Generally speaking, it normally takes a new high school football program several years after its inception before the program qualifies for the state playoffs. Some football programs in the state are still awaiting their first taste of the jubilation and sense of accomplishment that comes from playing postseason football. And then there are the Hollister Tigers—the exception to the general rule.
Officially, the Hollister football program began in the fall of 2008 when the Tigers played their first official football game on Sept. 8, 2008. However, in preparation for making the jump to full-time varsity football, Hollister played a junior varsity schedule in both 2008 and 2009. Last fall, the Tigers made the leap to full-time varsity football under the Friday night lights.
The Tigers finished the pre-District portion of their schedule last season with just a 1-6 record, but entered Districts with a load of confidence. After dropping the District opener 49-27 to Strafford, Hollister rebounded by winning its final two District games over Fair Grove and Ash Grove. In just its first season ever of varsity football, the Tigers were bound for the state playoffs by virtue of their second-place District finish.
“You want to say that you expected it, but honestly, I think a lot of people were shocked, even stunned,” said head coach Kevin Roepke of the Tigers’ postseason berth. “Week after week, you see us losing by 30 or 40 points, and it’s understandable, I guess. But we had a locker room full of kids who bought in from day one. They knew it would take hard work and they put in that hard work.”
The seeds for the birth and growth of the program were sown at a September 2006 Board of Education meeting when a patron approached the Board and made a presentation as to why Hollister needed a varsity football program. The Board instructed Hollister Superintendent Dr. Tim Taylor to conduct a feasibility study, which was commenced in November 2006.
As part of the feasibility study, Dr. Taylor had to answer several questions and resolve some key issues, most notably the costs—both start-up and recurring—associated with starting and maintaining a football program. Start-up costs included those for new equipment and new stadium costs—which included a new field, bleachers, press box, restrooms and concession stands, and scoreboard. Additional start-up costs included goal posts, sideline benches, a flag pole, trailer, and field marking equipment. Recurring costs that needed to be factored in included equipment, home game officials, transportation to away games, coaches’ compensation, and field maintenance.
In December 2006, in response to Dr. Taylor’s feasibility study, the Board voted to add football to the list of extracurricular activities, but only if Hollister could find a football-playing athletic conference to call home. This created an additional dilemma for Dr. Taylor, as Hollister was a member of the Southwest Central League at the time. There were seven other schools in the SWCL, none of which fielded football teams. In addition, with 1,182 students in its school district, Hollister was, by far, the largest school in the conference. Clever, with 838 students, had the second-largest district enrollment.
Dr. Taylor first approached the Mid-Lakes Conference for membership in January 2007, but Hollister was turned down. It appeared that Hollister would have to remain an independent until June 2007 when the Central Ozarks Conference split into Large and Small divisions. Hollister joined fellow conference newcomer Springfield Catholic in the now seven-team COC-Small. However, with an average conference enrollment of over 2,000 students, Hollister immediately became the smallest school in the conference.
With the conference affiliation in place, the Tigers had one year to get up to speed, meaning that the new program needed equipment and a stadium to play in, in addition to a thousand other details. Hollister also needed a head coach, and the Board turned to Kevin Roepke to fill that role. Prior to coming to Hollister, Roepke had experienced gridiron success as the head coach at Strafford.
“Organizing an entire program from scratch is difficult,” said Roepke. “The first step was hiring assistant coaches. We then held meetings at both the high school and the middle school. Then you had the general tasks like ordering all the equipment, like helmets, pads, blocking sleds and everything else. We had a field, but it was more of a PE field than a football field. It was definitely a busy year.”
Another problem facing the coaching staff is that it had virtually an entire line-up of players that had never played organized football. “We had five or six players that had played football before,” said Roepke. “We borrowed a motto for the season: ‘They don’t know what they don’t know.’ One of our assistants put it best when he said, ‘They’re like a blank canvas. They don’t have any bad habits.’ They hadn’t learned things incorrectly, so we focused that first year on teaching basic fundamentals. Our biggest problem was getting the kids to see the importance of weight training. We needed our guys to get bigger, faster, stronger.”
On Sept. 2, 2008, Hollister kicked off to the Springfield Central junior varsity in the first football game in school history. “We had the option of bringing in football at the middle school level and building it up from there,” said Dr. Taylor. “The Board felt that it would be fairer, though, to open it up to all the students. So, everyone in grades 9 through 12 was eligible.
“When we kicked off, there were many, many people in the stands with tears in their eyes,” added Dr. Taylor, who was familiar with the problems facing a first-year program after having been a member of the first football team at Southwest Baptist University in 1983. “It was weird how emotional it was. After we won the game, the players were walking off the field as if they had just won the Super Bowl.”
