Growing Profile of Missouri 8-Man HS Football Marks Start of 2020 Play
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Impacted, but ultimately not delayed, by the COVID-19 pandemic, for a majority of Missouri, the 2020 high school football season will debut this Friday, Saturday, AND Sunday (Aug. 28-30).
For some teams in the C-T coverage area, it will offer the opportunity for those dissatisfied with last year to advance their cause, while challenging the teams which soared last fall to retool and maintain their footing.
The opening-week schedule for area squads includes Friday action with Chillicothe hosting Marshall, Brookfield at Trenton, Hamilton: Penney on the road at Higginsville, Braymer at Hughesville: Northwest, Carrollton hosting Fayette, Marceline welcoming Scotland County, Polo hosting Plattsburg, and the new Keytesville/Mendon: Northwestern Thunder 8-man team hosting Schuyler County at Keytesville.
2019 8-man state runnerup Southwest Livingston will have the extremely-unusual distinction of playing on Sunday, visiting East Atchison at Fairfax for 1:30 p.m. Highway 275 Conference action.
This new season brings some accelerated transition on the state’s football landscape in the form of significant expansion in the 8-man-style ranks. Its impact will be felt extensively in this area.
As recently as 2011, only 19 schools were playing 8-man ball. Two years ago, the total was merely 23, an increase of only four across seven seasons. However, that changed dramatically last season and accelerates this year.
The 2019 season saw an additional four programs downsize, so that 27 teams were involved, a healthy percentage of them being cooperative arrangements, including both of those in the C-T area (Southwest Livingston with Hale and Tina-Avalon and Braymer with Breckenridge).
This fall, the changeover has picked up steam with another seven transitioning or new programs going the 8-man route. In only two years, the number of smaller-scale squads has jumped by nearly half from 23 to 34, expanding the geographic scope significantly farther south and east from its long-time northwest Missouri “base.”
Among the additional programs involved is a brand-new one led by old-time coaches.
Carroll-Livingston Activities Association (CLAA) member schools Keytesville and Mendon: Northwestern have linked to form an 8-man program overseen by former area (Gallatin, Cameron) 11-man head coach Kevin Gundy. Assisting him with the new Thunder club will be ex-Marceline and Salisbury head coach Mike Butt, who has both 8-man (North Nodaway) and 11-man (Salisbury) state titles on his coaching resumé.
With the CLAA, at its semi-annual meeting last January, having accepted Braymer as a new member school for 2020-21, that area league now has nine of its current 11 schools – Higbee will enter the loop in 2021-22 – involved in 8-man football co-ops. As a result, it officially will sanction conference competition in the sport and recognize a league champion, starting next year. In the meantime, Southwest will remain a pigskin member of the Highway 275 conference and Braymer will compete in the revived Central River Conference with, among others, Norborne/Hardin-Central’s Aggies.
Today’s article surveys the 2020 outlook for the area’s trio of 8-man teams, as well as Trenton and Polo.
SOUTHWEST LIVINGSTON WILDCATS
Capped by its unexpected 2019 state runnerup finish to Mound City, a team it had defeated in mid-season, the decade just past was spectacularly successful for the Wildcats 8-man program that dates to the 1980s. Under the leadership of Tyler Anderson, then Eric Fairchild, and finally current second-year head coach Oren Magruder, Southwest Livingston has gone 85-28 – a winning percentage just over .750 – the past 10 seasons, advancing to the district-title game or beyond each of the last eight years.
Sustaining that level of success has been the near-constant presence of an elite talent – Ethan Crowe in the early years and Mack Anderson, both multi-year All-State players – complemented with a healthy dose of talented players able to share the load and exploit opponent defenses keyed in too much on the star.
The arrival of a new decade coincides with Ma. Anderson’s departure through graduation, along with the similar loss of top contributors like Dagun Bassett, Balasz Sturgeon, and Tyler Wolf. However, while Ma. Anderson unquestionably was a “Mr. Everything” in his contributions, he was not “Mr. Only Thing.” The Ludlow-based cupboard not only is not bare, but has laid in some old/new wares.
Seniors Patrick Warren (second-team All-State DL), Chase Neptune (first-team All-State WR/DB), Jaeden Sears (first-team All-State OL/DL), and Ethan Hoerr – the last two Hale contributions to the 3-sided program – and junior Owen Oesch figure to be a solid nucleus on both sides of the ball, bringing a good mix of talent, physical stature, and experience. While none figures to provide the singular, incandescent impact of Ma. Anderson, collectively, they should provide the basis for a more-varied offensive attack that still can be quite productive.
