Then there were none: no inner-city high school football teams left standing in the hunt for November’s biggest prize: a trip to the Missouri Show Me Bowl for the right to play for a state title.
But as it turns out, the last team from the city to get there, the private- school, Cardinal Ritter Lions, in 2008 before falling to Cassville, in the Class 3 title game, was also the last city team standing last weekend. The surging host Lions (10-2) pushed the powerful and undefeated Malden Green Wave(13-0) to the brink of defeat a few times before falling 50-44 in triple overtime last Friday night in Missouri Class 2 state quarterfinal contest.
“It was a tough fight,” said Cardinal Ritter running back Naeem Moore.”We knew coming in it was going to be an all-out battle, but they executed in the end.”
The final margin of victory proved to be a 4-yard run by Malden’s Nick Thompson in the third overtime. Even though the Green Wave failed on the two-point conversion, their touchdown held up when the Lions sputtered on their ensuing possession with three false starts and finally quarterback Terrell Wess’ end-zone pass was picked off by Thompson to preserve the win.
“I was confident we could get it done,” said Thompson, amid a huge celebration of Green Wave fans on the field afterwards. “My guys fought for me. We got each other’s back through thick and thin.”
Ritter which led 20-14 at haftime, was looking to avenge a 47-6 home loss to Malden in last year’s Class 2 playoffs. But Ritter coach Rolando Merriweather rejected the notion that pushing Malden represented a moral victory or redemption from last season’s blowout.
“No,” remarked Merriweather. “I saw us going further. Looking at the film I thought we had a chance to beat them. Our big time players didn’t make big-time plays and their big time players made big time plays.”
That being said, Merriweather did allow that his club’s false-start penalties on the final possession was more than his linemen getting over-zealous to start.
“Their defensive players were yelling out snap counts, but we shouldn’t have reacted,” said Merriweather. “But I’m proud of the season our guys had. We overcame a lot of adversity: injuries, academic problems.”
Prior to Ritter’s playoff exit, the Vashon Wolverines from the Public High League had been the last public school in the city still standing before they were rolled by the host Affton Cougars 36-12 the previous week. On a muddy field and unable to overcome a litany of their own mistakes and penalties as well as Affton’s well-balanced attack, the Wolverines looked nothing like the team that had beaten the Gateway Jaguars 6-0 in the Class 4 district championships back on Oct. 30. The Jaguars had just outlasted Vashon 20-14 in a regular season matchup on Oct. 2, which eventually gave the Jaguars the PHL title, only to have beat the Wolverines a second time to advance beyond the district round of the playoffs.
“I am wondering if any other conference had their districts set up this way,?” asked Jaguars coach Jason Dulick, whose club avenged a regular loss to the Career Academy Phoenix by edging them 7-6 in the district semifinals last year. “It is very hard to play a team twice in less than a four-week span. We benefited from that last year with CA (Career Academy) and it hurt us this year. It sucks that we had to play one of the top teams twice instead of playing anybody else in the area.”
The 2008 Gateway Jaguars team was the last PHL program to make it to the state semifinals, losing to the host Jefferson City Helias Crusaders. The previous season, the Vashon Wolverines also made it to the state semifinals, losing to the Parkway Central Colts on Gateway’s home field. This year Wolverines can still take a measure of pride in reversing a 2-8 campaign in 2014 to improve to 8-4 this season. Interestingly enough, one of the Wolverines’ signature wins a 34-32 road win at Cape Girardeau Central, last year’s Missouri Class 4 state runnerup, which is still alive in the title hunt after overwhelming Affton 54-28 in last weekend’s quarterfinals.