COLUMBIA, Mo. — Just when East Buchanan was getting everything it needed from its run game, Dan Ritter’s defense did its part again.

A trio of rushing touchdowns from the backfield duo of Cru Conaway and Trevor Klein, who finished with over 200 scrimmage yards, powered East Buchanan. But it was a stifling defensive effort that carried East Buchanan to a 21-7 victory over Marceline in the MSHSAA Class 1 State Championship on Saturday at Faurot Field, giving the Bulldogs their first football state title in program history.

It’s been since the 2005 Cameron Dragons that a team from northwest Missouri other than Maryville or Hamilton has won an 11-man state championship. Ritter, the second-year head coach of East Buchanan (14-1), feels lucky to be counted among the great teams of the past, which also includes KCI foe Lawson in '07.

“Just to be in the same conversation with all of those teams, what a blessing,” he said. “We’re really proud of these guys and the tradition we’re setting here at East Buchanan and hopefully it can go on for years to come, and these seniors laid the groundwork.”

Senior offensive lineman Caleb McCartney thought back to a speech that former head coach-turned-assistant Ron Musser gave to the team last offseason.

“Coach Musser said in the summer that we were better than his 2004 team that went to that state title, and I did not believe him at all,” McCartney said. “But the amount of trust and hard work that we put in to this program and Coach Ritter and the staff, there’s no other people that deserve this than the town of Gower.”

The Bulldogs made a statement from the outset, locking up Marceline (12-2) on their first drive and forcing a quick punt before going on a methodical seven-minute drive that they finished with a 5-yard run from Klein on third-and-goal.

“That had to be a backbreaker for the other team,” Ritter said.

They repeated the process in the next pair of possessions. Linebacker Jack Archdekin laid a crushing hit on Tigers fullback Hunter Nelson on fourth-and-1 to force a turnover on downs for the Bulldogs, and they continued to hammer away on the ground before finishing the drive with a 2-yard run from senior Cru Conaway. East Buchanan led 14-0 just a minute into the second quarter.

Another promising drive ended with just a minute remaining in the half when Klein lined up in the wildcat and threw an ill-advised pass into the corner of the endzone that was picked off by a Marceline defender.

For the time being, Klein feels more comfortable with his running back responsibilities.

”You can see that I’m not a quarterback, I’ve never been a quarterback,” he said with a laugh. “That one was my fault, yeah.”

Klein made up for the mistake on the opening drive of the second half, picking up a first down early in the possession and running over multiple Marceline defenders en route to an 8-yard touchdown run, giving the Bulldogs a 21-0 lead with nine minutes left in the third quarter.

But the Tigers, who had come back from deficits in all of their state playoff games, weren’t quite done. They stopped the Bulldogs on a third-and-1 and marched down the field with their short passing game. Quarterback Jacob Stallo converted on fourth-and-11 late in the possession, setting up a rushing score for Nelson that cut the deficit to 14 once again.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, the Tigers forced East Buchanan to punt and marched into the Bulldogs’ redzone.

But facing fourth-and-1, the East Buchanan defense rose to the occasion again, stopping the run for a loss with inches to spare.

“We knew they were gonna come out and pound it on the ground and we wanted them to be one-dimensional,” senior Luke Webb said. “So when it came down to those close ones we just packed the box and let our big guys in the middle do the work, and they came out victorious.”

Archdekin put it more succinctly.

“Just be in the right spots, and hit people hard,” he said.

Conaway fumbled the ball on the next possession but repaid his own debt when he picked off Stallo at the goal line not even a minute later.

Starting their final drive at their own 1-yard line was no obstacle for the Bulldogs, who used the physical running of Klein and Conaway to milk six minutes off of the clock and seal the victory before lifting the state championship trophy, led by Ron Musser, at midfield.

Klein finished with 169 yards on 28 carries. Conaway added 63 yards on 17 totes. Archdekin had a game-high 12 tackles.

East Buchanan held Marceline to just 67 yards rushing and 266 total yards. The Bulldogs controlled the clocked for more than 30 minutes and held Marceline to 4 of 12 on third downs and 2 of 6 on fourth down.

In the wake of the this year’s passing of former coach Kevin Bryan, Webb was aware of the wider impact of this win.

“It’s awesome for us as the team, but we did it for everybody,” he said. “For those fans in the crowd, for Virgil Freeman and Kevin Bryan up there in the clouds and everybody cheering us on. We just did it for all of them.”

It’s a special feeling for the team’s seniors, who go out on a championship. Many of them, like quarterback Conner Musser, recalled the best way to end their long, memorable football careers: By completing the cycle.

“I’m sure with my football career it will set in a couple days that it’s all over,” he said. “But, you know, in second grade we won our league championship, and to go out how we came in is something special for us.”

Levi Smith can be reached at levi.smith@newspressnow.com.

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