Dec. 4—GOWER, Mo. — It's clear and obvious who East Buchanan is playing for.
It's painted on their home field. It's sewn into a flag carried by the Bulldogs during introductions before each game. Stickers are even placed on the team's helmets.
Every time they take the field, they do it for Kevin Bryan.
"He's a big part of us," senior Caleb McCartney said. "We keep him in our hearts. We play for him every time we go out on that field."
Bryan died March 16 after a five-year bout with Stage 4 colon cancer, which was discovered back in 2016. He missed multiple weeks that season after undergoing surgery to remove his tumor, though support poured in for the coach across northwest Missouri.
He returned to take the Bulldogs to the semifinals in 2017, a game which many of the current Bulldogs attended in Monroe City as fans in middle school.
Bryan, a graduate of Platte County and Northwest Missouri State, retired in January 2020. This season's juniors and seniors were part of the final team he coached in '19.
The message was made clear at the beginning of the season — play for something bigger than yourself.
"We talked about it at the beginning of the year — you've just gotta play for somebody," senior Luke Webb said. "I think we've all chosen to play for him this year. We're doing it for him."
It's the first place second-year head coach Dan Ritter's mind went after defeating University Academy in the district championship last month.
"This past year with Kevin Bryan passing away, that took a real toll on this community," Ritter said before reflecting on the ability to capture the program's first district title since '17.
"I can't speak for these young men because these young men played for him," he added. "I've only met him a handful of times, but the legacy he left me, I can't thank him enough."
Bryan's teams played in semifinals in '15 and '17, the only other trips since 2004 prior to this season. Getting to where their former leader led them, and hoping to win beyond semifinal week for him, was a driving motivator all season long.
It will remain that way as they play for the team's first state title Saturday."
"I know upstairs Coach Bryan is watching down on us happy," McCartney said.
Brandon Zenner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NPNowZenner.