ST. LOUIS – Maplewood Richmond Heights head football coach Brandon Gregory laid out the goals for this season way back in June.
While one of them was reaching the ultimate game and playing for the Class 2 state championship, the Blue Devils wanted to accomplish more than simply playing inside the Edward Jones Dome last Saturday afternoon.
Gregory and Co. envisioned hoisting up the first-place hardware–not the runner-up trophy after the humbling 34-13 loss against the Penney Hornets.
Despite falling one win short of high school football's ultimate prize, MRH enjoyed a record-breaking season by playing for its first-ever state title and finishing with an impressive 14-1 record.
All Penney has done is win consecutive state championships at different levels in the past two years, claiming the Class 1 crown in 2009 followed by the Class 2 title in 2010.
The Hornets, who have won 29 straight games in that span, aren't exactly flashy with how they play the game, but they win with a physical, smash-mouth attack on both sides of the ball.
"It wasn't a whole lot of razzle-dazzle," Gregory said. "They overloaded on one side and tried to get you to overload over there. Then they have numbers on the back side. We knew they were going to run straight at us, for the most part. They had some big guys that took pride in doing what they do."
MRH didn't help its own cause after being whistled for 11 penalties in the title game for a total of 64 yards, erasing potential big plays, first downs and possibly touchdowns.
However, that's been an area of concern all season long despite winning 14 straight games leading up to the championship showdown.
"They were very crucial. I mean, the first play of the game was an offside call on us," Gregory said of the penalties. "I know the kids were excited and a lot of anxiety was built up. It was kind of hard settling them down all week. You know you're going to make some mistakes playing in a different atmosphere. So I knew it was going to come into consideration but, at the same time, it ended up biting us in the butt."
Even after falling behind by 13 points in the blink of an eye, the Blue Devils displayed their grit and determination after pulling themselves off the turf and rallying.
Senior wideout Marcus Taylor caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Wes Williams to pull MRH to within 13-7 by halftime. Then MRH opened the second half with an impressive drive capped by Austyn Ford's 3-yard touchdown run to even the game at 13.
The Blue Devils had opportunities to take the lead, which may have made all the difference in the world, but they were never able to get over the hump.
On third and long from near midfield, Williams threw a deep pass intended for Tony King that was intercepted at the 9-yard line.
"I told my quarterback to pick his head up and look at it as a punt," Gregory said. "And the next play you just see the little running back take off all the way down to the other end of the field. That was a big momentum change, which they were able to take the lead."
That running back was Trevor Dixon, who ripped off an 86-yard run before scoring from a yard out three plays later. Dixon's third touchdown of the game put Penney ahead to stay, leading 20-13 late in the third quarter.
MRH marched right back down the field only to have its drive stall just seven yards short of the goal line, including four straight running plays from the 11 that were stuffed for small gains.
"I probably should have passed out of that," Gregory admitted. "But last week Terron Dale carried the load for us and ran his way through tackles (against Lamar). So I tried to get the ball in his hands. They were able to stop it."
And with that turnover on downs, Penney took all of the wind out of MRH's sails and cruised to the finish line by scoring two clinching touchdowns in 18 seconds late in the fourth quarter.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, reality set in for the Blue Devils that a championship wouldn't be in the cards this season.
Would the outcome have been any different had starting quarterback Kahlid Hagens not been sidelined for the last three games because of an emergency appendectomy?
That is a question that will never be answered, unfortunately. But Williams more than held his own while replacing Hagens; both QBs are just sophomores.
"Wes played tremendous, not only today but also against Lamar and Caruthersville, considering the situation that he was thrown into there," Gregory said. "As a coach, there are some plays you can't do with Wes that you can with Kahlid. But at the same time, if the Eagles lose Michael Vick there are plays that Andy Reid can't run with Kevin Kolb in there. So it's up to the coaches to run plays that will make him successful, and I think we did that with Wes. He handled it as best as he could.
"I'm expecting big things from him and Kahlid the next two years. That's one thing I don't have to worry about is getting a quarterback ready."
The Blue Devils will lose 15 seniors from this team, including a lot of speed and athleticism at the skill positions.
The entire backfield will be lost in Dale, who rushed for more than 1,100 yards and scored 23 total touchdowns, Austyn Ford, who added 650 yards and 15 TDs, and Randell Stokes, who chipped in 424 yards and four scores.
Cortez Cooper was a dual threat as a runner and receiver, catching 31 passes for 564 yards with eight touchdowns and rushing for 384 yards and three more scores. Marcus Taylor, who led the defense with 21 sacks, also was a leading receiver with 18 receptions for 373 yards and five TDs.
Ford finished as the team's top tackler with 102 to go along with four sacks and two interceptions. Devin Clark and Stokes each amassed more than 85 tackles and added eight sacks each. Nick Coulter chipped in with 76 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.
"They meant everything, especially being my first group of seniors," Gregory said. "Last year I think we lost 12 and now I've got 15 this year. They stepped up when those seniors left last year. So I'm going to be looking for my three juniors and the sophomore class to step up.
"We don't like to rebuild. We like to reload. Our kids understand that. We play a small-level football where you can play as a freshman and get that experience. We'll give guys a week off and, believe or not, the guys not playing a winter sport will be back at it getting ready for next year."