No, the Salem Tigers were not part of the football elite of the SCA this fall.
Those positions were reserved for unbeaten conference champion Ava – who this week will play in the Missouri Class 2 state championship game against Lutheran North at Faurot Field in Columbia on Friday – and Thayer, a Class 1 Quarterfinalist for the second straight year.
In fact prior to the season-opener when Salem played at St. James, the whispers in both communities were that the loser of that game could possibly finish 2019 winless.
Unfortunately for St. James, it lost the game and that 0-fer prediction came true.
Salem? Well, those Tigers weren’t winless, and that opening win wasn’t their lone victory. In fact, Salem went on to pile up a 7-4 overall record with a ridiculously inexperienced varsity lineup.
That nearly reversed the record from the previous year, when the Tigers finished 3-7.
It was quite an accomplishment for ridiculously young first-year head coach Dylan Wyrick, who probably received a vote or two from fellow coaches for SCA Coach-of-the-Year.
And in the Missouri Media’s meeting of sportswriters and sportscasters to select the Central Missouri all-district teams, a faction of voters lobbied to select Wyrick Class 3 Coach of the Year for his impressive work in Salem’s turnaround season over Ted LePage, who at the time had not lost a game at Blair Oaks the past two seasons, was defending Class 2 state champion and guided the team that clobbered the Tigers in this year’s district tourney semifinals.
Not a bad debut as a Salem head coach.
And a far cry from what he was told to expect coming in.
Hired by the Tigers late in the offseason, Wyrick took over a program with two returning starters and just three players with any real varsity experience.
A two-way all-state player at Potosi, Wyrick worked one year in Salem – not in the school system – while completing his college degree, so he knew something about the community and Tiger football coming in.
Salem was spoiled football-wise for 30-some years by the success of teams led by retired head coach Bill Schuchardt, who coached the Tigers to 255 victories, 14 SCA championships, 16 district titles, five state semifinal berths and two Show-Me Bowl appearances.
Brian McNamee was the guy who had to replace The Man. And after McNamee resigned during the 2018-19 school year, the responsibility for filling a legend’s shoes on the Salem sidelines fell to Wyrick.
“I knew Salem had a winning tradition in football,” said Wyrick, now 28 years old. “It is definitely a football town and took its athletics seriously. That was a big draw to me, to have an opportunity to go to a football town and be a football head coach; to be a young guy and try to bring some energy in. I love coaching football, love the game and love dealing with kids. My main goal is to do my best towards the kids.
“I’m from a small town. In a small town you won’t get people’s attention until you win a district title, and that’s the direction we’re trying to hit. If you keep kids focused on the main thing, everything else follows suit.”
He was warned of the upcoming doom this fall. So, he wasn’t sure what to expect; in part because of his own youth as much as his players’ youth.
“Coming in, knowing a lot of other guys out there knew more football than I do and have coached longer than me, I just tried to step back and see it how it is,” Wyrick said. “It was the whole age thing; I was kind of nervous coming in.”
However, what Wyrick found when he began working with his players and assistant coaches was that there was more talent on hand than he was led to believe.
“I found a group of young men who were tough, have heart and wanted to win,” Wyrick said. “They wanted to be successful. They did that day in and day out. And I found a really awesome coaching staff and I just let them loose and let them do their thing. And they were really accepting of me.”
On the field he handed over the quarterback reigns to the best athlete on the team, sophomore Garrett Connell, and started from there.
“I’m a firm believer in putting the best athlete at quarterback and running an offense that fits the personnel best,” Wyrick said. “And we had some kids who could be dynamic.
“We had to keep things vanilla early on. As the kids improved up front, we picked up offensively and also put in some more wrinkles. The biggest thing that saw us through was the comradery with each other.”
The Tigers fired from the gate, winning their first three games – over St. James 32-6, Dexter 19-6 and a 47-8 blowout at Houston in their SCA opener.
Salem came back to earth with back-to-back losses to the league’s Big Two – 36-0 to Thayer and 44-16 to Ava.
The Tigers would bounce back with close-call home victories over Willow Springs 22-21 and Mountain Grove 6-0.
Following was perhaps the worst loss of the season, a 55-12 road thrashing to Mountain View Liberty.
Salem ended the SCA schedule with a 27-21 win over upstart Cabool and began Class 3 District 5 play with a 30-20 home win over School of the Osage.
The season slammed shut in the bitter cold at Blair Oaks 48-0.
After growing up together in 2019, the Tigers won’t sneak up on anyone next fall, as they will return 10 defensive starters and nine offensive starters. It starts in the trenches in football, and the Tigers return all but one starter up front on offense. Plus, the Tigers have a 1,000-yard rusher in shifty Caden Camden and the league’s top returning dual-threat QB in Connell to build around.
Included among the returners are all-district/All-SCA offensive lineman Brandon White and all-district/All-SCA defensive back/running back Camden as well as players who earned all-conference first-team, second-team or honorable mention honors in Dawson Mock at receiver; Hunter Shaw at offensive line; Earl Jarvis and Nathan Pyle at defensive line; Connell at quarterback, and Bradlee Gover at defensive line, punter and place-kicker.
Wyrick says work to prepare for the 2020 season began Monday of this week.
“I showed up in June and only got to see how the kids were in the summer,” Wyrick said. “Now, I teach weight training, so I’ll see them there, and we’ll do after-school conditioning. The kids are real hungry to improve and look to next season. It’s going to be a lot of fun, to see these kids develop.
“At the same time, we’re playing in a conference with a lot of good coaches. Our advantage this year was everything was new – new kids, new scheme. All that comes into play. Next year we’ve got to grind and get better as a team and as a coaching staff.”