All-State honorees are no longer around.

Also missing from last year’s roster is big Remington Woodcock, who was part of the defensive line rotation which proved very effective for last year’s Wildcats.

Joining Oesch in returning are a couple of other linemen of note – juniors Glen Holt and Brett Kelchen. With the experience and ability those three bring, Croy has hopes of finding or developing some young, smaller players into effective performers at the ballhandling positions.

While no specific information on the Wildcats was received by the C-T from the new coach, despite a request last week, it is anticipated sophomore Will Hughes, who played a bit last year, will succeed his All-State older brother Wes at quarterback. Junior Kylier Sturgeon also figures to be a potential back.

In their first appearance in quasi-competition last weekend at Braymer, the Wildcats were outscored 18-12 in their “jamboree” scrimmage session against Norborne/Hardin-Central and 18-6 by Braymer.

Southwest will begin its regular season with what figures to be a stern Highway 275 Conference test from guest East Atchison (Tarkio-Fairfax) this Friday at 7 p.m.

Brookfield’s Luke finds only three 2-way starters - standout linebacker Trent Polley, interior lineman Peyton Armstrong, and back Jadan Abongo – back from the 5-5 Bulldogs of a year ago. Polley is being switched from being an offensive tackle to a tight end, the new coach reports.

The Bulldogs will switch offensive approaches to more of a quick-throwing, short-passing attack out of a spread formation, although there still will be some inside running. The primary quarterback looks to be sophomore Colton Parn.

Brookfield has a decent chance to get off on the right foot despite its heavy graduation losses, since it will host Trenton this Friday. THS went winless in eight tries as Kevin Hixson returned to the area coaching scene last year, but played a lot of underclassmen, so it’s hoping for some natural growth in its game.

Norborne/Hardin-Central graduated only a couple of players from a season ago and has many of its top contributors to its 6-4 8-man squad back, led by third-team All-State defensive lineman Keyton Laire, now a senior. The Aggies could make some noise for their new head coach, beginning this Friday night when they host Kansas City, Kan.: East Christian.

Rounding out the 8-man ranks, Braymer – entering its second season under Chillicothe High alum Zach Douglas – picked up its first win in three years to close 2020 when it defeated the first-year Keytesville Thunder in a COVID-19-postponement makeup rather than participating in the state playoffs.

Given a couple of respectable showings in last weekend’s “jamboree” at home – outscoring defending state champ Southwest Livingston 18-6 and battling Norborne/Hardin-Central to an 18-12 “loss,” the Bobcats might be a team on the way up this fall.

They’ll have their first chance to prove that at home Friday when Hughesville: Northwest visits for 7 p.m. action.

Despite a request, no information on the Braymer team was received in time for this article.

Keytesville, a co-op program with Mendon: Northwestern last year, can’t be hurt by the addition of a second partner – western neighbor Brunswick, but it was understandably non-competitive in its maiden season. How much progress head coach Kevin Gundy and his staff are able to produce in year two is debatable, particularly with more and more 11-man programs making the switch to 8-man play.

The Thunder are due to start year two with a visit to Alma: Santa Fe Friday at 7.

Completing the C-T-area circuit, another Chillicothe High alumnus, Scott Finley, will try to get a bounce-back season from the Carrollton Trojans after a surprising and disappointing 4-6 2020.

After last year’s senior-heavy squad couldn’t follow up on the promise it had showed in 2019, Carrollton has only four players with starting experience back this fall.

They include seniors OL/LB Jed Staton (5’11”, 168 pounds), TE/LB Treyton Bennett (5’11”, 206), and DB Brice Eiserer (5’10”, 173), who will pick up the quarterbacking responsibilities on offense, the coach notes, along with junior OL/DL Kristian Wagoner (6’3”, 225).

Of the top 10 contenders  for claiming starting-lineup vacancies, the coach discloses, eight are 2021-22 underclassmen – four sophomores.

“We’ll be looking to make progress with a very young and talented roster,” Finley states.

Carrollton will debut for 2021 at Fayette Friday at 7 p.m.

Polo began recovering from consecutive winless seasons by going 3-7 a year ago as former coach Kyle Ross returned to the rudder.

“I think last year we took some much-needed steps to being competitive again,” asserts the coach. “I believe our kinds are really beginning to see what it takes to be successful.”

Heading into Friday’s opener at Plattsburg, the Panthers will be without a half-dozen graduated seniors who received some manner of postseason honor for their 2020 play.

Returning offensive players include senior running backs Caleb Thompson and Mason Chapman, who, Ross says, “are really good athletes that we are turning into true running backs,” senior linemen Andrew Stone, Braxton Mellon, Nick Covey, and Jace Bolling (Bolling is being moved to tight end), senior “utility” player Damion Tice (settling at tight end in ’21), and a number of youngsters.

Among those younger players are a pair of freshman – quarterback Maverick Gentry and tight end Gage Gilbert – who Ross expects will see “significant time.”

On defense, there’s good depth of experience, the coach feels, in the persons of J. Bolling, Mellon, Wyatt Kelley, N. Covey, Chapman, Stone, Thompson, Gage Gilbert, Levi Bolling, Ty Claypole, and Ayden Baker (six interceptions as a freshman last year). Gentry is expected to start in the secondary as a frosh.

“We will probably be very young in our starting ranks, which is a double-edged sword,” Ross reflects. “… We do not have great (roster) numbers, so we must avoid injuries, illness, etc., as much as possible.