Despite being neighboring towns with storied and competitive high school sports programs, Aurora and Marionville don't often meet on the playing fields or courts outside of youth sports. That all ends Saturday, as Houn' Dawg and Comet alumni will battle it out on the gridiron for a Small Town Showdown.
What started last year as a Facebook blast, which organizer/player Stephen McKay admits he didn't take too seriously, has grown into a highly anticipated event to help unofficially kick off the high school football season. The national organization known as Alumni Football USA facilitated last year's inaugural Aurora alumni game against Cassville and, after the success of that event, will do the same with this year's matchup.
But, as McKay recalled, it was the alumni themselves who wanted to get involved after the Cassville game.
"Marionville had heard about it and a few guys came to the game, and we asked them, 'Who would you want to play?' and they said 'Aurora.' And they stuck with it the entire year," he said. "They could have played Pierce City; they could have played Monett. But there's a lot of connections between the two towns."
And with the matchup set, there's just been the task of selling the game to the community -- a task facilitated by the success of last year's game.
"We didn't really know where to go with it last year, how to get the community involved," said McKay. "This year we have something to show for it: 'This is what we did last year; do you want to get on board this year?'"
People have gotten on board. Groups like the athletic booster club, Zeros4Heroes and the high school band and cheer squads will all be on-hand doing fundraisers for their respective causes, and various businesses and organizations throughout Aurora have helped promote the game.
This game will have mutual benefit for both former and current football team members at Aurora -- as well as athletes currently in other sports -- as McKay says the ticket money from this year's game will go toward making improvements to the weight room.
"[The game] allows the alumni guys to really come back together, come back home, and give back to the community," he said. "Yeah, we're playing football, but it's not about us. It's about the community. We all work here, live here, went to school here. A couple of guys don't live in Aurora anymore, but they've shown up."
Marionville captain Ryan Metcalf echoed those comments.
"This is a chance to give all those guys that still love the game to be able to put the pads on and experience that feeling one more time. And it's for a good cause," he said. "Playing football to raise money for your school -- don't know a guy that wouldn't jump all over that opportunity."
Whether they've shown up a couple years after finishing their high school careers or their regular playing days are a couple decades behind them, the players -- who on Aurora's team range from late teens to mid-40s and average 30 years of age for Marionville -- will give it their all on Saturday.
"Marionville's let us know they don't want to lose, and our guys don't want to lose," said McKay. "I told our guys it's for fun, but when we walk out on that field, we're going to try to defend it."
"This is one of those games that probably started out for fun, but once the whistle is blown and that first kickoff is in the air, it's 100 percent competitive" Metcalf added. "Marionville and Aurora have always had a rivalry. They have been the top big school in the area, and us the top small school. So who really is the best has always been a point everyone has wanted to make known."
With the plan being to have the two schools compete every year -- alternating which school hosts -- both teams will get to keep the event growing and helping the community. And McKay will get to continue what he says are his favorite parts of the alumni game: practicing with the guys and reliving his high school days.
"This right here is a blast every week," he said at a recent practice. "Then we all show back up on game day, and we go back out there and the music's playing and there's all the people. It's just like Friday night lights again."