By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Each year the Ozark Conference has as much parity as any other league, but the last two seasons have seen Kickapoo and Glendale win conference championships without taking a loss. That’s rare. This year the question for everyone seems to be on the defensive side of the ball, specifically because of the variety of offenses in the 10-team league. Can Glendale repeat? Is Camdenton ready to restore its legacy? Where do Lebanon, West Plains and Joplin fit in? Are the fresh faces at Kickapoo and Parkview ready to compete immediately? These are just some of the questions surrounding the league entering 2017.
Preseason Fan Poll Results
5. West Plains
LISTEN: OZARK CONFERENCE PREVIEW PODCAST
Justin Sampson & Matt Turer give their thoughts on the 2017 Ozark Football Conference. Click play below to listen.
Can Camdenton’s defense keep up with the offense?
The last name Shore is synonymous with Camdenton Football and from Bob to Jeff, Shore Ball is grown-man football that is centered on running and stopping the run. However, you look at Camdenton’s losses last year and the latter part of that equation was missing. Kickapoo and West Plains each hit up the Lakers for more than 200 yards on the ground in the regular season. Keegan Hoopes then tacked on another 115 and two touchdowns in the Zizzers’ upset of Camdenton in the district opener. It’s been said Camdenton has the tools to win a state championship this year and that is certainly true; don’t be shocked to see the Lakers run the table in the OC. But, for that to happen, Shore Ball must put the D back in Camdenton. Weeks 2-4 they get West Plains, Lebanon and Kickapoo so we’ll know early just how good Camdenton is.
Can Glendale replace nine starters defensively?
Glendale ran through the Ozark Conference last year with no blemishes and no real challengers. But, let’s not forget in 2015 and 2014 the Falcons allowed 1,096 points combined, more than 52 PPG. Glendale Football changed in the Mike Mauk era last year when the defensive unit emerged as one of the best in the league. However, saying goodbye to Kyle Doran, Ian Marshall and company now have the Falcons susceptible to a letdown. It’s tough for any program to lose nine starters defensively, but especially one that doesn’t really rely on defense anyway. Glendale will still be fine offensively. Alex Huston will light people up with a new cast of receivers and a ton of offensive line experience returning. Also, look for Max Nichols to put up monster numbers this year. However, Glendale will struggle to compete for conference and district championships if they can’t find a way to reload defensively.
Is Lebanon ready to make an OC run?
Lebanon shared the OC championship with Hillcrest in 2012, claiming at least a share of the league title for the second time in three years. But, the Jackets haven’t finished in the top two of the league since then. The “Killer B’s” – AKA John Berry, Hunter Bray and Cole Breeden – rushed for a combined 2,549 yards and 29 touchdowns last year, averaging nearly 7.5 yards per carry. That’s bonkers. Lebanon will continue to embrace a physical brand of football on both sides of the line. The question is can they blend toughness with athleticism to get enough stops against the best vertically and horizontally spread offenses in the OC? Glendale, Kickapoo, West Plains and Joplin all gave Lebanon fits last year. Getting off the field on third down defensively will be the difference in Lebanon competing for a conference and district championship and winning a conference and district championship.
Have you heard of Josh Pritchett?
He might be the best dual-threat quarterback in the Ozarks that you haven’t heard of. Rolla salvaged its season last year by making a run to the district championship after upsetting St. Clair and Union, thanks in large part to Pritchett. The 6-foot-3 senior rushed for 396 yards and six touchdowns in those two wins. He has a long stride and runs away from people in the open field and his decision making improved throughout the season; he’s still raw but effective. As Rolla looks to build on the strong finish to last year, with several teams in the conference having question marks defensively, Pritchett could be on tap for a monster senior season.
What will the rest of the conference look like?
This might be the biggest question in the Ozark Conference; nobody has been decimated by graduation like Kickapoo in the last three years. The Chiefs have managed to reload rather than rebuild, but losing Chris Lawson, Maverick McGee, Travis Vokolek, Robbie Merced, Corey Dye and Grant Martin, as well as a new system, may be too much for the Chiefs to overcome. Over the last four years Kickapoo has gone 39-8, continuing that kind of excellence will be extremely difficult with the losses. Nate Thomas does have a nice building block in Missouri State baseball commit Mason Auer… Paul Hansen takes over at Parkview and if you like points then you should be excited. Few local football minds have been more innovative offensively and if you mix that with some of the horses that he’ll inherit at Parkview it’s hard not to believe that the Vikings will be competitive sooner rather than later… Waynesville went winless last year, Year Two in the Brad Drehle era, however several of those guys that got meaningful reps were underclassmen. Look for David Adams Jr. to have a monster season for the Tigers, lining up all over the field… West Plains loses Keegan Hoopes, but at this point Steve Ary is playing with house money. The Zizzers have gone from a group that won 19 games from 2006-13, that has won 23 games over the last three seasons, with a district win each year. Hoopes was the centerpiece of last year’s team, but West Plains does return seven starters on each side of the ball, including defensive standout Andrew Wheeler… Hillcrest returns its most complete offensive line in coach John Beckham’s decade at Hillcrest with four starters back. Haden Parton will take the snaps as the Hillcrest offense will be focused on getting the ball into the hands of the play-making Josh Powell. The secondary will return four starters. The middle of the defense will be highlighted by Malik Starks sliding from the defensive line to linebacker… Joplin is an interesting position. Curtis Jasper went 5-5 last year, his second at the helm of the program. The Eagles still lit up the scoreboard, averaging 31 PPG, but they let opponents tag them back for 36 a night on average. Now Jasper is staring down a rebuild with Joplin returning no quarterbacks that attempted a varsity pass while also graduating its top rushers and receivers from last year. The one thing that could make this a reload instead of a rebuild is a talented sophomore class.
