Marceline to host Highland for district football title Friday

As reported to LCL
Sophomore linebacker Conner Quinn of the Marceline High School football Tigers drills a Salisbury Panther during MHS' Oct. 8 win. Quinn had eight tackles, including a quarterback sack, and an interception in last Friday's 42-14 victory over South Shelby in the Class 2 District 6 semifinals.

MARCELINE — Coming off a performance that left a smile on the countenance of their head coach, the Marceline High School football Tigers will seek their fourth-straight Class 1 district title and sixth in seven years Friday when they welcome Ewing’s Highland Cougars to Chester Ray Stadium for the 2021 District 6 championship contest.

It will be a second-consecutive postseason test against a foe from the generally-larger-schools Clarence Cannon Conference for Marceline (9-1). Last Friday at Ray Stadium, following a week off from game play, the healthier, heartier Tigers handled South Shelby 42-14 for their seventh triumph in succession.

“The boys played some of their best football,” pleased MHS coach Mark Ross reflected. “This is a great momentum builder for us heading into the district championship (game), facing a very talented Highland team.”

The Cougars (8-3) earned their appearance in the district final also in decisive fashion, routing MHS’ fellow Lewis and Clark Conference member Westran 38-0 at home.

Like South Shelby, Highland shared with Marceline a regular-season victory over Brookfield. The Tigers prevailed over the Bulldogs 20-0 early in the season; the Cougars netted a 28-14 triumph late in the season.

Now, as postseason matchups become comparison points, the district finalists also now have triumphs over South Shelby and Westran on their ’21 resumés. Highland’s victory over fellow CCC member South Shelby was by a 24-8 count in midseason, while Westran tested the Tigers more severely in the late-season duel, 28-12, at Huntsville.

Against South Shelby (4-8) last Friday, Marceline spotted the Cardinals a 6-0 lead on the game’s first possession, then produced the next 28 stretching into the fourth quarter.

On the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage after the SSHS TD, senior quarterback Jacob Stallo lofted a strike to classmate Jace Bixenman running a deep seam route up the right side.

The 43-yards pickup to the Cardinals’ 35 led, a few plays later, to the first of four Hunter Nelson touchdown runs, a dash off right tackle out of an unbalanced line set to the right supplemented by a double-wing alignment. When Drake Stufflebean nailed the extra-point kick with 8:08 showing on the first-quarter clock, each team was on the scoreboard, but MHS had the lead at 7-6.

It would keep it, in part because of a huge, alert defensive play by senior defensive end Jaxon Schmitt.

With South Shelby facing third-and-9 from its own 10-yard line about four minutes after Marceline took the lead, the play call was for a swing pass to its lone running back circling out of the backfield around the left side.

However, after attempting to freeze the MHS linebacker and safety on that side of the field by initially looking down the field, the Cardinals quarterback threw without first looking to see if his back was open or the passing lane clear.

While the target might have been “thrown” open with a lobbed throw, a MHS linebacker already was moving his direction and likely would have had a good chance to stop him short of a first down. However, the quarterback didn’t make a softer, high-elevation throw.

Instead, he threw the ball directly toward the back on a low trajectory, only to find Schmitt having correctly read the back “crossing his face” (running wide of him on a pass route) and moving laterally toward him, rather than upfield toward the backfield.

Schmitt’s alertness and flawless execution left him right between the passer and would-be receiver, meaning the ball came right to him when thrown low. Snaring it on the run at the SSHS 5, he cantered into the beckoning end zone a few steps away and, with 3:59 left in the opening period, Marceline owned a 14-6 lead after the subsequent point-after kick.

A Nelson touchdown run was the only scoring of the second period, sending the teams to the locker rooms with the hosts in solid position with a 21-6 advantage.

With the initial possession of the third quarter, the Tigers moved the ball downfield steadily until, on a play from the South Shelby 2, Bixenman, lined up in the backfield, caught a shovel pass from Stallo while moving from right to left and crashed across the goal line. With Stufflebean’s kick and 7:16 on the third-quarter clock, the gap grew to 28-6, virtually assuring there’d be no second-half slipups by the Tigers.

After the clubs traded touchdowns early in the fourth frame, Nelson burst free off the left side for a 44-yards gain into SSHS territory. Several plays later, he scored for a fourth time on the night and Stufflebean’s last point-after boot set the final score.

Statistically, Nelson carried 28 times and netted exactly 200 yards, coach Ross reports.

J. Stallo connected on 13 of his 18 throws for 177 yards and the one score. He was intercepted twice, though, Ross reports. Five of his hookups were with Bixenman, netting 97 yards.

On defense, in addition to Schmitt’s “pick six,”, he also was in eight tackles, including one sack.

Nelson led the MHS tackling with 10, Ross’ report showed, while Conner Quinn made eight, including a sack, while also intercepting a South Shelby throw. Cornerback Sam Gillman chipped in a fumble recovery at his own 28-yard line in the first quarter to stop the Cardinals’ bid to close to within a point or two or even tie it at 14-all.