The night before he threw the most important touchdown pass of his short high school career, Connor Drake, along with his teammates, heard from every quarterback who had won a state championship in the history of Maryville’s football program.
Five former players, from graduating classes ranging from 1982 to 2017, returned to Maryville on the eve of the Spoofhounds’ Class 3 semifinal matchup with Cassville to share pearls of wisdom, telling stories at a team dinner about their own experiences in semifinal games. With a minute and seven seconds left in Maryville’s matchup with Cassville Nov. 28 at the ’Hound Pound, it didn’t seem like Drake, who took over for an injured Ben Walker in Week 1, would have a chance to join the shortlist of championship-winning quarterbacks.
After leading the Wildcats for the entirety of the first three quarters in the semifinal matchup, Maryville’s defense broke down with just over a minute left on the clock in the fourth quarter, lapsing as a Cassville reverse gave way to a 28-24 lead for the Wildcats. The touchdown marked the second score for Cassville in a three-minute span. It seemed to spell the end of the season for the Spoofhounds, something senior running back Trey Houchin admitted he believed to be true as the offense took the field following the score.
“I’m not gonna lie to you, as soon as I went out there, I was like, ‘Welp, I think we’re gonna lose,’” Trey Houchin said.
Instead, facing a stout Cassville defense worn down over four quarters by an oppressive Maryville rushing attack, Drake engineered a comeback drive without the luxury of his running backs. After spending much of the game and the season only moonlighting as a passer in between shifts as a handoff artist, Drake led Maryville (11-3) through a gusting south wind and 80 yards into the endzone, giving the team a 30-28 win over the Wildcats (10-3) and securing the Spoofhounds’ first state championship berth since 2017.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Drake said, moments after finding sophomore wideout Caden Stoecklein wide open for the game-winning score. “Going into that last drive, you dream of that as a kid, sending your team to state. With less than a minute left, it’s unbelievable.”
The final drive came after 58 minute and 53 seconds of football in which Maryville had mostly dominated. Drake found senior receiver Kade Wilmes for a 39-yard touchdown for the game’s first score nearly eight minutes into the contest, giving Maryville a 7-0 lead that it built on throughout the first three quarters, though the Spoofhounds did so at a deliberate pace.
For much of the first half, Maryville’s offense sputtered. The Spoofhounds started two consecutive drives fewer than 35 yards away from Cassville’s end zone but failed to come away with any points in either showing. But while the offense was slow to find its footing in much of the game’s first half, Maryville’s defense put on a clinic. Cassville didn’t move the chains until the second quarter. The Wildcats wouldn’t score until the fourth.
As Maryville maintained a 7-0 lead deep into the second quarter, Cassville’s offense started to find momentum. Led by senior quarterback Hayden Sink, the Wildcats strung together a pair of first downs with under three minutes left until halftime, one of which came via a quarterback keeper from Sink.
As the Wildcats faced a critical fourth-and-inches on their own 47 yard, Maryville senior linebacker Connor Weiss and defensive back Cooper Loe combined for a pivotal stop behind the line of scrimmage, one close enough that the officiating crew called for the chain gang to make their way from the east sideline, converging near midfield for a measurement. After the crew’s white cap signaled Cassville had come up short, Maryville fans, players and coaches burst into celebration. Head coach Matt Webb tuned back to the sideline, stoic. There was still work to be done.
Moments after Weiss contributed on the fourth-down play, the lineback who triples as the team’s leading back and starting placekicker, booted a 24-yard field goal with 2.9 seconds left to give Maryville a 10-0 lead heading into the locker room.
Wearing No. 2 for the ’Hounds in a nod to Walker, who suffered a season-ending leg injury in Week 1, Weiss played a familiar, crucial role for Maryville. He converted on an impressive punt from Maryville’s endzone late in the third quarter. He hit all but one of his point-after attempts in a game Maryville won by 2. And he scored Maryville's second touchdown of the contest, capping off a 69-yard drive with a 5-yard rush to put the Spoofhounds up 17-0.
“There was just so many key moments in that game, but to be 17-nothing against that team, offensively, and what they possessed — our defense just was getting stops,” Webb said, before crediting Cassville for its tenacity and play design. “A lot of credit to Cassville, that was a hard-fought football game.”
