The Nevada Tiger football team has turned tragedy into triumph this season.
With the stage set for Nevada to play Friday night for its first district championship since 1998, no one could have blamed the team had such a lofty result not been achieved.
Tragedy struck the program on the first official day of practice in mid-August when it was shaken by the unexpected passing of 49-year-old linebackers coach Will Downing.
“It was a pretty rough start emotionally for our kids,” said Nevada coach Wes Beachler. “But they responded well — continued to get better, worked hard, and do things the right way. And I’m very proud of everything that they’ve been able to overcome, to continue to make themselves better football players each week.”
The hits kept coming, as Nevada lost senior tailback/outside linebacker Eli Cheaney in the opener to a season-ending injury.
“That kind of put a damper on our spirits,” Beachler said. “You don’t foresee injuries in Week 1 to really good players.”
But the Tigers couldn’t be held down, winning six of their first seven en route to one of the best starts in program history. Their only loss during that stretch came in Week 4 to (Class 2) No. 1 ranked Lamar, in the tradition-rich “Silver Tiger” rivalry game.
In jumping out to the 6-1 start, Nevada put up video game-like numbers, averaging more than 46 points per contest.
A Week 8 home showdown with Big 8 Conference foe McDonald County had the feel of a playoff matchup, and didn’t disappoint. The Tigers, however, were edged in the shootout thriller, 39-34. Rather than allowing that to be a momentum-stalling loss, they instead drubbed a solid Aurora Houn’ Dawgs squad on Senior Night, 41-16.
Beachler noted that after coming off down years in 2018 and ’19, the current and previous senior classes have been integral in changing the culture of the program.
“Our seniors have continued the culture-building in the way we want things to be done, that last year’s seniors established,” Beachler said.
Beachler said that the team’s mantra this season is “Every player, every play.”
“Which we’ll probably keep for a long time,” he said. “Do things right, and play to the best of your ability every play.”
The team’s adversity-filled journey was accentuated this past Friday with a 40-38 triple-overtime triumph over visiting Bolivar in the second round of the MSHSAA Class 4 playoffs. Prior to that No. 2 seed Nevada (9-2) flattened No. 7 East Kansas City in the opening round of the playoffs, 64-6.
With a district title now at stake, Nevada will look to its power ground-attack to lead the way Friday night against top-seeded Lincoln College Prep (10-0).
Nevada lead-back Avious Steadman Jr. has racked up over 1,700 yards on the ground, to go along with 23 rushing touchdowns. Additionally, Steadman is averaging a whopping 12.9 yards per carry. With 100 rushing attempts on the season, fellow junior tailback Case Sanderson is rolling up 7.8 yards per pop, while downhill bruiser Jordan Johnson has also chipped in major contributions as he nears the 100 carry plateau.
“We just like to spread it around,” Beachler said, as the Tigers are averaging 345 rushing yards per game, on 8.6 yards per carry. “It’s not like we had big numbers against a couple bad teams. We’ve put up good rushing numbers against everybody.”
Beachler said Lincoln Prep boasts the best team speed his program has faced in recent memory.
“They’re incredibly fast,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen linebacker and secondary units that are as fast as this team is. It will be a big challenge for us, but I wouldn’t count our kids out of anything.”
When comparing strength of schedules, Nevada has the clear edge. A publication recently ranked the Tigers as having the 12th toughest schedule in Class 4.
“Four of the seven teams in the Big 8 West division are playing for a district championship Friday night,” Beachler said. “It’s a pretty strong conference when over half of your teams are playing for a district title this week.”
Having engineered major turnarounds at several other stops during his three-decade career roaming the prep sidelines, this year’s Tiger football squad may very well be Beachler’s masterwork, taking into account that the program dropped 19 of 20 games during the 2018 and ’19 campaigns.
“This one means a lot,” Beachler said. “Probably as much, if not more, than any other. Just because of the way the kids did not give up, kept fighting, and restored the pride in the program. We started with the ‘Restore the Roar’ theme after the 1-9 season, then we dropped down to 0-10. Instead, they said we can fix this and make it right — and they helped the program turn the corner. They’ve handled so much adversity so well.”
