Standing in a high school parking lot on Halloween night, the Oak Grove football football team was savoring a one-point victory against Hogan Prep when coach Pat Richard found tailback Aaron Graham among a pack of his teammates. Graham had sat out the game with an injury, but the Panthers had survived without their rushing leader, amassing 409 rushing yards in a 47-46 win.
Richard tapped his running back on the shoulder.
“You better be ready now,” Richard said. “Now you’re rested. So we’re going to go ahead and ride you on home.”
As Richard recalled, Graham responded, “I’m ready for that.”
Graham ran for 266 yards and four touchdowns in a 49-27 win Friday against John Burroughs in the Missouri Class 3 state championship game. He broke the Class 3 championship game rushing record while leading Oak Grove to its first title in program history.
Graham rushed for 1,122 yards and 18 touchdowns over the final four playoff games after returning from the injury.
“I’m so thankful for my teammates for winning that game and giving me a chance to finish out my senior year on the field,” Graham said. “I owed it to them to come back strong.”
Graham, Landon Cairer, Austin Blackston and Jake Harrenstein took care of the rushing load behind an offensive line that simply overpowered John Burroughs on Friday.
The defensive turnaround required a team effort, too. Oak Grove held Maryville and California to their lowest offensive totals of the season to reach the championship game. Once there, the Panthers held John Burroughs to its second lowest output of the season.
Seniors Dalton Brinegar and Zach Hipsher were credited with sacks in the championship game. Hipsher also forced a fumble. Tyler Wilcox and Alan Lehane recovered fumbles. Michail Winstead led the team with 12 tackles.
“Everybody talks about how great we are running the football and all that,” Richard said. “But if you look at the second halves of the last three games, we shut Maryville out in the second half; we held California to their lowest point total of the season; and those are two unbelievable teams. And then I thought we brought it in the second half this week, too. The adjustments those guys made in the second half, I think the numbers speak for themselves.”