After holding Cassville’s offense at bay for the entirety of three quarters, Maryville’s defense lapsed, allowing two touchdowns to the Wildcats in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter. After Sink scored on a 3-yard rush with 11:49 left in the game, he found senior running back Jericho Ferris for a 30-yard touchdown to cut Maryville’s lead to 3 following a successful onside kick attempt from the Wildcats.
Marvyille responded to the series of scores with the kind of touchdown drive that can steal a game’s momentum, the kind that seemed poised to end Cassville’s season. Facing a third down on his own 21-yard line, Drake found senior wideout Caleb Kreizinger for a 13-yard completion, good for a first down. In the aftermath of what turned out to be an eight-minute, 79-yard touchdown drive, the clutch conversion seemed like a catalyst. But in the aftermath of what happened next, it served only as an afterthought.
The Spoofounds took a 24-14 lead over Cassville on Trey Houchin’s 1-yard run that capped off the 79-yard drive. They led by 10 points with less than four minutes to play. Three minutes later, the two-score lead had vanished, giving way to a 3-point deficit.
Fewer than two minutes after Trey Houchin had crossed the goal line for the ‘Hounds third touchdown of the afternoon, Sink found senior wideout Drake Reese for a short connection that turned into a 51-yard score, cutting the Spoofhounds’ lead to three. After drilling the extra point, Reese, who doubles as an All-State kicker, converted his second successful onside kick of the contest. Sink threw a 44-yard touchdown pass 58 seconds later, putting Cassville up 28-24 over Maryville. It was the Wildcats’ first lead of the night.
The Spoofhounds, of course, had been here before. A similar defensive lapse in the Class 2 District Championship game last November led to a last-second loss to Lathrop, one Webb called “heartbreaking” at the time. As Maryville’s offense took the field against Cassville, reeling after two quick scores, the memory of the Lathrop loss hung in 55-degree air above the ’Hound Pound.
“I was thinking, ‘Lathrop all over again,’” Stoecklein said. “I was like, ‘We better not repeat this again.’”
The bad memory popped into Webb’s head too, he said. And it was on Trey Houchin’s mind as the Spoofhounds took the field, for what seemed likely to be the final time in the running back’s senior season. But Drake, the engineer of the comeback drive who had spent much of the game handing the ball off, kept his mind on the game in front of him, he said. He had 67 seconds to score. There was no time to think about last year.
“What was going through my head is: ‘It’s my time to shine,’” Drake said.
A defensive-oriented coach, Webb didn’t console Drake and the offense before they took the field with 67 seconds left in the playoff matchup, leaving the play call and the pep talk up to offensive coordinator Matt Houchin — the senior running back’s dad.
For the next minute of football, Matt Houchin called a series of deft passing plays that Drake executed with a calm, meticulous confidence. Webb watched from the sideline as his offense tried to force its way into the state championship. And the whole stadium watched as Drake, with 11 seconds left on the clock, read the right side of the field in front of him, looking for Kreizinger, as Stoecklein slipped through Cassville’s coverage into an empty left corner of the south end zone at the ’Hound Pound, where Drake turned to deliver a pass.
Stoecklein said he couldn’t believe how open he found himself on the most important play of the game. Drake said when he targeted Wilmes, his first thought was to deliver an accurate throw. Webb said he hoped for a catch as he kept an eye out for penalty markers. Trey Houchin said he remembered thinking one thing, a phrase that played on repeat in his mind as the ball floated from Drake’s right arm to the left corner of the endzone.
“‘Please catch it, please catch it, please catch it,” Trey Houchin said. “Hauls it in for a touchdown. We live for those moments — that was one of the best moments of my whole life.”
Drake’s last pass of the afternoon delivered Maryville the last score of the contest, propelling the Spoofhounds to their first state championship matchup since the team’s current seniors were freshmen. The team will take on Blair Oaks, who Maryville lost to in Week 1, when Drake was a backup quarterback filling in for an injured starter, seeing the first real action of his career.
Now, he’s a seasoned veteran with a semifinal win under his belt as he heads to the Class 3 State Championship game with nothing left to prove, but one chapter still to write, and a shortlist of championship-winning quarterbacks he hopes to join.
“My goodness,” Webb said. “Could you write a storybook ending to where our backup quarterback, now since Week 1, has led us to play the team again next week that we get to play, Blair Oaks, in Week 15. I mean, man, what a story.”