Marceline barely hangs on, but advances to prep football semifinals

Will host Hayti in Class 1 play next Saturday (Nov. 27) after 21-20 nailbiter over Fayette

Paul Sturm
Linn County Leader
With the game hanging in the balance on a third-down play from about the MHS 40, Brendon Catron, Marceline High School football Tigers senior defensive lineman, grabs Fayette Falcons quarterback Ben Wells from behind and eventually drags him down for 13-yards loss. When the next play came up short of the first down, MHS' shaky 21-20 victory in the Missouri Class 1 state quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 20, at Marceline, at last was secure. The Tigers will host Hayti in the state quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m.

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

MARCELINE — The Marceline High School football Tigers might be taking the first part of the postseason sports adage “survive and advance” a little too literally.

That the Tigers, now headed to the Class 1 state semifinals on their own field, keep winning is laudable. The way they’re doing it of late – ehhh, maybe they might want to reconsider that.

On the heels of a 36-30 district-championship victory the week before in which a rallying Ewing: Highland Cougars club, twice down by 14 points, was only one incomplete pass in the end away from possibly ending MHS’ season on the last play of the game, on Saturday (Nov. 20), the Tigers came within a couple of yards of seeing their one-time 15-points, third-quarter lead become a 1-point deficit midway through the fourth.

However, dodging that bullet and a subsequent challenge in the last 2-1/2 minutes, Marceline (11-1) eked out a 21-20 state-quarterfinals victory over fellow Lewis and Clark Conference member Fayette at MHS’ Chester Ray Stadium.

“That was huge for our guys to find a way to finish it,” MHS head coach Mark Ross stated to post-game interviewers. “… We knew it was going to be a dogfight.”

Not that he wanted his squad to again let a 2-scores lead nearly get away in the last quarter.

“We’ve got to learn from this experience,” he asserted. “We’ve got to hold onto those leads.”

As a reward for their narrow escape, the Tigers (11-0) will host the duel with the Indians in an all-black-and-gold battle at 1 p.m. next Saturday (Nov. 27), thanks to deep southeast Missouri’s Hayti charging back from a big deficit to knock off Monroe City 28-22 a short while after their own game had gone final.

“We’re really excited,” Ross stated. “They’ve worked really hard and they’ve earned this.”

Contrary to what was erroneously reported in the LCL’s Nov. 22 edition, the game will be played in Marceline because the Tigers – who had a first-round bye in district play – have played one less postseason home game than Hayti thus far.

It had been incorrectly perceived that MHS’ bye would count as a home game and thus give it the same number of “hosted” games to date as Hayti (13-0). In that case, by being on the top (first) line of the semifinals bracket in an odd-numbered calendar year, the Missouri “bootheel” city – only a couple of miles from Kentucky and about 30 from Arkansas – would have been Marceline’s destination, rather than vice versa.

“We’re looking forward to just playing on another Saturday,” the MHS coach declared.

A 37-0 mid-September home victory over fellow Lewis and Clark Conference member Fayette and a 21-6 lead over those same Falcons less than 2-1/2 minutes into the second half of their Class 1 high school football state-quarterfinals rematch on the same Chester Ray Stadium field Saturday might have convinced Marceline Tigers fans – and even their players – that the Tigers’ ticket to the semifinals was already punched.

However, the combination of Fayette’s fortitude and Marceline’s largesse in giving the ball away came extremely close to thwarting any already-made plans the home team and crowd might have had enter their minds.

When senior back/receiver Jace Bixenman got wide open down the MHS sideline and gathered in Jacob Stallo’s pass for what became a 49-yards touchdown pass with 9:36 showing on the third-quarter clock, Marceline’s Tigers led 20-6.

Only a photographer and a backup official are nearby as Marceline High School football Tigers senior Jace Bixenman catches a Jacob Stallo pass at the Fayette Falcons' 22-yard line on his way to a 49-yards touchdown catch-and-run early in the third period of the teams' Missouri Class 1 state quarterfinals game at Marceline Saturday, Nov. 20. After this TD and Drake Stufflebean's conversion kick, MHS led 21-6, but the Tigers had to hold on to win, 21-20. They will host Hayti in the state quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m.

When senior all-conference placekicker Drake Stufflebean booted the conversion kick through the uprights, it likely was almost an afterthought in many minds. After all, the favored Tigers seemingly had things well in hand with three unanswered touchdowns since a MHS giveaway on the game’s first play from scrimmage had set Fayette up for its only score to date.