Despite having to observe from the sideline, Cheaney has kept a positive attitude all season.
“He still comes to practice quite a bit, and does everything he can in the weight room, despite having his ankle in a boot,” Beachler said. “Still being involved and being at every game, his presence just helps to lift the kids. He’s continued to be a leader.”
Cheaney said he intends to do everything he can to help the team.
“It’s still awesome just to be out there on the sidelines,” he said, “getting excited with the team and feeling the energy. It’s almost just as much fun as being out there on the field.”
Cheaney said the team has exceeded his expectations.
“I knew we would be really good this year, but I wasn’t expecting this much,” he said. “But it makes sense, because most of these kids were starting as freshmen or underclassmen. So having those three to four years of varsity experience is really showing now.”
While Cade Beshore was a starting varsity cornerback last year as a sophomore, he served as backup to starting signal-caller Dylan Beachler.
“Cade was willing to accept that role and be unselfish,” Wes Beachler said. “He learned a lot — learned all he could while he was waiting his turn. And that’s really shown.”
Beachler noted that the program had struggled with the passing game in recent years, following the departure of three-year varsity starter Braeden Hinton in 2017. Over the following two seasons, Nevada quarterbacks combined for just four touchdown passes and eight interceptions, to go along with a sub-40 completion percentage.
“And last year, we kind of came out of that with eight touchdown passes and only three interceptions,” Beachler said.
Beshore has helped the Tigers continue forward on the upward trajectory at the quarterback spot, as the junior QB has tossed 13 touchdowns to just three interceptions. In completing 53 percent of his passes, Beshore is nearing 1,000 yards on the season, and would be the first Tiger to eclipse that mark since Hinton in ’17.
“We hang our hat on the running game, but Cade’s been real opportunistic and has made good decisions,” Beachler said. “So we’ve put the ball in the air this year a little more than we typically would.”
Beachler said the past two seasons have been thoroughly enjoyable for him as a coach.
“Everything from how the kids get along with each other to how their parents have raised them,” he said. “There’s just a lot of factors that have resulted in having a really fun team to coach the last two years.”
Beachler lauded the offensive line as a major reason for the team’s offensive exploits. The line features Logan Smith (R-Tackle), Skylur Mashek (R-Guard), Jackson Dryer (Center), Kenneth Johnson (L-Guard), and Lukas Higgins (L-Tackle). Also instrumental are tight ends Kartman Highly and Drew Beachler, and fullback Zade Lee.
“They’ve been really consistent,” Beachler said. “They’re not huge, but they’re solid in their technique, and work together pretty well as a unit.”
PAYING HOMAGE TO DOWNING
Beachler reflected on a discussion he had with his good pal Will Downing.
“We were talking about character and culture and Will said ‘I thought you changed the character of the program when you first came back (in 2017), but it takes a while to change the culture.’ And I said, ‘Well, it takes a group of kids to change the culture.'”
Beachler said Downing was invaluable to the program.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had an assistant coach like Will, that just understood what needs to be done, and what the expectations are for a program that’s trying to rebuild,” Beachler said.
Downing’s background as an Army colonel was particularly helpful, Beachler noted.
“He came up with our motto ‘Every player, evey play.’ He just understood that everybody had a hand in it, from the kids that play scout team to assistant coaches. Everybody has a part — everybody has a role to play. He was a very team-oriented guy.”
Beachler said Downing was greatly impactful with the players.
“He had a strong rapport with the kids, and the kids all respected him because of his good rapport,” Beachler said. “And also his ability to discipline and motivate kids. Just a really strong man on and off the field.”
Cheaney said he took Downing’s tragic passing pretty hard, as he was also coached by Downing for a few years during his little league baseball days.
“It was rough,” Cheaney said. “But I think it also helped bring the team together, even though it was such a terrible thing.”