WEBB CITY, Mo. – Polite applause ripples across a well-tended football field where no visitor has won in more than 12 years.
But the Willard Tigers come charging out of the visitors’ locker room anyway. With a 4-1 record and an offense averaging 44 points, these guys are psyched and pumped and ready to rumble.
They are lambs to the slaughter.
It takes exactly two plays for the rout to start. Defensive captain Kolesen Crane pounces on a Willard fumble, setting up Keaton Burroughs’ 6-yard touchdown run and igniting a 42-0 homecoming romp, the 34th consecutive victory for the seemingly unconquerable Webb City Cardinals.
Now at 7-0 and No. 19 in USA TODAY High School Sports’ Super 25 rankings, coach John Roderique’s five-time defending Missouri Class 4 champions are barreling back into the playoffs for the 17th time in his 19 years on the job. It’s an amazing run that’s made Roderique the winningest coach percentage-wise in state history and turned this gritty little town into a feverish football hotbed.
In Roderique’s first season in 1997, the Cardinals went 14-0 and brought his first trophy home. Since dipping to 5-5 in 1998, Roderique’s lone non-winning campaign, they’ve been unfurling a nearly unbroken succession of success, ringing up 229 wins against a paltry 19 losses and hoisting 10 state championship flags in a city of about 11,000 people nestled in the Ozark Mountain foothills near the borders with Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas,
Year after year, good players move on and, in the words of super booster Jennifer Crane, “Every year these communities around here say, ‘OK, this is the year we’re going to beat Webb City.”’
Only they don’t. Other players step up. Almost every one of them has been dreaming of the moment they would suit up for the varsity since their dads and uncles coached them in Webb City’s very active Pee Wee leagues. They run basically the same split-back veer option and use the same terminology that volunteer coaches drilled into them as 10-year-olds. They build a swarming defense around the same principles defensive coordinator Mike Smith has coached since 2001. Many times they’re the younger brothers and cousins of recent grads. Or, as in the case of Crane, they’re the sons of men who laid the first bricks in the program’s foundation as players in the 1980s.
“It’s become a high school powerhouse,” said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill, who led the Cardinals to their first state title in 1989. “They refuse to take a backseat to anybody.”
Amid all this achievement, one might assume that Roderique and his staff have their hands full making sure players, fans, and the adoring town itself all keep a proper perspective.
“I tell our kids when you start believing what you hear out there about how great you are, that’s when you’re not going to be very good,” said the coach. “We never want to get to a place where we think we have it all figured out.”
Building the dynasty
High school dynasties are nothing new. The national record of 14 consecutive state championships in a row is shared by schools in Hawaii and South Dakota. But finding a community that embraces its program and players more lovingly than Webb City would be tough. Downtown store fronts are festooned with colorful Cardinal regalia. Dads meet before each season and often work past midnight helping get the equipment in shape. They also serve as volunteer coaches for the Pee Wee leagues and supply doughnuts for players to eat after games.
But when it comes to feeding the players, doughnuts can’t hold a candle to the lavish spread a tightly organized group of football moms prepares every Thursday night.
“Sometimes I think those kiddos look forward more to Thursday night than Friday night,” joked Jennifer Crane, the wife of a star player on Kill’s 1989 team and the mother of two of the best players in the Rodrique era.
“We feed 120 boys every Thursday. About 40 moms show up to serve, but there are about 70 who either contribute money or send something,” she said. “I send out a menu on Saturday and by Sunday night everything on the menu that I’ve asked for is completely filled up. We’ll roast 15-20 turkeys for one dinner.”
Well, OK. They have unwavering community support, their parents love them, and they obviously benefit from great coaching. But how does one school year after year after year keep fielding such tough, hard-nosed football teams?
“Webb City is a tough, hard-nosed town,” said Kill.
“They produce tough kids. And once you start winning, it becomes a habit. Those kids are so used to winning, they don’t think anybody can beat them. They just keep bringing kids along. A lot of those people don’t leave Webb City, so now John’s coaching kids whose parents played for me. It’s quite amazing. It really is.”
Webb Citians make no apology for their blue-collar ways. And nobody had better ask them to, either. The town’s biggest employers are Wal-Mart, the schools and Cardinal Scales, a homegrown manufacturer with worldwide sales.
In fact, visit just about any clinic or doctor’s office in the United States and step onto the scales for that (often distressing) pre-exam weigh-in and in a tiny, indirect way you’re supporting the Webb City Cardinals. Founded by a Webb Citian in 1950 and named after the town’s mascot, the company supplies weighing machines to food stores and just about every doctor’s office in the country. Rest assured a great many of its 320 employees once played for the Cardinals or have sons or grandsons who play now or one day will.
“We are very supportive of the football team,” said Jonathan Sabo, one of the company’s top executives. “The teams are so good, people joke there must be something in the drinking water. But by the time they’re eight or 10 years old, they’re already putting on the football pads. A lot of our people are connected with the team.”
