On the front page of the Sept. 8, 1998 edition of The Salem News was a story by staff writer Dwayne McClellan about the 40th anniversary of Salem High School football. The story was mostly about the inaugural first season of 1959, when a coach named Wayne Keebaugh took a bunch of country boys like Dave Wynn, Bob Jenkins and Curtis Bottorff.
“Salem was a basketball town, but the community and the team learned together,” Jenkins was quoted in the 1998 story. No doubt Salem and the country boys learned their football lessons quite well. It took a year, but Salem finally got that first win, 32-0 over Potosi. They went on to win a lot of football games over the next five decades and became one of the most respected football programs in the state.
Without a doubt the most celebrated of those teams were the 1998-2002 squads that compiled a mark of 58-9 and played in the state championship game twice. While the 1959 team got it all started, the 1998 team helped get it to another level.
Just four days before the story about the 1959 team appeared in the paper, Salem opened its season with a 27-7 win at Willow Springs. After falling behind 7-0, Scott Boyle scored a touchdown for the Tigers, and James Gregory’s extra point tied it 7-7. Quarterback Matt Dillon scored from a yard out in the third quarter, giving Salem the lead and some momentum that carried it to the best season in Salem’s 40 years of football.
The 11-2 1998 team along with the 1999 team that finished 12-1, will be recognized during the football game Friday night, part of alumni and homecoming weekend activities.
All of those Salem teams during the streak were coached by coach Bill Schuchardt, who is coaching in Florida and could not attend this week’s activities. He coached Salem for 32 years with only one losing season, his first.
“Coach Schu contacted me about it, and I totally agreed it was a great idea to honor those teams 20 years later,” said Salem Athletic Director Philip Karr, who coached ninth grade football at the time. “I was all for it. Everyone was, and excited about it. Hopefully they will see some teammates they haven’t seen in a while.”
There have been 60 years of Salem football played since Jenkins opined that Salem and its football teams would learn the sport together. None of those teams standout more than those of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The 1998 team set the stage, breaking a school record for wins in a season with 11, earning SCA and district titles. The Tigers lost to Jefferson City Helias 28-7 in Salem. It was a gut-wrenching loss in the Missouri Class 4A semifinal played on a Saturday afternoon in Salem. It was the first semifinal football game in school history. The Tigers’ only other loss that year was 14-13 to Union in the final regular-season game. After the Helias game there was a lot of sadness among the seniors who wanted to play just one more game for a chance at the title. And for a talented bunch of underclassmen, it was the harbinger of great gridiron things to come.
Said senior defensive lineman Mark Reed, one of 19 seniors on the team, after the game: “We had a great year, went further than any other Salem team had before, and had the crowd and the team behind us. It was great to look up in the third quarter and see the people packed in from the scoreboard to the gate.”
Salem football, and all those fans, were just getting started.
With all those seniors gone, some people might have thought the 1999 team would see a bit of a dropoff. It didn’t happen. The Tigers finished 12-1 and undefeated in the SCA. Six opponents scored a touchdown or less and Salem averaged 44 points a game. In the end though, it was old nemesis Helias ending the season with a 7-0 decision at Helias.
Salem had an undefeated 1999 regular season and avenged a loss to Union the season before with a 34-10 win. One of the highlights of the year was a breathtaking 30-28 win in the quarterfinals at North County, where Salem got a field goal from Carl Homeyer with seven seconds left.
Robby Owen was SCA Back of the Year and Josh Gordon co-SCA lineman of the year.
“The group’s work ethic was phenomenal,” Karr said. “I have never seen a group come through here that dedicated. They loved the game that much. It was nothing to see them put the time in the weight room, watching film at Schu’s house.
“They were close off the field, too. Those kids had no quit in them. They beat Eureka and North County on the road, and not a lot of people thought we would. They weren’t afraid of anybody.”
More great Salem teams followed the lead of the 1998 and 1999 squads. The 2000 Tigers went 13-1 and beat Festus 35-26 to make it to the state championship game, where they lost to Platte County 32-9. In 2001, Salem was 11-2, losing only to West Plains 34-15 and to New Madrid Central 43-23 in the state semifinals, once again a step away from a shot at the state championship. In 2002, Salem, 11-3, was back playing for a state title again, losing to Platte County for a second time in three years, 34-13. (It was Platte County’s 42nd straight win, at the time the state’s longest win streak since Jefferson City won 71 in a row from 1958-66).
Karr said there has been talk about honoring the 2000, 2001 and 2002 teams also, as the 20th anniversary of their accomplishments approach.
Teammates of the 1998 and 1999 Salem Tigers football teams (graduating classes of 1999 and 2000) will be recognized as the first two final four teams of Salem football history.
A tailgate will begin at 5 p.m. Friday underneath the Town & Country Bank tent. Pizza and refreshments will be provided.
Teams will be recognized at halftime after Salem Marching Blue’s performance and senior night recognition.