By Mark Schremmer
Globe Sports Writer
For those outside the program, a return trip to the Class 2 state championship seemed unlikely.
In fairness, the Lamar Tigers held a 1-2 record after falling in consecutive games to Seneca (13-6) and Cassville (31-0). Sure, Lamar won the state title in 2011, but maybe the graduations of several talented seniors were too much. Maybe other teams were starting to catch up.
Or at least that’s what many of the sports journalists across the state seemed to wonder as they left Lamar out of the top 10 in the final Class 2 rankings released in late October. Technically, the Tigers were tied for 11th with seven points – 133 shy of top-ranked Lafayette County.
But while the media had questions, Lamar’s confidence never wavered.
“I can’t speak for the people around the state because I don’t know them, but the people in the brotherhood expected us to go back,” Lamar coach Scott Bailey said. “They knew what kind of football team we had and they knew what we were going through with our ball security problems and our injury problems. I can’t speak for the people around the state, but I don’t believe there was one person involved in this program who ever doubted.”
Since the two losses to Seneca and Cassville, Lamar has rattled off 11 consecutive wins and finds itself one step away from defending its state crown. The Tigers will face Blair Oaks at 2:15 p.m. Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis for the Class 2 championship.
The thing that was overlooked regarding the Tigers was that all of their problems that led to the 1-2 record were correctable. Lamar wasn’t having difficult running the ball against Seneca as it rushed for more than 400 yards. However, turnovers doomed the Tigers. Against Cassville, the turnovers continued and seven players were out with injuries, including star running back Jared Beshore and all-state offensive lineman Austin Boice.
“In our conference, if you’re not healthy and you’re not hanging into the football, you’re not going to win any games,” Bailey said.
So the Tigers got to work correcting their fumbling issues.
“We heard all of the talk after weeks two and three,” quarterback Levi Petersen said. “We weren’t going to accept it. We put it on our mind that we were going to get better every week, and we’ve been practicing like champions since then.
“Every day in practice, we do ball security drills. We just really harped on those after those first three games. We haven’t turned it over near as much since then.”
And while Lamar has coped with nagging injuries all year long on, luckily none of them have been season-ending.
“We knew we were better than that,” Lamar tight end and defensive end Sam Bailey said. “We had a lot of people hurt. We just kept telling ourselves that we’ll get healthier and get back in the groove and keep winning.”
Lamar bounced back in its fourth game against Mt. Vernon with a 28-6 victory. Starting with that game, Lamar’s varsity defense allowed no more than one touchdown for the next nine outings. The Tigers have allowed only two touchdowns each to the potent offenses of Liberty and Caruthersville in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
Through the playoffs, Lamar has defeated its opponents by an average of 65-10.8. And consider that all 28 points against Ash Grove came against reserve players.
Yes, simply the Tigers have dominated. Bailey, who attended Lamar High School, has helped turn the program into a model for Missouri Class 2.
Lamar has made the semifinals four consecutive times and will play in the state championship for the second straight year.
Bailey has a difficult time expressing what it means to him and the others who are a part of what they call the “brotherhood.” However, it’s evident how special Saturday’s 69-12 semifinal win against Caruthersville in front of a huge home crowd was to Bailey and those close to him.
“I grew up here in Lamar,” he said. “I played football in Lamar. All my brothers played here. My nephews are getting a chance to play here. I asked my brother Steven, who coaches with me, ‘Did you ever think the day would come that we would be playing semifinal football games in our place?’ He just kind of shook his head, ‘No.’ We show up here and get ready to play, and people are lined up at the gates to come watch us play. I don’t know if I can put it into words how special it is. It’s very personal to me. It’s very personal to my brother. It’s very personal to a lot of people.
“It’s a closeness. We call it the brotherhood. It’s not just a name we throw around. Our kids believe it.”
Yes, despite the setbacks and the doubters, the Tigers believed all along.