By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
There is good news and bad news for Ava fans entering 2017.
The good news is simple, the Bears return several key pieces from a team that went 8-3 last year and nearly knocked off Class 2 power MV-BT/Liberty and dropped two games to state-ranked Mountain Grove.
The bad news is also simple, Ava shares a conference and district with Liberty and Mountain Grove and neither of those things will change any time soon.
Back in 2014, Ava was just one possession away from becoming the first team besides Liberty or Grove to win the SCA outright in the last decade and many believe this year’s Ava team might be the most complete unit since that group.
It’ll all start with two-way starters Caleb Johnson and Steven Copeland.
Both juniors, Johnson racked up 1,123 total yards and 19 touchdowns as Ava’s quarterback and picked off four passes defensively. Copeland was his backup at quarterback and finished with 855 total yards and 10 scores.
Both players are dynamic and physical and allow Dan Swofford to mix things up offensively.
“Caleb Johnson and Steven Copland have been good players for us,” said Swofford. “Caleb is a three-sport athlete and Stephen a state qualifier in the 100 meter dash and stays very busy all year long. But they would both would tell you they will only be as good as the guys around them. We hope they both will continue grow as leaders and players on the field.”
Senior Connor Moran should also get plenty of carries offensively and a trio of big playmakers on the outside in Michael Lane, Joe Balasone and Swofford should also get their chances to make an impact outside the hashes.
Ava’s season will likely hinge on the play of its offensive line.
The Bears will get a huge boost up front with senior Kaleb Sizemore returning following knee surgery. Classmate AJ VanValkenburg is also returning after sitting out last season to focus on a music career. VanValkenburg started as a sophomore and is a savvy interior lineman.
Swofford also mentioned the growth of senior Bailey Bewley and the maturation of junior Iveck Chittendon that will help complete the offensive line unit.
Ava is still adjusting to life after Kelly McDonald (1,046 rush yards, 14 TDs; 138 tackles, 14 TFL) but having his little brother, Quincey, might be the next best thing.
The senior defensive back tallied 74 tackles last year and led the team in interceptions. The younger McDonald will be counted on to take over the leadership for a defensive unit that recorded three shutouts and limited Liberty and Grove to some of its worst offensive football of the season.
“Defensively we hope to maintain and get better at what we do,” said Swofford. “We lose Kelly McDonald but we do have little brother Quincey back. Quincey had six interceptions last year and returned three for touchdowns. He has a nose for the football and we hope he continues to produce for us.”
Michael Lane had three interceptions of his own last year and Bewley, a defensive lineman, is the team’s second-leading tackler among returners.
Sophomores Aneas Stout, Josh Bray and Kadden Meyers could all figure into the equation for Swofford, as well as Nate Swofford. They all got varsity reps last year and Coach Swofford is expecting good things from them this year.
But, if Ava is to take a step forward and hang a conference or district championship banner, they’ll have to navigate one of the toughest regions of football in all of Missouri.
“Liberty and Mountain Grove have been some of the best teams in Class 2 teams in the state, along with Thayer in Class 1,” said Swofford. “We know if we want to get to our goals we have to find a way to be competitive with them. We seem to get a little closer every year but we have come up short, in fact blown out by them.
“All we can focus on is trying to get better every year, working hard in the off season, being the the best football player, best student, best citizen that we can. I think if we keep a good attitude and work hard winning will take care of itself.”
Ava will open the 2017 season on Aug. 18 at Class 4 Marshfield.