Who is most likely to join the 1,250-yard Club?
Everybody loves a good ground game and the OC will have several of the area’s top backs in 2017. These guys are my favorites to rush for 1,250 yards or more.
Davis Buhr, Rolla
This kid is a monster, but he’s struggled to stay healthy during his high school career. Last year we caught a glimpse into who he can be; Buhr racked up 430 yards in just 47 carries in Rolla’s first five games, that includes 100-yard games against Kickapoo and Waynesville. If he gets a full season in, he’ll be a 1,000-yard back.
John Berry, Lebanon
Every carry that Berry gets is like hammer meet nail. He’s about as big and physical as you’ll see at the high school level and few guys finish runs the way he does. He rushed for 1,392 last year and that came despite missing two games with injury. Lebanon returns hogs up front in Korbin Smith (6’0, 265 lbs), Wyatt Stone (6’0, 260 lbs), Rylan Hoard (6’2, 285 lbs) and Jacob Ruble (5’10, 235 lbs) which means Berry and the Killer Bees will be in full flight all fall (see what I did there?).
Jay Griffin, Camdenton (See below)
Blake Delacruz, Parkview
As a sophomore Delacruz rushed for 846 yards and eight touchdowns with 100-yard games against Kickapoo, Glendale, Lebanon and Willard. The 5-foot-7 scatback gets in and out of cuts quickly and should have plenty of space to operate in Hansen’s system.
Preseason Awards Predictions
While I’m not sure they’ll navigate the conference slate unscathed, it’s hard to go with anyone else here; the Lakers just have too much size and experience.
Player of the Year: Jay Griffin, Camdenton
It’s impossible to not love this kid’s game. He runs with speed, he runs with power and he might be the most confident back in the Ozarks. He should be. He’s salty and his offensive line is about as big and athletic as what the Dallas Cowboys offer, headlined by Grant Norton and Josh Semau. It’s conceivable that Camdenton’s entire front, including tight ends, will play college football. Griffin is a great back, running behind those hogs makes him even more special. He’s coming off of a junior campaign in which he rushed for 1,374 yards and 20 touchdowns. The Lake Show is talented enough to win the Class 4 title, much of how far they go will depend on the legs of No. 27.
Co-Offensive MVP: Alex Huston, Glendale & Josh Powell, Hillcrest
Huston isn’t the best high school quarterback I’ve ever seen, but he is undoubtedly the most important and most effective. Every quarterback would love to run Mike Mauk’s offense, but few have the accuracy and football IQ to make it work. He’s a rare breed for this area. We are accustomed to seeing dual-threat battering rams disguised as quarterbacks, but Huston is lives the position. He’s coming off yet another record-breaking campaign and although he won’t have his favorite targets from last year, he will elevate the level of a new corps and behind a full intact offensive line, the Falcons will still put up points.
In a league full of offensive weapons, Powell is THE offensive weapon in the OC. He’s uncoverable in the passing game (69 receptions, 899 yards, seven TDs in 2016) and dynamic in the return game. Any time he gets the rock in his hands he’s a threat to house it, something not many teams in the Ozarks have. John Beckham will move Powell around and find ways to make sure he gets enough touches to do his thing, similar to how a guy like Percy Harvin was used in college.
Defensive MVP: Andrew Wheeler, West Plains
Wheeler was good as a sophomore, but his production last year in the back end of West Plains’ secondary was ridiculous. Its one thing that he picked off seven passes and broke up six more, but Wheeler also had no problem coming downhill and helping out in the run game (83 tackles in 2016). At 6-foot-2, 190lbs he’s a linebacker trapped in a safety body. He’s the kind of versatile safety you need in the Ozark Conference to handle spread offenses like Glendale and Joplin, as well as power programs like Camdenton and Lebanon.
Breakout Player of the Year: Zack Westmoreland, Joplin
Joplin lost nearly everything from last year, which is good news for Westmoreland. In fact, he’s the only returning player to score a touchdown offensively. Opportunity and athleticism make him the ideal breakout player for 2017. The 6-foot-2, 200lb sophomore will develop into one of the best receiving threats in Missouri when all is said and done, but his frame and ball skills make him the ideal athlete that can stretch defenses horizontally and vertically, which is exactly what Coach Jasper wants. Westmoreland will probably line up all over the field, but defensive coordinators better get used to locating him pre-snap. Classmate Blake Tash is starting at quarterback and while both are young, their talent will make them impactful immediately.