After the company became nationally prominent, the founders had many opportunities to relocate to more upscale areas. One reason they never did, and Sabo says never will, is the powerful sense of responsibility and reliability of the citizens.
This is a place where hard-working dads mean that’s enough when they say that’s enough. Discipline and respect begin in the home and from there flow naturally to the school, to the football team, to the work place.
“Fights on the high school grounds are very, very, very rare,” said principal Tim Davied. “Some people have said we’re in the buckle of the Bible Belt. People are religious. Students have high expectations of the people working with them. Adults have a trust in the people working with their children. Children know to be respectful and do what is asked of them.”
A great many Webb Citians choose to make their homes here and drive 10-15 miles to jobs in surrounding towns. And not just because of an exciting football program. Haughty outsiders may assume this is where ignorant hillbillies hang out in pool halls and beer joints. But how surprised they would be at something Forbes Magazine printed a couple of years ago. According to a California-based non-profit group that evaluated school districts with median home values less than $100,000, Webb City ranked No. 3 in the nation. That’s No. 3 among several thousand. Webb City kids scored in the top 90 percent in English proficiency and the top 78 percent in math.
“The thing that impresses me is how the community embraces the school, and not just football,” said Dr. Ron Lankford, who spent more than 30 years as an education administrator in Webb City and was Roderique’s high school principal. “We’re the lowest per capita income of all the school districts in Jasper County. But we built a 1,000-seat auditorium. In 2006 and 2010 our high school band went to the Rose Parade. Over 70 percent of the people have voted yes on all bond issues or levies since 1968. The people believe in that school district and support that school district.”
A typical game in Webb City was the homecoming victory on Sept. 25 against Willard. Under a starry, cloudless sky, with temperatures hovering pleasantly in the mid-70s, a big, festive crowd enjoyed a perfect night for football. The glorious autumn weather was perhaps not quite as lovely as Mikala Smith, coach Mike Smith’s pretty-as-a-picture daughter who just before kickoff was crowned homecoming queen. But it was close.
The queen’s dad’s defense was vise-like. Willard’s Hunter Yeargan, averaging about 175 yards rushing, managed only 36. The Tigers barely topped 100 yards of total offense, threw two interceptions, lost two fumbles and averaged fewer than two yards per rush.
In the meantime, Webb City’s option offense amassed 406 yards, run by a backup quarterback because senior Tyson Roderique, the coach’s son, was out with an injury. All but 68 yards came on the ground. The Cardinals don’t pass much.
Loud and supportive, the crowd of about 6,000 – roughly the equivalent of 60 percent of the town’s population – was into the action on practically every play.
Save for the occasional “helluva tackle,” or some such, an out-of-town observer wandering the stands heard no vulgarity. Unseen was even one obnoxious drunk. As the final seconds of the fourth quarter ticked away, elderly couples walked carefully down stadium steps, many holding hands to steady each other. Young adults with little sleepyheads cradled in their arms made their way toward the parking lot. Everybody was bidding neighbors good night.
In Webb City, a football game is more than just a football game.
“It’s a community event,” said Lankford, who was talked out of retirement a few years ago to come to the state capital and serve as deputy commissioner for the department of elementary and secondary education.
“When I came to Webb City, Joplin Parkwood was the predominant football team. We were intimidated by anything beyond the city limits. When I retired in 2010, the biggest change I’d seen was our kids were confident to compete anywhere. It didn’t matter whether it was athletics or academics or whatever.”
‘A humble approach’
While many fans credit Kill with getting the dynasty started, Kill insists Lankford also deserves a big tip of the cap, or helmet.
“Ron Lankford worked tirelessly helping us get whatever we needed,” Kill said. “Education-wise, sports-wise, in every respect it seemed like he was always a step ahead of everybody else.”
Lankford’s legacy lives on in many ways, especially, it seems, in people’s insistence that football is only a part of the journey and never the destination.
“As coaches, we try to take a very humble approach,” said Rodrique. “We expect the same from our kids. Keeping them grounded is something you continually have to stress.”
Said Crane, “The coaches make sure those kids know this is not the prime thing in their life. They want this to be the thing that helps them grow into the person they are.”
While running the school district and helping Kill get everything started, Lankford never shied away from the philosophy that’s become as big a part of the football scene as that crowded trophy case.
“I used to tell them if winning the championship is the greatest moment in your life, we’ve cheated you,” he said.
Nevertheless, they do keep winning. And winning. And winning. One of the few coaches in these parts who’s actually done more than fantasize about keeping them from winning is Chris Wood. His Har-Ber team in Glendale, Ark., came from behind in 2013 and treated the home crowd to a sight that’s become about as common as a lunar eclipse – a defeat of the Webb City Cardinals.
“That was a special night,” said Wood.
So how does the only coach to hand them a regular-season loss in almost a decade explain Webb City’s incredible success?
“They know how to win in every situation. That’s why I enjoy playing them,” Wood said. “It’s the system. It’s ingrained in the community. Just about from the time they can walk they start working that option scheme. They’ve got great parental support, the community is behind them and John Roderique is a fantastic coach.
“It’s football done right.”