Following the 41-6 victory over Central, Hollister hosted its first-ever home game on Sept. 8, 2008, and it turned into a community-wide extravaganza. A local church, New Beginnings Fellowship, offered to feed the entire community with a free barbecue dinner. The pre-game meal was such a success that it has turned into a tradition before every Hollister home game. The City of Hollister provided a fireworks show following the 30-12 victory over Pleasant Hope, which was attended by a packed house of 1,500 screaming Tiger fans, with some estimates placing the number as high as 2,000 spectators.
The 2008 season did not just bring new experiences on the field, but off it, as well. On Oct. 13, the Tigers hosted Logan-Rogersville for Homecoming, which was another first. “The kids had never built a Homecoming float before until football came,” said Dr. Taylor with a chuckle. “It was all new to them.”
The Tigers finished that first season with a 7-0 record, as Hollister dominated the JV competition it faced each week. The Hollister line-up that first season featured 10 seniors, seven juniors and 54 underclassmen. “We had a great deal of success that first year against a JV schedule,” said Athletic Director Mark Summers. “It definitely renewed the school spirit and invigorated the community—not that the support hadn’t been strong before.”
In preparation for its first full slate of varsity games last fall, Hollister played another JV schedule in 2009. The Tigers finished that season at 4-3, with one of the setbacks a “varsity” loss. On Sept. 18, 2009, Hollister hosted its first-ever varsity game against the visiting Sherwood Marksmen. Instead of a weeknight game, the Tigers would be playing under the Friday night lights for the first time.
“They (Sherwood) had an open date and needed a game, so some phone calls were made and next thing we know, we have a Friday night game,” said Roepke. Prior to the game, Sherwood presented a plaque to Hollister commemorating the event. “It was real classy on their part to do that…and then they kicked our tails,” said Dr. Taylor. Despite the lopsided loss, the community enthusiasm over the first Friday night game in school history was not dampened.
“I was excited to play under the Friday night lights,” said senior WR/DB Anthony Schreier, a sophomore on the 2009 team. “My dad had always told me about it, and now I was getting to experience it. After the first play, all the butterflies went away and I just played.”
Entering the 2010 season, the first official varsity season for the Tigers, there was a feeling of nervous anticipation. “It was very scary,” said Dr. Taylor. “There was a fear in the back of my mind, ‘Are we ready for this?’ ‘Can we do this?’ I think everyone was thinking that. We competed with some teams, and got pounded by some.”
The first six games of the 2010 schedule featured COC-Small match-ups. Hollister, which is a Class 2 school with the smallest enrollment in the conference, would be facing the likes of state-ranked powers in Bolivar (Class 4), and Class 3 Logan-Rogersville and Springfield Catholic. The Tigers would also play Marshfield, Buffalo and new arch-rival Reeds Spring, all of which had been playing football far longer than the Tigers.
The Tigers opened the season on the road at Marshfield, losing 51-12 to the Blue Jays. On Sept. 3, 2010, the Tigers played host to Buffalo in the first official home varsity football game in school history. Before a packed house, the Tigers delivered a resounding 44-6 thumping of the Bison.
“It was an amazing win,” said senior lineman Calvin Wakefield, a junior on last year’s team. “It jump started our season. It was motivation to work harder. We weren’t just a JV team anymore. We had arrived, and we could play with these teams.”
Hollister would take its lumps over the course of the rest of the COC-Small schedule, as the Tigers were outscored 184-6 against the tougher conference opponents. “Playing in the COC-Small raised the bar for us,” said Roepke. “We were the smallest school in the conference, which made it tougher to compete against the bigger schools. But you’re as good as the people you play.”
“It’s only going to make us better,” said JR Looft, a senior on this season’s team, of playing the COC-Small schedule. “Eventually, Hollister is going to have to play up to the other conference teams’ level. It (stunk) getting punched in the mouth all the time. They were bigger and had more players. We have the ability to compete with any of them, but we just have to show it on the field. It was definitely a learning experience for us.”
“The coaches kept telling us that, regardless of whether we won or lost, to try and compete, play as a team, and always try to get better each week,” said Schreier.
Roepke utilized a visual metaphor following a 76-6 loss to Class 4 power Bolivar in Week 4. “We went out and buried the tape from that game by ‘Maggie,’ our affectionately-named tackling dummy. It was a figurative reminder that we never wanted that to happen again.”
Prior to the next game, a match-up at natural rival Reeds Spring, Roepke used further motivation techniques to get his new team to buy in to what he and the other coaches were preaching. “Before we loaded the buses to go to Reeds Spring, we showed the kids the documentary The Boys of Fall. If you’ve ever played high school football before, you can’t watch that and not get the urge to strap on the pads one more time. I told the kids, ‘This is what playing football’s all about.’ We played a good game and really competed. Afterwards, they had a better idea of what this is all about.”
