MOUNT VERNON, Mo–How does a team with four losses make the state championship game?

“One thing. One thing: heart,” said Cayden Heisner. 

Mountaineer football is the talk of the town every fall, but by Thanksgiving, Mountaineer Country is usually looking back on the season, not ahead to the state final.

“Walking through the halls, teachers and everyone coming up to you, ‘Hey, congratulations.’ It’s a crazy feeling and something I’m glad to be a part of,” said Javeon Perry. 

It felt like the entire town cheered the Mountaineers to victory last week, a 16-0 shutout in the state semifinal.

Tom Cox came out of retirement four years ago to coach Mt. Vernon, and his first group of freshman is now the senior class leading the Mountaineers to their first state final since 1982. That team was also a 4-loss underdog squad, led by a much younger Coach Tom Cox.

“What I’ve heard, Coach Cox – he was crazy when he was coaching back then. Everything was football,” said Tristan Dennis. 

“I was in my second year as a head coach in those days, and I was just so locked in to winning. I really missed some of the joy of that whole experience. This time around, I’ve tried to be still focused on winning, but not so much to where these guys are tight. It’s really like they haven’t even realized we’re in the playoffs. They’re just playing” said coach Tom Cox. 

They’re just playing like a team with something to prove.

“Everyone that was doubting us, they shouldn’t have done it. We want a ring. And we ain’t done yet until we get that ring,” said Heisner. 

And Coach Cox, a little wiser, a little more laid back, has an unexpected second chance at a ring 35 years later.