MELISSA — Fans, friends and family of Melissa Cardinal football celebrated the team’s memorable 2017 campaign on Thursday, Jan. 18, with the school’s first-ever football-only banquet. In years past, the Melissa Boost Club had hosted one large springtime celebration for all sports but decided this year to hold separate banquets, allowing a more personal and detailed look at each program.

This inaugural Varsity Football Banquet, held at Melissa High School, kicked off that new era.

“As we’ve grown and gotten bigger, we felt the need to separate it,” Booster Club president Paul Anderson said. “I think that will work out better and give the coaches more time to talk about each one of their kids. We’ve gotten positive feedback and I think tonight just kind of set the tone for the rest of them.”

Of course there was plenty to celebrate this year as the football Cardinals made it all the way to the regionals semifinals, setting school records for most regular-season wins (9) and most consecutive wins in a season (12) along the way. After a barbecue dinner with all the trimmings and peach cobbler for dessert, attention turned to the main event. In reverse order from how they were presented, the team awards follow.

Senior Tate Whittington was named the Cards’ MVP by head coach Seth Stinton, an award Stinton said goes to “biggest-impact player for the team.” As a receiver, Whittington nabbed 45 passes for 770 yards and 12 touchdowns and also graded out 98-percent as a blocker. A safety on defense, he was in on 108 tackles, with 64 solos and six for a loss. Whittington was also the 2017 MVP for District 11-4A.

“From Day 1 that this young man was in high school, he was a leader,” Stinton said. “He exhibits the qualities that every coach loves. He’s selfless, dedicated, honest, hardworking, loyal, humble — and most of all, he’s loving. He truly cares about his teammates and his coaches and it showed every single day.” Whittington was the Cards’ starting quarterback in 2016. “His senior year we asked him to move positions,” Stinton said, “which would’ve been very difficult to most people. But he never wavered.”

The Offensive MVP award went sophomore quarterback Brendon Lewis, who finished the 2017 season with over 3,300 yards passing and 1,200 yards rushing. Lewis also scored 53 touchdowns, including 37 via the pass. His exploits last fall earned AP First-Team All-State honors.

“When I think about Offensive MVP, I think about somebody that takes over the game,” offensive coordinator Matt Nally said. “This young man took over ball games. … And he got me and the rest of our offensive coaching staff out of bad situations, out of bad calls. And our Offensive MVP is so pivotal to what we do — physically, not just mentally. I am so excited and honored to be his coach.” Nally added that Lewis never missed a weight room session all summer.

Junior defensive end Collin O’Neal was tabbed Defensive MVP by defensive coordinator Travis Roberson. “I could run out of adjectives trying to describe what this kid has been and will continue to be for our defense and our football team,” Roberson said. “He’s one of my favorite kids to be around and is the ultimate teammate and true definition of what a Melissa Cardinal should be.” Roberson pointed to O’Neal’s play as crucial in the defense holding opponents to 21 points per game, under 280 yards per game, less than 12 first downs per game and, on-average, five “three-and-outs” per game.

O’Neal led team in sacks, tackles for loss, quarterback pressures, blocked kicks, fumble recoveries, caused-fumbles and fourth-down stops — and was also the Cards’ third-leading tackler. An AP First-Team All-State selection at defensive end, O’Neal moved there from linebacker just last season.

Coach Kyle Dezern presented senior Brady Morrison and junior Marco Morales Special Teams MVP awards. Weight Room Warrior awards, named by Coach Josh Gilbert, went to seniors Tommy Gallardo and Tyson Owen.

Seniors Breelyn Armstrong and Cole McCraw picked up Tough People Win (TPW) honors. Presenter Nally stressed that this award represented “mental toughness.” “TPW in our program is vital,” Nally said. “We want our young men to be tough for life.”

Prior to the award presentations, position coaches noted their top players’ contributions and shared anecdotes from the season. Student Athletic Trainers were also recognized.

Other awardees included:

- Kennedy Lewis, Receiver of the Year

- Ja’Bray Young, Running Back of the Year

- Payton Wallace, Linebacker of the Year

- Adam Rogers, Offensive Lineman the Year

- Chance Mapps, Defensive Back of the Year

- Jacob Blackwell, Defensive Lineman of the Year

- Paige Anderson, Student Trainer of the Year

Also recognized were Academic All-State honorees Cole McCraw, Trey Salas, Tate Whittington and Adam Rogers.

No Best Hair Award was handed out but three Cards were noted throughout the evening as top contenders: Jack Greer, Marvin Jordan and Armstrong.

Stinton concluded the presentation by saying he was “one of the luckiest guys in the room” because of his coaches and players and their families. “Our goal was to honor everybody and honor our players. This was a great night.”