Most Area Prep Football Programs Seek to Rebound Amid 2020 Uncertainty
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
Fans of the eight area high school football teams historically covered by the Constitution-Tribune did not have very many happy trips home from their respective teams’ games a year ago – with a couple of opposite-extreme exceptions.
Southwest Livingston’s Wildcats, behind stallion Mack Anderson and a solid complementary corps, shrugged off a season-opening blowout loss to a quality East Atchison (Tarkio-Fairfax) team that ended up being among the state’s best and not only ran the table the rest of the regular season, but earned a berth in the Show-Me Bowl at Columbia before finishing 11-2 and second in the state in the 8-man ranks.
Marceline’s Tigers, also anticipated to be very good in 2019, also dropped only one regular-season contest – albeit a stinging one to in-county rival Brookfield in the “Bell Game” in week three – before posting four postseason triumphs to reach the 11-man Class 1 state semifinals as part of a 12-2 campaign.
Unfortunately for fans elsewhere, those two teams’ outstanding performances were weightily counterbalanced, however.
Of the other six (non-Chillicothe) programs, none won half of their nine regular-season games.
Coming closest was decade-long state power Hamilton, which wobbled to a 4-5 mark before coming ever so close to stunning favored Mid-Buchanan in its Class 1 district-championship game that wrapped up the Hornets’ year at an uncharacteristic 6-6.
Carrollton had a teeter-totter time that, on balance, was its best, record-wise, in a number of years. The Trojans won their first four games – all against fellow Class 1 schools – by a combined 125-28 margin, then lost all five of its Missouri River Valley Conference-East outings against Class 2 or 3 foes by an average of more than 40 points. In the Class 1 playoffs, after a repeat triumph over Fayette, despite high hopes, they couldn’t keep pace with eventual state-semifinalist Marceline in the district semifinals and ended the year 5-6.
Disappointingly, the remaining four area teams cumulatively tasted victory only four times all season and two were shut out at the winner’s window.
The 2020 season – now on the verge of starting, despite the uncertainties and challenges triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic – 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.
This new season also brings some accelerated transition on the Missouri football landscape in the form of significant expansion in the 8-man-style ranks. That includes introduction of a new program to the C-T-area scene. That topic will be dealt with in next Wednesday’s print edition as area 8-man programs, as well as Trenton’s and Polo’s 11-man squads, are previewed.
This article surveys the 2020 outlook for three of the four area programs which had decent or outstanding success a year ago – Hamilton, Marceline, Carrollton, and Brookfield. A separate one previews the seasons of Southwest Livingston, Braymer, Trenton, Polo, and the new Keytesville/Mendon: Northwestern 8-man program
Caleb Obert, who led the Hornets to the Class 1 state championship in his first year at the helm in 2016, heads into his fifth with several important components on his workbench, around which he hopes to build a winning season.
“We return the bulk of our offensive and defensive lines,” he reports, adding, “(and) will rely heavily on running back Sawyer Morrow, a 2-times All-Stater.”
Morrow finished 2019 one yard shy of 1,600 rushing the ball and found paydirt 23 times, leading to him being included on the Missouri Football Coaches Association’s (MFCA) All-State team a second-straight time. His statistics virtually duplicated his sophomore-season showing of 1,638 yards and 23 scores.
With returning interior linemen Fisher Nixdorf (5’9”, 225 pounds, soph.), a second-team all-KCI Conference choice as a freshman, Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association all-district pick Ethan Trosper (5’10”, 210, jr.), and A.J. Hon (5’9”, 185, soph.) and tight end Andrew Rich (6’, 195, jr.) battling to create space for Morrow, the 5’10”, 190-pounds senior should have a good chance of approaching or surpassing those totals if a full 2020 season is played.
Each of those five returning starters also stays on the field to play defense. Trosper and Nixdorf (MSSA all-district) will work to bottle things up inside with third-year starter Rich at end. Hon and leading returning tackler (93), junior Tucker Ross (6’, 185), are likely to be the linebackers and Morrow will lead the secondary, Obert anticipates.
