By JOSH RIZZO
Herald-Whig Sports Writer
MEMPHIS, Mo. -- Daniel Burns took in a lot of unfamiliar sights as a first-year football coach at Scotland County last year.
One of the most stirring was the state of the Tri-Rivers Conference. Burns, who graduated from Putnam County in 2004, wasn't watching the same league that had produced three state championship teams and teams that consistently made deep playoff runs.
Two of the Tigers' opponents, North Shelby and Putnam County, finished the season with well under 20 players. Scotland County finished 2-8 and had its string of three consecutive playoff appearances snapped.
Since Brookfield and Clark County jumped to the Clarence Cannon Conference after the 2009 season, the TRC has struggled to find its identity. Six teams have earned state playoff bids since 2010, and the TRC has gone 1-5, being outscored 216-54 in the losses. Schuyler County beat Paris 53-14 in 2010 for the lone win.
Burns believes the TRC needs a jump start.
"Back in the day, the Tri-Rivers Conference was one of the strongest conferences and every week was competitive," Burns said "We have taken a step back in that direction. We're bringing back the energy and enthusiasm."
Last season, Milan showed that spark, winning its first 10 games before it lost 20-9 to Salisbury in the Class 1 District 6 title game. Knox County, which finished 7-4, and Schuyler County also won their first-round district games.
"It showed improvement," Eagles coach Alex Van Delft said. "Last year, every team was young and got a chance to play the top Class 1A teams (in the playoffs). It was good for us. The bottom teams should improve this season."
Showing improvement as a league will require the teams at the bottom of the TRC to get numbers out for football.
The Tigers have made a group effort to improve their roster size. Scotland County has 33 players out for this season, the highest since Burns joined the staff as an assistant in 2009.
"I recruit in the hallway trying to get kids to play," Burns said. "Our principal, Kenya Fuemmeler has helped reach kids that I couldn't reach. She played softball at Notre Dame and has another point of view. She's able to say, ‘Hey, we'd like to see you come out.'"
North Shelby, which has lost 35 consecutive games, has 16 players out for this season and will be under the guidance of first-year coach Todd Cripe.
Putnam County, which finished 1-9 last season, hired Dave Cavanah, who is a member of the Missouri Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Cavanah led Princeton High School to a runner-up finish in Class 1 in 2003. Putnam County has 30 players out for football, nearly twice the number it finished with last season.
Now, the conference's challenge will be finding ways to win in the playoffs against the best schools from the Lewis & Clark and Clarence Cannon Conference. All five of the TRC's losses in the state playoffs from 2010-12 have come to opponents from those conferences.
"Scheduling games is tough because of the travel involved," Van Delft said. "We open with Marceline Week 1, which is a perennially tough Class 1 team. It's tough, especially since everyone in the CCC has to play everyone else."
Here's a look at how the current members of the Tri-Rivers Conference have fared in the football state playoffs.
State playoff appearances record last appearance
Scotland County 13 4-14 2011
Milan 11 10-10 2011
Putnam County 8 4-8 2006
North Shelby 6 10-4 2008
Knox County 5 3-5 2011
Schuyler County 4 1-4 2010