In addition to that quartet, fellow senior Morgan Anderson made impressive strides toward emerging from his more-ballyhooed brother’s massive shadow last year. If he blossoms further in 2020, he has the size to be a key contributor on the interior on both sides of the ball.
Also back after making good contributions to the 2019 campaign that began and ended with losses and was stacked high with nothing but 11 victories in between are Tina-Avalon’s Hunter Colliver and Southwest student Parker Keeney. Both are seniors this year.
Bringing significant bulk to the defensive line will be new starters Hunter and Remington Woodcock. The former, a senior, is listed as 6’4” and 275 pounds and his “little” brother is a 6’6”, 315-pounds junior.
To that returning talent, Magruder reports, Wes Hughes (5’9”, 150), who attended Southwest up until middle school before moving away, has returned from Illinois and will be with the team as a now-senior.
Hughes not only is on the squad, but, barring last-minute re-thinking on the coaches’ part, looks to have earned the starting quarterback’s job. It had been anticipated since last season that Sears was the likely heir-apparent to Ma. Anderson. With Hughes at quarterback, the Wildcats’ head coach said Sunday night, it frees the strong, sturdy Sears (6’3”, 200 pounds) to be back as a major anchor and factor in the offensive line with Oesch.
Another addition to the SLHS roster this fall is senior Kayden Sturgeon. Sidelined last year by injury, the 5’7”, 180-pounder could play some at running back and/or linebacker, Magruder reports.
Not having the “security blanket” of Ma. Anderson to look to for “the big play,” as he provided so often the past three years, the Wildcats’ most-critical transition might be psychological as much as physical. Even without him, the talent for another very good season seems to be present, even if development of the new team persona might take a few games to crystallize.
Southwest Livingston’s schedule: (Highway 275 Conference games asterisked) 8/30 vs. East Atchison* @ Fairfax (1:30 p.m.); 9/4 South Holt/Nodaway-Holt*; 9/11 @ DeKalb/Union Star*; 9/18 Mound City*; 9/25 @ Stewartsville/Osborn*; 10/2 Platte Valley*; 10/9 Rock Port*; 10/16 @ North-West Nodaway*; 10/23 @ King City
The past 10 years were hard on the once-strong Braymer High School football program with only three seasons generating more than two victories. Even after some brief improvement in competitiveness following the 2014 switch from 11-man to 8-man play, the BHS fortunes resumed their fade, hopefully reaching a nadir a year ago when a planned new coach backed out to take a different area job and long-retired former area coach Lyle Laffoon had to step in at the last moment to guide the tattered program through a 2019 season that predictably ended without any victories.
With only four triumphs in their last 51 games and none in the last 21, the Bobcats’ fortunes have been placed in the hands of a new, first-time head coach, Wheeling native and Chillicothe graduate Zach Douglas.
Although he came in with no experience in 8-man play, the new coach offers the view that summer and preseason work has “gone pretty well.” No injuries of significance have been sustained by the 18 players out for the team – 15 of which were on last year’s squad.
The experience those returnees gained was of limited consequence, though, since the new coach “brought in a completely-new system.”
“They ran ‘double-tight’ – both tight ends in – and stuff like that,” Douglas notes, “and we’re going to try and run a little bit different this year. It’s going to be more like an ‘outside veer’ and a little bit of ‘spread.’ We’re still going to try to incorporate some ‘double-tight’ stuff – I kind of stole some stuff from when I was playing at Chillicothe and we’ll see if they still work.”
While it’s hoped an energetic new voice and new approach will get things turned around, it’s likely that will take time. Douglas says he’s encouraged as the season nears.
“It’s night-and-day difference from what they’ve done in the past,” he says of the tempo of practices and style of play, “– and that’s from the kids’ (feedback). They say this is the most fast-paced they’ve been in the last couple of years, so that kind of excites me.”
While last week brought a sense that the offense was starting to get a handle on the new system, Douglas assessed, “The defense is a little ahead of the game. … We’re still working on some blocking techniques and making sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to do and getting who they’re supposed to get. … They’re getting it pretty well.”
Of his own necessary adaptation, he admits, “Eight-man is a track meet. It’s fast-paced. You make one block – the correct block – and you’re going to break it for (big yardage). The kids have done that several times in practice, make the one key block we need to make and then our tailback is gone for a touchdown, which is a little bit different than 11-man.”
He hopes the new offensive scheme will achieve the aim of “getting our best athletes the ball (with some open space) and letting them just run down the field.”