“The tempo was so much faster,” said Wakefield of the first varsity schedule. “It was just boom, boom, boom, and didn’t really let up. It was a lot more fun, though.”
Following a non-conference loss at Stockton, it was time for Districts, and with it, match-ups with other Class 2 schools similar in size to the Tigers. Hollister entered its first District game against Strafford with a 1-6 record. Following a 49-27 loss to the Indians, the Tigers would have to win their final two District games to advance to the state playoffs.
“We knew we had to win the last two games,” said Wakefield. “It was crunch time. We had to decide, ‘Were we here to play, or were we just another team?’ We decided we were a real football team that was here to stay. Having to win the final two games gave us the edge we needed to win.”
After Hollister posted a 19-6 home victory over Fair Grove, a team with its own recent state playoff success, the Tigers knew that they were one victory away from doing the improbable—advancing to the state playoffs in their first-ever varsity season. Hollister travelled to Ash Grove to face the tradition-laden Pirates on their home field. Hollister trailed 7-6 at halftime, but exploded in the second half for a 40-21 victory. “It was not as much a speech but a few minor adjustments,” said Roepke of his halftime inspiration. “It was literally a steamrolling effect where everything we did worked.”
“I kept playing football and did not look at the clock,” said Wakefield of the waning seconds of the playoff berth-clinching win. “Coach taught us to play every second. When the game was over, though, I don’t think any member of the Hollister community had a reason to be upset at that moment. It was just a celebration.”
“The COC is one of the most prestigious conferences in the state,” said Summers. “It’s a tough schedule, but the schedule does prepare us well for District play. We knew with the schedule we played, we would be prepared once Districts arrived. To be quite honest, we felt that when we got to teams more our size that we would be able to compete even better.”
Even a loss to eventual state quarterfinalist Mt. View-Liberty in the first round of the state playoffs could not dampen the enthusiasm that Hollister had advanced to the state playoffs in its first season of varsity football. In addition, the Tigers received further recognition by being voted the winner of the 2010 Shelby Raney Sportsmanship Award, which is voted on by the members of the Southwest Missouri Football Officials Association. “To do that in our first year and be recognized for our actions on the field and off is very special,” said Roepke. “It makes you feel like you’ve created something that will last for more than a season. It will last a lifetime, and that’s why we get into coaching.”
Individual Tigers also garnered postseason recognition, including Looft, who was named 2nd-Team All-State and 2nd-Team All-District, while also receiving honorable mention All-Conference recognition. Austin Ballard, a junior a year ago, was named 2nd-Team All-Conference and honorable mention All-District at defensive end last season, while hard hitting linebacker Peter Wittl, a senior this season, was named honorable mention All-District and All-Conference.
“It’s just one of those things you don’t get without a team,” said Looft of his All-State recognition. “I don’t get my head all blown up about it. You can’t do it without your teammates.” Looft suffered a broken fibula in the first quarter of the season opener this season, but is expected to return in time for the Homecoming game against Stockton on Oct. 7.
As of Sept. 19, the Tigers were still searching for their first win of the 2011 season, but Hollister is pointed in the right direction. “Obviously, you can never get enough bigger, faster, stronger training, and our kids are starting to buy into that,” said Roepke. “We just need more consistency and effort. It’s about assignments and making plays. We’re looking to establish a tradition that carries over from season-to-season, where one success leads to another. We just have to play more consistent and mistake-free football.”
“I look forward to a very good future here at Hollister,” said Summers. “We have wonderful student-athletes and coaches, and our fans have just been wonderful and fully supportive.”
Roepke has a special place in his heart for these Tigers. “It’s one of the biggest honors of my life,” he said of coaching the Hollister football team from its inception. “Outside of being married and having three kids, and now one grandchild, being a part of this has meant so much to me.”
“When I come back, I hope to see more state playoff banners, and a bigger and better team,” said Schreier of his post-graduation plans. “I will try and help out the program as the years go by.”
“I’m proud of the fact that I’m a Hollister football player,” said Wakefield. “I’m proud to have helped to lay a foundation for future Hollister teams. I’m happy to get it started. I’m going to miss playing, but it’ll be nice to see where it goes after we leave.”
“I’m happy to have been one of the starters that played all four years,” said Looft. “Nobody forgets the first team. It’s a pride thing. We’re going to have something no one else has. We can hold our heads high after we leave.”
Many years in the future, long after the current crop of Tigers have hung up the cleats for good, they can take pride in returning to Hollister for Homecoming to watch a new batch of players carry on the Tiger Tradition. Maybe they can teach the newcomers a thing or two about building a Homecoming float.
Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.