However, in a game marked by a hefty amount of turnovers, Marceline’s inability to avoid giving the ball away or execute a punt, along with an awakening of the FHS offense, turned the final quarter harrowing for the Tigers faithful and ultimately made Stufflebean’s kick decisive.

“That’s something we talk about every week – how important one point can be,” Ross disclosed. “When you’re up 14 (points), it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you look at the final scoreboard and you’re only up one, you know how important it is.”

A blocked, quick-kick punt attempt near midfield late in the third quarter was returned by Fayette to the Marceline 25. A handful of plays later, fullback D.J. Moore plowed into the MHS end zone from three yards out and a successful conversion pass had the guests back in the game, down only 21-14 with 11:41 remaining.

Marceline handled the ensuing short kickoff and used a 23-yards pass to Wyatt Molloy on third-and-13 to move the ball to near the Fayette 30. With a chance to likely salt the victory away with a score, the Tigers’ attempt to catch FHS overplaying the run on the ensuing snap backfired.

A long seam pass intended for Bixenman was both overthrown and well-defensed anyway, resulting in an interception at the goal line and a touchback.

With star running back Garren Vroman gritting things out despite an apparent third-quarter leg injury and an onset of calf-muscle cramps early in the fourth, quarterback Ben Wells provided a key 15-yards pickup into MHS territory with a scramble that went from the middle of the field to one sideline and then all the way back across to the field.

A few plays later, Vroman took a weakside pitch around left end for 26 yards to inside the MHS 10, setting up Wells’ 3-yards sneak that pulled Fayette within 21-20 with 5:27 to go.

With Marceline fans aghast that the once-comforting 15-points lead could become a 1-point deficit if the Falcons’ 2-points conversion again was successful, they watched – and exhaled in relief – when the “Black Rage” defense was in excellent position to stack up Vroman well short of the goal line on an intended off-tackle run. Marceline still led, 21-20.

Barely avoiding another turnover when the muffed fair-catch attempt on the short kickoff was recovered by alert junior Braden Lichtenberg, Marceline earned one first down in two running plays to use up some time, but then faced a fourth-and-5 call from just short of midfield.

Not confident in his team’s ability to get a punt away safely, MHS head coach Mark Ross first had his team try to lure Fayette offside, but that was unsuccessful. Then, he called for a rollout pass and seemingly deep-downfield throw that, if caught, could clinch the win or, if intercepted, might work like a punt.

However, Fayette’s pass rush got to the quarterback, forcing a fumble. While Marceline recovered it, the 13-yards loss meant a turnover on downs and Fayette getting the ball inside the MHS 40 with nearly 2-1/2 minutes left.

However, the Tigers’ defense answered the call this time.

“We really figured it would come down to whoever had the ball last,” Ross shared.

Asked what mission he’d given the “Black Rage” unit prior to the tense final Falcons possession, he recalled, “Just continuing to work hard, get after the ball, and get a stop.

“We talked about it that the ballgame was on the line in that moment and they found a way to get it done.”

After stopping two completed passes for a net gain of one yard, senior lineman Brendon Catron burst through to chase down and sack Wells for a loss of 13, bringing up a fourth-and-22 play.

The FHS choice was a “hook-and-ladder” play involving a short thrown to slot receiver Dalton Collins and lateral to Vroman coming out of the backfield behind him. However, Marceline had a player in between the two, forcing Collins to hold onto the ball and leading to his being tackled after an 11-yards gain that provided only half the required distance.

“This is a very seasoned group. They’ve been in this situation before,” Ross said of the final defensive stand.

“All of these seniors have played in a ‘final four’ before. It’s about stepping up in the big moment and the guys find a way to get that done.”

The visitors, who had a distracting situation the week of the regular-season meeting that Ross figured had contributed greatly to the lopsided outcome and would not be a factor this time, pounced on a Marceline misplay on the game’s very first play from scrimmage.

A short J. Stallo pass to the right side glanced off Bixenman’s hands and into the air beyond him, where FHS defensive back Avery Powell latched onto it near midfield.

Although the Tigers’ “D” immediately threw Vroman for 3-yards losses on both of the Falcons’ first two offensive plays, a right-side pass to motioning receiver Chase Allen-Jackman went for 22 yards and a first down on third down.

After two more Vroman runs resulted in a net loss of a yard, a toss sweep to him off the left side sprung him for 18 yards and a first-and-goal at the MHS 8.