Braymer’s schedule: (Central River Conference-CLAA games asterisked) 8/28 @ Hughesville: Northwest*; 9/4 Concordia: St. Paul Lutheran; 9/11 Keytesville/Mendon: Northwestern*; 9/18 @ Orrick; 9/25 @ Norborne/Hardin-Central*; 10/9 Concordia (Homecoming); 10/16 @ Alma: Santa Fe; 10/23 North Shelby*
KEYTESVILLE/MENDON: NORTHWESTERN THUNDER
The new kid in town – not only regionally, but statewide, the new cooperative venture between Chariton County schools will feature likely as old a coaching staff, in terms of years in the profession, as any 8-man program in the state.
The Thunder’s head coach is Kevin Gundy, well-traveled and widely-experienced as a head and assistant coach at the high school and small-college levels. He was head coach for a time at Cameron and Gallatin in this region, but most recently has not been active in coaching.
His assistant will be Mike Butt, who led North Nodaway to the 1989 8-man crown and Salisbury to an undefeated 11-man Class 1 championship in 1997. A personal friend of the Keytesville superintendent, he'll come out of retirement to help the new program after last being active in coaching in 2001, the last of a 3-years stint at Marceline.
What are they working with, numbers- and talent-wise? Gundy reports the fledgling squad had 21 hopefuls out as of late last week – six of those KHS students and 15 Northwestern kids. Age-wise, the Thunder have three seniors, seven juniors, four sophomores, and seven freshmen on its charter roster.
In terms of talent, obviously none of whom have ever played football in an organized school program previously, but the veteran leaders hope to “coach them up” rapidly.
“Every day’s a new day,” Gundy said in an interview with Moberly-based CentralMoInfo.com. “When you say they don’t have any idea, they really had no idea, coming into this.”
He expanded, “We’re trying to build a mental culture here – mental toughness, physical toughness and accountability 24/7, 365.”
He said summertime response, even in the face of COVID-19, was encouraging.
“The kids have worked hard in the weight room and the conditioning program,” he said. “We’ve been excited about that.”
Whether it will impact its results to any significant degree, the Keytesville/Northwestern co-op will have – through a quirk of COVID-19 fate – the perhaps-unprecedented distinction of playing its first four games ever on KHS’ Cal Hubbard Field, ironically honoring the Keytesville native who is the only person who is a member of both the pro football and baseball halls of fame.
The Thunder was due to debut at home against Schuyler County (a program downsized from 11-man to 8-man this year) this Friday before visiting Chilhowee on Sept. 4. However, Chilhowee school officials announced recently that, due to pandemic concerns, the school’s football season was being canceled.
For the Chariton County-based team, that now-open date in week two will delay its first bus trip until Oct. 2 when it has a Central River Conference-CLAA Division date with North Shelby at Shelbyville.
All told, five of Keytesville/Northwestern’s eight seasons in its inaugural campaign will be at home.
“The last two, three days, we’ve actually seen them look like a football team, act like a football team, and carry themselves that way” Gundy said of the late-preseason practice trend. “Good communication on the field during our defensive segment was good to see and adjustments and starting to comprehend some of the things we’ve been working on and talking about.”
Keytesville’s schedule: (Central River Conference-CLAA games asterisked) 8/28 Schuyler County; 9/11 Braymer*; 9/18 St. Joseph: Bishop LeBlond; 9/25 Concordia: St. Paul Lutheran; 10/2 @ North Shelby*; 10/9 Hughesville: Northwest*; 10/16 @ Concordia; 10/23 @ Norborne/Hardin-Central*
Trenton was staring down the barrel of a winless 2019 season seven weeks into head coach Kevin Hixson’s first year in command, but had an ace in the hole. In week eight, the Bulldogs took advantage of equally-winless Polo to get “off the schneid” and, the next week, bested a Maysville/Winston club whose only triumph on the year also was at Polo’s expense.
When a first-round playoffs loss to eventual Class 2 state runnerup Lathrop ensued, THS bowed out at 2-8, not what Trenton fans envisioned when the school joined the Grand River Conference-East Division a few years ago as clearly the league’s largest school, enrollment-wise.
That the lowly mark came despite the presence of a number of quality-talent seniors, including running backs Jaren Whitney (Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association all-district and first-team all-conference) and Mark Trump, offensive lineman Jerrick Stotts, quarterback Sam Schilling, and linebacker Noah Lewis, could be interpreted as a worrisome sign for 2020’s team.
Hixson doesn’t dispute the relative youth and inexperience of this year’s Bulldogs – “We’ve got a lot of young kids,” he acknowledges, but hopes to counter that with a more-rugged team persona.