Ross will pick up starting offensive responsibility this year, being groomed to follow 2-years starter Ryan Cook at quarterback.
Hamilton had one other non-senior starter a year ago, WR/DB Kevin Williams, but he has moved.
As of a week-plus before the Hornets’ season opener at Higginsville, potential new starters and their positions included OLs Tyler Brown, Gideon McBee (6’, 215, soph.), and Levi Hartley (5’9”, 215, jr.), WRs Nate Wyckoff, Losson Park, and Jared Potts, DL Anthony Prater, and DB Corbin Henderson. Senior Park and junior Wyckoff could start in the defensive backfield, as well, and sophomore Potts could work in at linebacker.
Brown, Henderson, Prater, and Hartley are returning lettermen, as is senior offensive lineman Tanner Ford, who was a starter before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
“We have the potential to compete in each game,” Obert says of his 2020 team’s prospects.
Battling in the ever-rugged KCI, where 2019 Class 2 state runnerup Lathrop is Obert’s choice as the team to beat with veterans-led Class 1 state semifinalist Mid-Buchanan challenging, again could take a toll of the Hornets’ record, but the ambition is to be back above .500 going into district play this time around.
As of the press deadline for this article, classification and district assignments for football had not yet been announced by the Missouri State High School Activities Association, but were expected at any time. Given the multiple switchovers from 11-man to 8-man football in 2020, Hamilton’s likelihood of remaining a Class 1 team seems relatively strong. If so, that likely would boost the Hornets’ postseason prospects, although “Mid-Buck” would figure to remain a high district hurdle, as it has been the past two years.
Hamilton’s schedule: (KCI games asterisked) 8/28 @ Higginsville; 9/4 @ Gallatin; 9/11 @ North Platte*; 9/18 East Buchanan*; 9/25 Lathrop*; 10/2 @ Mid-Buchanan*; 10/9 @ Plattsburg*; 10/16 West Platte*; 10/23 Lawson *
Like Hamilton, Carrollton had a middling 2019, record-wise, but where, for the Hornets, that was a comedown from their previous standards of recent years, for the Trojans, five wins was the most since 2010 and the 1-under-.500 final record the best winning percentage since the decade of the 2000s.
Based on returning talent and experience, prospects for third-year head coach Scott Finley, a Chillicothean, and his team to improve from there and have Carrollton’s first winning season since the MRVC-E title-taking 2009 season appear favorable. However, the 2010 season was projected to build on the combined 21-3 marks of the two preceding years, but early illness and injury decimated the Trojans ranks and only a couple of district-playoffs wins, including a memorable shootout victory over Higginsville, salvaged a 5-8 mark.
Nine players with starting experience – most of them full-time and on both sides of the ball – spice this season’s CHS roster. All except one are seniors.
“We are senior-heavy,” Finley acknowledges.
With that many experienced Trojans back, most position groups are populated with players who contributed last season.
Leading the returnees is senior QB/DB/P Gavin Claud (6’1”, 175). Despite his team being winless in conference play last year, he received honorable mention on offense in the “athlete” category, recognizing his performance both as a passer and runner. However, he got not only first-team all-MRVC-E kudos as a punter, but wound up being the MFCA’s first-team All-State choice for Class 1 after averaging 40.9 yards on 31 kicks.
He’ll be surrounded with familiar faces in the offensive backfield.
At running back, Darrik Diamond (5’10”, 150, sr.) received all-league honorable mention a year ago and classmate Dillion Staton (5’10”, 168) also returns. At wide receiver, Cedar Metz (6’2” , 160, sr.), Gage Fitzpatrick (5’8”, 150, sr.), and Treyton Bennett (6’, 180, jr.) give CHS aerial options that will tax opponents’ coverage abilities. In addition, Xavier Yoakum (5’10”, 195, sr.) is still around at tight end.
