Two Decades of Football in Willow, Part 2
Wed, 09/23/2020 - 12:15pm admin
In 1963, a changing tide, or, maybe, a small hurricane rolled in with the arrival of tough-as-nails Joel Case. Coach Case, another Mizzou football letterman, had a swagger that he imparted to the team. Fans started coming to the games again. My mom said part of the reason for the increased attendance was that folks wanted to watch Coach Case on the sidelines. He’d charge up and down the field, yell at the refs, and occasionally throw his clipboard.
In practices, he was the most physically involved coach I remember. Donning a helmet snatched from a player, he would demonstrate blocking and tackling techniques. He seemed to love returning punts in practice. One time when he was receiving punts, I rushed around the line and charged toward him. Just before I launched in the air for a stupendous tackle, he pivoted toward me. I still remember the devilish grin on his face just before he straightened me up with a forearm shiver.
That wasn’t the only time that year I received a comeuppance. During practice one day, Eddie Mack Hill connected with a short pass to me. I had made it past the linebackers, and the only defensive player between me and the goal line was one of the freshman on the team. I could have easily evaded him, but with upperclassman hubris, I decided to plow into him. I can think of numerous clichés to describe the result, but suffice to say, it was a poor choice on my part. The freshman wrapped both arms around my legs, and I went down with a thump to a chorus of cheers from my teammates. I felt a bit embarrassed, but, for sure, the freshman impressed me that day.
We only won two games that year—both against Mountain View—but with Hill as quarterback, we led the conference in passing. Moreover, several players received SCA honors: Dan Holloway, first team, and Jim Kilpatrick, Bill Tandy, Truman Grogan, Ed Hill, Lonnie Whitaker, and Dan Zimmerman received honorable mention.
Coach Case, to the team’s disappointment, only stayed for one season. He left for law school. To his credit, he has come to most of my class’s reunions and appears to have retained his athletic physique and never-back-down attitude.
In 1964, David Meek arrived as the fifth coach in five years, but he inherited 19 returning letterman, and a senior class (of ‘65) that had played together since junior high. With a defensive orientation, he brought balance to a team that had shown they could score against anybody the previous year.
The 1964 team took second place in the SCA with a 7-1 conference record, losing only to Cabool. The loss was a 13-7 heartbreaker, with a pass interference call against the Bulldogs in the waning minutes that prevented a nearly certain winning touchdown and a share of the conference championship. To this day, I remember the name of the Cabool player who committed the foul and the spot on Palenske Field where the infraction occurred. For many of us on the team that year, that game is a melancholy “what if” memory that has lasted a lifetime.
In SCA awards, Lynn Jones and Lonnie Whitaker, received first-team honors; Dan Zimmerman was tapped for the second team backfield; and Ed Hill, Tom Siegrist, Jim Johnson, Jody Corn, and Terry Collins received honorable mention. Whitaker also received honorable mention to the All-Ozark squad.
Finally, a conference championship—the first in 13 years. In the 1966 season, under the guidance of Coach Meek, the Bears compiled an 8-2 record to become co-champions with Mountain Grove. John Twist, in addition to being first-team all-conference, received first-team all-Ozark and all-state honorable mention. Coach Meek was named SCA coach of the year. Other Bears received SCA honors in 1966: Jim Gooch, first team fullback; Steve Foster, first team center; Steve Koch, first team end; Randy James, first team linebacker; Steve Steele, second team halfback; Lyndel Brown, second team tackle; Don Pigg, honorable mention quarterback; “Punkie” Stevenson, honorable mention guard; and “Buster” Graves, honorable mention guard.
Steve Foster, a senior on the championship team, says, “Our team was far from explosive offensively, but the defense was rugged and stingy.” Willow finished 7th in the conference in scoring, but first in defense. The defense was anchored by SCA Lineman of the Year, John Twist, and all-conference first-team linebacker, Randy James. “Twist was big, strong and quick as a cat. James was a very aggressive and physical linebacker who could cleanup any play the lineman didn’t,” says Foster.
Although Willow beat Mountain Grove that year, the Bears had a remorseful loss on a hot Saturday afternoon late in the season to arch rival West Plains. Foster says, “We only had 18 team members and played only 11 or 12 players. I think the heat and WP’s depth took its toll on the Bears. That loss still haunts me because I think we had the best team.”
The Bears didn’t win another championship that decade, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the impressive accomplishments of Bill Gooch who was named to the All-Ozark 2nd team backfield in 1968 and 1969, and received All-State Honorable Mention in 1969.
From Sonny Stringer to John Twist and Bill Gooch, and the years in between, the skirmishes under the Friday night lights of Palenske Field forged memories for the boys who wore the maroon jerseys, the fans in the stands, and the cheerleaders on the sidelines. Memories of thrilling victories still bragged about; losses to West Plains and Cabool that still haunt; Truman Grogan’s 90-yard kickoff return for a TD against West Plains; a tackle that prompted Neil Hanks to buy me a steak dinner; pretty homecoming queens; and images of cheerleaders on chilly nights wearing borrowed letter jackets and shaking maroon and white pompoms and yelling for the Bears. Memories, of the way we were.
And speaking of cheerleaders, my thanks to Alice Brook (WSHS ’67) and Sadie Burns (WSHS ’68) for photographs. Go Bears!