Highly-experienced MHS football Tigers eye heights

All starters return from 2020 state-quarterfinalist squad

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor
In a pale preview of their "Bell Game" Linn County rivalry battle at Brookfield's Burlington Field two weeks hence, the 2021 Brookfield and Marceline high school football teams tested each other during their head-to-head segment in a "jamboree" at Macon last Friday. Here, MHS veterans Wyatt Molloy, left, and Jace Bixenman (partially obscured) combine to bring down BHS senior returnee Jaden Abongo for a short gain on a perimeter run at Macon.

By PAUL STURM, LCL Sports Editor

MARCELINE — A season of tremendous potential will begin the long transition into reality – and, hopefully, vast achievement – for the 2021 Marceline High School football Tigers this Friday night.

With each and every starter returning from last season’s 10-2 club that reached the Class 1 state quarterfinals and had a chance to advance even further, fourth-year head coach Mark Ross has what projects as an embarrassment of riches that figures to again rule the further-downsized Lewis and Clark Conference and its presumably-Class 1 district (Missouri State High School Activities Association classifications and district assignments are to be disclosed for all fall sports this Friday).

“These kids have been in our system for three or four years now,” Ross comments, “and we hop to continue to take steps forward this year.

How far beyond those anticipated regular-season accomplishments the deep, talented, senior-saturated “Black Rage” goes will be determined in due time, but the deck could hardly seem more stacked for a charge at a second-ever state title 35 years after the Bill Dennis-guided first Missouri crown.

“We look forward to an exciting year,” admits Ross, who has compiled a 32-6 cumulative record since coming to the Tigers.

Personnel-wise, the lineup-wide depth and breadth of experience and proven talent will make Marceline a nightmare for opponents. It would be quicker to name those Tigers that didn’t get postseason honors than those who did.

Defensive end Nathan Cupp was Class 1 first-team All-State, as selected by members of the Missouri Football Coaches Association, with defensive back Sam Gillman and kick returner Wyatt Molloy second-team All-Staters. Each is now a senior.

A dozen returnees were selected the Missouri Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association’s all-northeast district team. Eight defensive and seven offensive players were some level of all-conference choice in the L&C, not to mention there being three special-teams selections, too.

Statistically, running back Hunter Nelson rushed for 1,504 yards and 22 touchdowns, numbers which easily could have been much larger, had the goal been to post gaudy figures that would have made him an obvious All-State choice.

All-district and all-conference running back Hunter Nelson of the Marceline High School football Tigers is about to cross the goal line early in the second quarter for what proved to be MHS' only touchdown in last year's "Bell Game" loss to Brookfield. With 1,504 rushing yards and 22 TDs a year ago, Nelson is just one of a full lineup of returning starters for the 2021 Tigers.

The group of Jace Bixenman, Molloy and Gillman catch or carry the ball with great alacrity, combining for over 2,300 yards that way in 2020.

Molloy had a team-high 543 receiving yards and seven touchdowns on 36 catches last year, and ran the ball 41 other times for nearly 500 yards.

Gillman, who serves as a “wildcat-formation” quarterback at times, had 46 carries for 257 yards and four scores and matched Molloy’s team-most receptions total (36) for 383 yards and four more TDs. He also showed passing capability with six completions in 11 attempts for 91 yards and a score.

Bixenman was one off the team lead in receptions and gained 483 yards on them with seven touchdowns. On 23 carries, he averaged over nine yards a pop, reaching paydirt once.

Charged with distributing the ball is Jacob Stallo, who connected on nearly 60% of his passes for 1,520 yards and 20 touchdowns as a junior.

Beyond their talents and experience, that group also brings good physical stature for the Class 1 level, each standing at least 5’10” tall and weighing between 160 and 185 pounds.

Once more paving the way or providing the time for those backs and receivers are due to be center Aden North (6’, 245 pounds), guards Mason Barnett (5’11”, 165), Cupp (6’, 205), tackles Hunter Quinn (6’1”, 210) and Landon Gardner (5’11”, 215), and tight end Will Heller (6’2”, 215).

Of that group, Quinn and Cupp were MSSA all-district first-team selections a year ago with Gardner a second-teamer. Had North and Barnett not suffered injuries that either sidelined them for the state-quarterfinals game or had them at less than full speed, that 13-7 loss to Adrian might have become a victory.

On defense, Cupp at end (69 total tackles, 56 solo, with 14-1/2 for losses, 3 fumble recoveries, 2 interceptions), Nelson at linebacker (team-high 90 tackles, 64 unassisted, with 12 for losses), and Molloy at defensive back (55 tackles, 1 interception) were first-team all-district and all-conference.

Lineman Brendon Catron (5’10”, 185) had a team-high 18 tackles for losses among his 71 total stops, along with two fumbles caused, two recovered, and one interception.

All-Stater Gillman got that nod for his team-high four “picks,” one fumble recovered, and one forced. Fellow backs Jack McCauslin and Bixenman snared three interceptions apiece.

Brayden King (5’10”, 170) again will join Catron and Cupp on the line with Jaxon Schmitt (5’10”, 200) joining Molloy at the outside linebacker posts. With Nelson on the inside again will be Barnett and Quinn.

Experienced underclassman backups to the all-senior starting group are tight end/inside linebacker Ryder Gooch, inside backer and offensive lineman Tanner Sayre, and running back and defensive back Caleb Stallo. The first two are juniors and the latter a sophomore.

“We have been able to develop more depth in the offseason,” Ross reports, “and have lots of underclassmen (overall turnout for the team was 60 players) that will be vying for playing time.”

Schedule-wise, last year’s season opener against Scotland County – a 26-14 home victory – turned out to be the toughest conference contest of the season, so chances are the MHS players won’t be guilty of overlooking those Tigers, even with what lies immediately beyond it.

That would be the legendary “Bell Game” with county rival Brookfield.

Last year, Marceline’s essentially-all-junior lineup couldn’t keep pace with a Bulldogs squad which had a large percentage of senior returning starters. By the time the final second ticked off the scoreboard clock at Chester Ray Stadium in Marceline, Brookfield had retained possession of the bell for a second year in a row via a 42-7 victory.

With the experience “shoe” being on the Tigers’ foot this year as the Bulldogs adapt after heavy graduation losses all around, Marceline will be considered a significant favorite beforehand, but – like most rivalry games – a tighter contest than looks likely on paper could ensue.

Once past the battle with Brookfield, the Tigers will encounter a new foe – Quincy, Illinois’, Notre Dame High – coming off a new circumstance.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, QND’s football Raiders didn’t play last fall. Instead, they had a half-dozen games against other Illinois teams this past March and April, going 4-2.

After the week three trip just across the Mississippi River, Lewis and Clark Conference play will hit high gear with only a week six (Oct. 1) home game with Kansas City: Northeast being outside the loop the rest of the regular season.

While not quite back to its level of league dominance of the late 1980s and early ’90s when the Tigers raged through the L&C to upwards of 40 consecutive victories, Marceline will be seeking a seventh conference crown in a row this season. All except the shared (with Fayette) 2018 title have been outright with undefeated league ledgers.

Because of Knox County’s switch to 8-man-style play this season – a year after Schuyler County went the same route, the Lewis and Clark schedule has shriveled back to six games for each squad. That prompted the need for the new week three opponent.