The thinnest offensive position, depth-wise, will be the line, although two senior starters – Noah Frank(5’10”, 189) and Nola Johnson (5’11”, 178) – are back to anchor it. Stepping up to provide some bulk likely will be Chase Defibaugh (5’11”, 250, sr.) and Kristin Wagoner (6’4”, 220, soph.) and junior Jed Staton (5’9”, 165) figures to round out the interior quintet.
Brice Eiserer (5’10”, 169, jr.) and Alec Appleberry (5’6”, 158, sr.) could start or get plenty of playing time at wide receiver and running back, respectively, as well, Finley reports.
On defense, Yoakum, Frank, and Johnson will lead the line with Wagoner, J. Staton, and Defibaugh figuring in, too. D. Staton, Bennett, and Diamond will do the linebacking again, with Claud at strong safety and Metz and Fitzpatrick also in the secondary. Appleberry at defensive back and Eiserer at linebacker also should see action.
A handful of other players – seniors Dalton Staton and Caden Hughes, juniors Diego Thorne and Adam Crawford, and sophomore Houston Varner – could contribute in various capacities, as well, the Carrollton coach muses.
The Trojans’ biggest losses to graduation are second-team all-league OL Kaeden Schlueter and LB Wyatt Rowen, who was all-MRVC-E honorable mention.
With the experience factor they have, the 2020 Trojans hope to mount a challenge for a district championship, particularly if they remain in Class 1. As for the Missouri River Valley-East, defending champion Richmond is expected to be very good again, but Finley anticipates the other five teams to scramble for anything from second to sixth.
Carrollton’s schedule: (MRVC-E games asterisked) 8/28 Fayette; 9/4 @ Sweet Springs; 9/11 @ Lone Jack; 9/18 Salisbury; 9/25 Knob Noster*; 10/2 @ Richmond*; 10/9 Lexington*; 10/16 @ Holden*; 10/23 Higginsville*
2019 was expected to be another solid, successful season for the Marceline Tigers, but, with some significant graduation losses from the prior year and a number of young players being needed to step up into starting roles, it was by no means certain they’d make a deep run in the state playoffs.
That is just what they did, however, recovering from the week 3 “Bell Game” loss to ring up 10 wins in a row before falling to state runnerup Lincoln in the semifinals.
Graduated from that squad is the Tigers’ “Mr. Everything” of the past few years, Cullen Bruner. He was chosen MFCA first-team All-State as both running back and placekicker and second-team punter, while also being a standout in the Tigers’ linebacking corps.
Also absent will be multi-years starting linebacker Colby Sims, who was chosen second-team All-State.
However, third-year head coach Mark Ross brings back nine players with offensive starting experience and seven on defense, so the Tigers figure to be all right.
“Although we have some experience coming back, we will need to fill some key spots,” he remarks.
Topping the offensive veterans is 6’, 195-pounds junior lineman Hunter Quinn. He was a MSSA all-district and second-team all-Lewis and Clark Conference honoree last fall. Fellow line starters Nathan Cupp (5’9”, 215., jr.), Aden North (5’10”, 235, jr.), Garrett Pickman (6’3”, 185, sr.), and Landen Gardner (5’10”, 200, jr.) also are back on hand.
Four players who saw extensive time at wide receiver or running back return, topped by Wyatt Molloy (6’1”, 160, jr.), who caught 24 passes for nearly 500 yards and eight scores in ’19, and Hunter Nelson (5’8”, 170, jr.), who carried the ball 83 times for 406 yards and two TDs as a sophomore. Sam Gillman (6’, 170, jr.), who had 14 receptions, and Will Heller (6’1”, 180, jr.), who caught 10 balls and had three TDs also are available.
Expected to guide the offense is athletic junior Jacob Stallo (5’10”, 150, jr.). Additional potential new starters include RB Mason Barnett (5’8”, 160, jr.), WRs Jaxon Schmitt and Nick Dorrell, and lineman Brayden King.
On defense, LB Nelson and DBs Molloy and Gillman are the top returning players, statistically. Nelson was in on 92 tackles as a 10th grader, two of them sacks. He also recovered a pair of fumbles and picked off one pass. Gillman had four thefts and Molloy four pickoffs, four fumble recoveries, and 55 tackles, including two sacks.
