Following Wednesday's 34-13 loss at fifth-ranked Hannibal in the Class 4, District 6 Tournament semifinal round, Owls' head coach Jon Stockman "didn't see a dry eye in a senior."
"Those guys fought through adversity and turned the program around in the right direction," he noted, Marshall improving substantially upon last year's winless campaign with a 6-5 mark. "It hurts to lose. I know they're upset."
The top-seeded Pirates jumped out to an early 12-0 lead and were never caught. However, neither did they put away the visitors until the fourth quarter.
While the Owls shut down Hannibal's powerful running game during the first half, they were beaten through the air -- much the way as happened during a 28-8 loss to the eventual NCMC champions three games earlier.
Senior Caleb Bieniek got a pair of excellent blocks by receivers on a swing pass to the left side and gained 44 yards to the Marshall 1-yard line, with junior Mitch Nichols taking the ball across the goal line on the next play.
After taking over in MHS territory for their second series, the Pirates went over the top of the defense with senior Dalton Powell finding senior Justin Price for a 30-yard scoring strike.
"Make them throw the ball, but we have to do a little better on our pass keys -- our reads -- and they don't get behind us," Stockman explained. In the second half, "we made some adjustments and tightened it up."
After going three and out on their first two possessions, the Owls' rushing attack started clicking with a 10-play, 80-yard drive. Senior Alex Maupin had runs of 12 and 23 yards and junior Tyler Cott added gains of 13 and 12 yards, the second one into the end zone to narrow the gap to five points.
After having one drive stalled near midfield, Hannibal got a break when senior Jahwaun Cassidy collected a pass which had thumped on the turf before being ruled an interception. Powell connected with wide-open junior Lijah Harrison on a deep post route for a 44-yard touchdown.
With under four minutes remaining the second quarter, the officials returned the favor. Senior Brandon Johnson appeared to have dropped a possible pick, but Cott scooped up the ball and raced 26 yards to the Pirates' 6-yard line and Marshall was given possession -- cashing in on Maupin's 1-yard sneak.
"They didn't give up," Stockman said of the Owls' resolve. "They played hard until it was over."
The Pirates threatened again in the closing minute of the half, but Maupin intercepted a pass in the end zone to keep the score at 20-13.
Considering how the game began, Marshall was in good shape, but that quickly changed.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, which followed a penalty for an out-of-bounds kick, Cassidy scooted from the left sideline through congestion in the middle and sped away on an 80-yard return for a two-touchdown lead.
"Deflates you," Stockman admitted. "Our kick coverage needs tightening up a little bit. We've got to tackle a little bit better, but that kid made a couple of our guys miss on his own abilities."
The Owls tried to answer, with the flu-ridden Maupin breaking loose on a 47-yard quarterback keeper before being caught from behind by Cassidy at the 3-yard line. Marshall couldn't convert, though, and was stopped on downs at the 1.
"He was about a half-step slower" due to illness, "or he would have scored on that long run," Stockman said.
Powell runs of 30 and 23 yards got Hannibal out of that hole and on its next series Bieniek dashed 15 yards reach the Owls' 14-yard line before senior Brandon Johnson forced a fumble which sophomore Logan Harris recovered at the 5.
Marshall couldn't move from there and when the Pirates took over at the MHS 29 they couldn't be denied again -- picking up a pair of first downs before Bieniek bulled in from a yard out with 4:09 left in the game to seal the victory.
"They're a heck of a football team," Stockman praised Hannibal (10-1). "I think they're going to make a heck of a run in Class 4."
The Owls proved their mettle throughout the season as well. True, there were games in which mistakes -- mostly turnovers and penalties -- cost them dearly, but after a season in which nine losses were by four or more touchdowns they proved to be consistently competitive.
With losing records to end their three previous years, the Marshall seniors exit the stage with a winning record.
"They can hold their heads high," Stockman declared. "They're a great group."