Three plays later, another sweep to the left let him find paydirt from four yards out. When the conversion run attempt was stopped, Fayette held a 6-0 lead with 7:14 to go in the first period.

Only 20 seconds later, Marceline led.

Following a short kickoff to keep the ball away from deep man Bixenman, the Tigers’ offense took over at their 36-yard line. On the first play, great point-of-attack blocking on an inside play popped Nelson through to the second level in an instant and by the time Fayette’s secondary could react, he had enough lead and speed to take the ball the 64-yards distance. Stufflebean then gave MHS the lead – for keeps, it eventually turned out – with his first point-after kick.

With about five minutes left in the first half and the score still 7-6, J. Stallo found Bixenman down the left side for a 23-yards pickup into FHS territory. That kick-started a drive that a 15-yards Caleb Stallo further aided and, finally, a 2-yards blast off left guard by H. Nelson completed 1:15 before halftime. Again, Stufflebean tacked on the later-crucial extra point.

Marceline High School football Tigers senior running back Hunter Nelson lands in the Fayette end zone after a 2-yards touchdown run off left guard late in the first half of the Missouri Class 1 state quarterfinals game at Marceline Saturday, Nov. 20. The Tigers built a 21-6 lead, then held on to win, 21-20, and will host Hayti in the state quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m.

Coming out of halftime, Fayette got the ball first, but, after earning one first down, had a fourth-and-2 run by Vroman sniffed out by senior linebacker Mason Barnett and others. Stopped for a 4-yards loss – one of seven times the Tigers dropped him behind the line, the Falcons turned the ball over on downs at their own 46.

Following a first-down loss of three yards on a left-side run that opened up the right-hand two-thirds of the field, Marceline used a “twins right” set to get man-to-man coverage on the second play.

When J. Stallo dropped back and set up, he found Bixenman’s “out-and-up” route had totally lost his defender and sent a long throw which Bixenman easily caught in stride at the FHS 22 with no player within 10 yards of him. He jogged across the goal line at the 9:16 mark of the third quarter.

With those six points and Stufflebean’s one, Marceline looked to be on its way, owning a 21-6 advantage, but Fayette – particularly with MHS’ unintentional assistance – wasn’t going away, not even after Tigers senior cornerback Sam Gillman filched a pass in the MHS end zone in the latter stages of the third quarter seemed to be a death knell.

When the subsequent Tigers offensive series stalled right at midfield, the blocked punt try jolted life into the Falcons’ fading body and Marceline had to hold on for dear semifinals life the rest of the way.

Statistically, each team had its top ballcarrier reach triple digits.

Nelson unofficially finished with 120 on 17 carries after his long TD jaunt on his first rush led to him having 91 yards before the second period began. Vroman’s unofficial 176 yards required 32 touches, seven of which the Tigers turned into lost yardage.

Mason Barnett (66) and Hunter Quinn (62) of the Marceline High School football Tigers bring down Fayette Falcons standout running back Garren Vroman during the teams' Missouri Class 1 state quarterfinals game at Marceline Saturday, Nov. 20. The Tigers won, 21-20, and will host Hayti in the state quarterfinals Saturday, Nov. 27, at 1 p.m.

J. Stallo was able to hit on only three of eight passes and had two intercepted, but did get 95 yards and the scoring throw to Bixenman from his trio of hookups. He was sacked three times. FHS’ Wells went eight of 14 for 97 yards with one picked off with the only sack being the costly one by Catron on the final series.

For Marceline, Bixenman was his usual multi-dimensional self. He had the two receptions for 72 yards and the score plus another 42 rushing yards, as well as a 29-yards return of the game-starting kickoff.

Team-wise, MHS had about 280 yards of total offense and Fayette just over 300.

Particularly notable was the number of turnovers and misplays, which Ross attributed to a combination of familiarity of the opponents and players perhaps trying too much to be the difference maker for their respective squads.

“In a game like this, especially when it’s a conference opponent, you kind of expect games like this, where everybody wants to be the one to go out and make a big play,” he told the LCL. “Sometimes it gets hard to hang onto the ball and make plays in big situations.”

Marceline not only lost two interceptions, but also one of three fumbles and had the tide-turning blocked punt.

Fayette (11-2) similarly put the ball on the ground three times, losing one (recovered by Catron in the second quarter), and the second-half pickoff by Gillman. It also had no less than a dozen offensive plays result in negative yardage.