Up front, Cupp (60 tackles, two sacks, one recovery, and one interception was a first-team all-conference player last season. Quinn also returns on the line after having three sacks among his 32 tackles.
In the secondary, Jack McCauslin and Jace Bixenman round out a full ledger of returning starters with Molloy and Gillman.
While some personnel will change, Ross notes the MHS attitude won’t: “We coach an aggressive style.”
While Marceline rates as the favorite to retain its conference crown, Ross sees Scotland County, MHS’ season-opening foe, and Harrisburg as the biggest threats to his team. He also anticipates Salisbury to have improved.
The L&C is minus one member for football this season with Schuyler County having switched to 8-man play. Marceline has filled that Oct. 2 gap in its schedule with St. Joseph Christian, which ironically is going the opposite route by playing 11-man ball for the first time after a number of years in the 8-man game.
The MHS-Brookfield “Bell Game” also switches this year, shifting up to week two from week three. The Sept. 4 contest will be at MHS’ Chester Ray Stadium this year.
Marceline’s schedule: (Lewis and Clark Conference games asterisked) 8/28 Scotland County*; 9/4 Brookfield; 9/11 @ Knox County*; 9/18 @ Fayette*; 9/25 @ Paris*; 10/2 St. Joseph Christian; 10/9 @ Salisbury*; 10/16 Westran*; 10/23 Harrisburg*
After an uncharacteristic downturn in their gridiron fortunes the last several years, the Brookfield Bulldogs look like a good bet to resume posting wins with regularity in 2020.
“We bring back a large number of starters from both sides of the ball, as well as some key guys from injury,” fourth-year BHS head coach Scott Stevens comments on the approaching campaign.
The Bulldogs went 2-8 last year, albeit with the saving grace of a 14-7 “Bell Game” win at home, and stand 5-25 the past three seasons. Whether they can double that Stevens-led wins total in a single season is not guaranteed, but the veteran bent of the roster certainly enhances the chances.
A handful of players with starting experience on the offensive line are back in blue and white, including seniors Jacob Jackman, Nathan Sharp, and Shane Owens and juniors Trent Polley and Peyton Armstrong. In addition, Dawson Baker, who started in the backfield in 2019, has been moved to the “O” line.
Trace Alexander (5’11”, 215, sr.), an honorable-mention all-Clarence Cannon Conference choice last year, again will be the fullback with Gabe Rodriguez (5’7”, 175, sr.) at running back. In addition, Jadan Abongo (5’9”, 160, jr.) should get some significant carries.
Senior Derek Liebhart (5’11”, 170) will take over the full-time quarterbacking duties, with Carson Beckman (6’, 165, sr.) shifting full-time to wide receiver, joining Garrett Starlin (5’10”, 180, sr.) there.
On defense, linemen with starting experience include Jackman, Armstrong, and Baker, while all-CCC second-team pick Alexander and Rodriguez are back at linebacker. In the secondary will be returnees Tyler Polley, Beckman, Starlin and Abongo.
In addition to Liebhart, who’ll see some time at outside linebacker on defense, projected new starters include Quinn Gladbach and Hunter Sanders on either line, Donavan Parn at fullback and/or linebacker, and Nathan Howerton at receiver and defensive end. Each of them is a senior this year.
Schedule-wise, the Bulldogs this year will have their two non-conference games right off the bat, visiting Trenton Aug. 28 and then trying to defend “the bell” at Marceline Sept. 4.
The traditionally-rugged Clarence Cannon slate will start with the Sept. 11 home opener against traditional league power Centralia.
Brookfield’s schedule: (Clarence Cannon Conference games asterisked) 8/28 @ Trenton; 9/4 @ Marceline; 9/11 Centralia*; 9/18 Palmyra*; 9/25 @ Macon*; 10/2 @ Monroe City*; 10/9 Clark County*; 10/16 @ Ewing: Highland*; 10/23 South Shelby*