From Staff Reports
It was the stuff movies are made of.
When Christian Lopez stepped on the Mizzou Arena floor just before 9 p.m. Feb. 16, he was a young man carrying a huge weight on his shoulders. A state title sat in the balance, not only for him personally, but for his team as well.
The roar of the crowd was deafening. His heart raced a bit. The sound from those clad in black and gold told him how real this moment was. He was ready to seize it, he told himself.
With his Neosho Wildcats trailing Kearney 152-148 entering the 220-pound championship at the MSHSAA State Wrestling Championships, Lopez stepped on the mat knowing he was the last line of defense, the final hope, so to speak, that the Wildcats had to claim the state title. They needed a win to share the state crown with the Bulldogs, a loss leaving both Lopez and the Wildcats short of their state title dreams.
Lopez stared not only into the eyes of those 100-plus fans in the stands, but also one of the best wrestlers the 220-pound weight class has to offer in McDonald County's Jordan Moffett.
But after being beaten by the big man three times this season, Lopez, still reeling from his win over Moffett in the district title match last week in Willard, scored an escape in the ultimate tie breaker in overtime and escaped Moffett, 3-2, to send himself and the Wildcats to a state title for the third time in four years. Officially, the Wildcats are co-champs as both teams finished with 152 points.
That's the first time since 1978 that MSHSAA has awarded dual champions. It's also Neosho's third team title in four years.
"The feeling was great," Lopez said. "I've haven't felt a feeling like that in a very long time. Moffett is a very, very good wrestler. He's one of the toughest wrestlers I've ever wrestled. It's just amazing."
Lost in the excitement of Lopez's match was the state championship claimed by fellow senior Nate Rodriguez, the third state title of his career and win No. 210 of his career -- a school record. Rodriguez also became the first four-time state qualifier in Neosho history and the first three-time champion, according to coach Jeremy Phillips.
Rodriguez's win was magnified even greater in that it came over Blake Clevenger of Kearney, 6-3.
"I knew the kid was going to be coached up," Rodriguez said. "I just knew that first period was going to be a battle."
It was a special win for Rodriguez, who is leaving his Wildcat career on top.
Neosho coach Jeremy Phillips said he'd been getting plenty of well-wishes from NHS alumni and fans all week, and that his team wanted to win not only for themselves, but for those who came before them as well.
"I told several of our alumni that was wishing us well and luck on the way that our goal was not simply to win it, but just honor those wrestlers of the past, present and future," Phillips said. "Come up here and fight for what we believed in.
"We were hit hard day two, but you know what, we kept the faith and we kept moving forward," he added. "That says a lot about our character. We couldn't have done it without everybody believing."
• • •
For the first time in 18 years, the Seneca Indians varsity football squad made it to the state playoffs in 2013.
The 11-3 Indians made it to the state title game for the first time since 1995, the year they beat Herculaneum 35-14 for the state title. It marked the seventh state championship appearance for Seneca's football program, with their only other win coming in 1987.
But a win for the Indians just wasn't in the cards, as they fell to Maryville 50-28.
After earning a shot to play in the state title game by slicing through its opponents this postseason, Seneca couldn't get it's high-powered offense going against the uncompromising Spoofhound defense.
"Disappointing loss," Indians Head Coach Dan Scheible said. "We just didn't feel we played quite the level of football that we had in the past. Maryville probably had a lot to do with that because of their physical size. I'm proud of our kids. They kept after it."
The Indians trailed 36-6 at the end of the third quarter. Things got interesting in the final 6 minutes of the game, as the teams traded five touchdowns in the final 5:15 of regulation in one of the more interesting finishes of the Show-Me Bowl weekend.
The Indians, who never quit despite the deficit, went to their bag of tricks and scored on a halfback pass from Braxton Graham to Chance Smith to make it 36-14 with 5:15 left. The Spoofhounds answered on the first play of their next possession when McMahon ran around the right end for 53 yards. A successful conversion pass made it 44-14 with 4:53 left.
Seneca answered again when Payton Rawlins found Dalan Merriman for 62 yards down to the Maryville one, and Graham ran it in on the next play. Rawlins' conversion pass to Nick Dunnam made it 44-22 with 4:39 left. Maryville would turn it over on downs at the Indians 30 with 2:03 left, and Seneca would capitalize when Rawlins hooked up with Graham on a 47-yard touchdown pass with 10 seconds left.
Graham, who entered the game with 2,775 yards rushing on the season, finished with 121 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries. He also had 131 yards receiving and another score on seven catches. Rawlins completed 18 passes for 309 yards and a TD.
"They were big and they were quick," Graham said of Maryville's defense. "It seemed like they were on me the whole time. They're a good football team."
While they were disappointed with the outcome, Rawlins pointed out his Indians accomplished their quest to become a team of significance — a challenge Scheible set forth at the beginning of the season. Undoubtedly, he said, they're a team that will go down in Seneca history.
While trying to hold back emotions in the post-game press conference, Scheible sat between two of his top departing seniors, Rawlins and Graham, and was unwavering in his respect and support of his young men.
"I'm just proud of these kids," Scheible said of the team. "I'm proud of their effort. With 34 kids, a lot of people didn't think we'd make it this far."
Perhaps Graham summed it up the best.
"We proved a lot of people wrong."