Oak Grove seniors Aaron Graham and Dalton Brinegar sat in the back row of a sparsely-filled room inside the Edward Jones Dome, where they swapped stories centered around the previous three hours and the past four seasons.
The conversation eventually led them to 2011, when Pat Richard arrived at Oak Grove and abruptly laid out his long-term vision of the Panthers playing for state championships year after year.
The first one came Friday.
Oak Grove defeated John Burroughs 49-27 in the Missouri Class 3 state championship game Friday, claiming the first state title in program history. The Panthers finished as runners-up in 1986 and 1990.
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“When Coach Richard always talked about winning state, I always questioned it in my head,” Brinegar said. “Now that we’re here, it’s unreal.”
Richard used his first freshman class as the program’s kickstarter. Three years later, the player at the head of the class — Graham — served as the star pupil once again.
Graham ran for 266 yards and four touchdowns on Friday. The yardage broke a Show-Me Bowl Class 3 record and was 1 yard shy of the record across all classifications. His four touchdowns tied another mark.
The production came on a career-high 39 carries — the product of Oak Grove simply wearing down an undermanned John Burroughs defensive line.
“We work so hard on conditioning and everything we do,” Graham said. “When I was getting tired, I knew they were more tired than I was. And that’s when we capitalized.”
Graham’s day finished better than it started.
His second-quarter fumble led to the second of three touchdowns from John Burroughs quarterback Tre Moore. Nathan Van Slyke was on the receiving end of that first touchdown, which staked John Burroughs to a 21-7 lead.
Graham would atone for the mistake. And then some.
He ran for three touchdowns over the next 13 minutes — part of a string of 29 straight points from Oak Grove that turned a 14-point deficit into a 15-point advantage. Oak Grove, 13-2, led by at least two possessions for the remainder of the afternoon.
“After fumbling, I knew I let my teammates down,” Graham said. “I had to redeem myself.”
A pair of first-half turnovers prevented John Burroughs from keeping pace in the shootout. It saw back-to-back offensive drives end with fumbles, both of which Oak Grove recovered. Tyler Wilcox hopped on the first one, and Alan Lehane recovered the second one.
That was enough to ignite four straight Oak Grove touchdowns.
“You go down two touchdowns at any point in the game, and it’s a real eye-opener,” Oak Grove’s Brinegar said. “You start stressing out. Your heart gets going. In all reality, you have to step up and start making more plays.”
In Oak Grove’s case, that meant an adjustment to stopping the run. John Burroughs running back John Moten ran for 140 yards in the first quarter but only 24 yards over the final three.
His disappearance coincided with the emergence for Oak Grove of Graham and Landon Cairer, who added 75 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Oak Grove quarterback Austin Blackston also completed all three of his pass attempts, including one for a 12-yard touchdown to Zach Hipsher.
“Physically, you could see it wearing on them. That’s a credit to our kids,” Richard said. “... We never stop. We keep coming. And we hit. And most teams tend to wear down a little bit if you do that enough.