“Our (practice) drills are a little bit different this year, a little bit more aggressive, kind of taking on more of my personality,” the former Gallatin, Carrollton, and Cameron head coach shares.
“ETC is our mantra – effort, toughness, and commitment – and our kids are starting to believe in it,” he expands. “They’re starting to understand what it really means and, in the long haul, that’s what’s going to get us where we want to be.”
Projecting as possibly the Bulldogs’ best player this season is senior Royce Jackson (6’3”, 190 pounds). He’ll be on the defensive line, but has the athleticism to make plays anywhere on the field. He also returns as a starting tight end.
“I have a lot of expectations for Royce,” Hixson admits. “He’s a smart kid and he works hard. He’s dedicated and he’ll help our young guys develop, as well as him develop a little bit more.”
Likely stepping in at the helm of the offense is sophomore Coleman Griffin (5’11”.180).
“He’s fairly athletic,” the THS coach details. “He’s doing a great job for us right now, being a sophomore. … I’m excited about what’s going to happen this year, but I’m more excited because I’ve got him for another two (years after 2020). He’ll be learning and getting better every game and every year.”
Trenton’s schedule: (Grand River Conference-East games asterisked) 8/28 Brookfield; 9/4 @ East Buchanan; 9/11 @ Princeton/Mercer*; 9/18 Putnam County*; 9/25 Milan*; 10/2 @ Polo; 10/9 @ Maysville/Winston*; 10/16 Gallatin*; 10/23 South Harrison*
Things have not trended the Polo Panthers’ way the last couple of years. Whether the return to the helm of a head coach who guided them to notable success before that alters that trend will be sorted out over the next couple of months.
After a successful 8-years stint, Kyle Ross stepped down as head coach two years ago to focus fully on his new duties as the district’s superintendent. Reid Stephens, who had no previous high school head coaching experience, but had been on the high school and middle school staffs in Chillicothe, where he was a standout performer for the storied Hornets program in the 1970s before making the University of Missouri Tigers’ roster, was tabbed as his successor.
While Stephens’ grasp of the sport’s fundamentals was undeniable and his rapport with his players reportedly very positive, the tumblers for unlocking scoreboard success under his tutelage never fell in place. A second-straight 0-10 campaign last fall prompted Stephens to step down.
When the “right” match between teacher openings and prospective coaches never developed, Ross shared with the C-T late this spring, the ex-coach concluded the best option for the students and program was for him to return to the sidelines.
Personnel-wise, Ross, in the final year of his prior stint as head coach, worked with this year’s seniors when they were freshmen during a 5-5 season, so any reversion to the system and schemes Ross employed before will ring somewhat true. However, players from the lower grades are learning them new.
The most-impactful Panther of last season – Wyatt Segar – was included on the Grand River Conference-East’s all-conference team in all three phases (second-team linebacker and honorable mention running back and punter). However, those postseason honors came during his senior year and were the only ones any PHS player was accorded.
On the positive side, last year’s 38-man roster included only eight seniors besides Segar, so plenty of game experience is back.
Senior RB/LB Gavin Fitzwater had some positive moments and games running and catching the ball. Senior Logan Chapman and junior Mason Chapman provided some good play on both sides of the ball, but will flip offensive positions under Ross – the elder being at tight end and younger at running back.
Returning linemen include seniors Grant Mellon and David Brown, but junior Nic Covey, while staying on the “D” line, is being moved to running back. Senior Cody Blackwell will be in the offensive backfield and at linebacker, while junior Andrew Stone stays on the “O” line, but shifts on defense to linebacker. Sophomore Ty Claypole will play in the secondary again.
Now-junior Caleb Thompson took many snaps at quarterback last season, but is battling sophomore Zaden Owens to start there this fall.
Projected new starters include senior Killian Roark at tight end and juniors Jace Bolling on the offensive line and Braxton Mellon at linebacker, the coach reports.
An abrupt u-turn in Panthers fortunes seems unlikely – fellow Grand River Conference-East coaches’ voting in a preseason poll relegated them to last place again, so intermediate steps – winning a couple of games at least, escaping the GRC-E cellar, being more competitive each game – would rate the initial targets.
Polo’s schedule: (Grand River Conference-East games asterisked) 8/28 Plattsburg; 9/4 @ Slater; 9/11 Maysville/Winston*; 9/18 @ Gallatin*; 9/25 @ South Harrison*; 10/2 Trenton*; 10/9 Princeton/Mercer*; 10/16 @ Milan*; 10/23 Putnam County*