By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Almost as quickly as it came together, the COC Small will be no more with nearly the entire conference joining the Big 8. There was a three-way tie at the top of the league last year with Bolivar, Catholic and Reeds Spring taking turns beating each other. Bolivar has owned the COC Small, Reeds Spring has become a power recently and Catholic is regaining its dominant form under coaching legend Steve Hancock. Here’s what the final year of the COC Small should have in store on the gridiron.
Preseason Fan Poll Results
2. Reeds Spring
LISTEN: COC SMALL FOOTBALL PREVIEW PODCAST
Justin Sampson & Matt Turer give their thoughts on the 2017 COC Small Football Conference. Click play below to listen.
Meet the new Bolivar
Glen Johnson enters Year Two at Bolivar and this team will look very different from Bolivar teams over the last decade. After going back-to-back-to-back with D-1 athletes at quarterback, the Libs will play a much more physical brand of football than in recent years. Honestly, it makes the most sense when you look at their personnel. 1,700-yard back Lane Loomer returns, running behind an offensive line that includes one of the area’s best two-way linemen in Zach Howard. Johnson will have several options behind Loomer in power back Jaxon Joy and speedy sophomore Blade Hancock. Bradley Thomas, the COC Small Co-Defensive POY is back after a 142 tackle junior campaign. It’ll be interesting to see how senior quarterback Deacon Banner handles not only running the offense, but also quarterbacking the defense from is safety spot. If he protects the football and can keep the box from getting too crowded Bolivar will run the table in the conference. Losing a conference game for the first time ever may have been just what the doctor ordered last year. It’s the ultimate wake-up call. The increased emphasis on physicality will be exactly what the Libs will need to win conference (Reeds Spring, Catholic) and district (Webb City, Camdenton, Carl Junction) championships.
Can Reeds Spring get that elusive conference title?
Yeah, the Wolves got a share of the conference championship last year but if anything that just made them hungrier. From 2013-15, Reeds Spring went 5-1 in conference play with the lone loss coming at the hands of Bolivar. In 2016 the Wolves got over the hump against Bolivar, but had an emotional letdown and lost to Catholic. For a team that struggled to compete for years in the conference, closing the book with an undefeated conference championship would be poetic justice. Lance Gosch also has the horses to do it with 14 starters back. Reeds will miss the speed of Korey Robinette, but in his system it’s always been a committee approach. Seth Stamps will see plenty of carries, as will defensive standout Kelly Newton. Bringing back several key pieces from the offensive line, led by Austin Bradfield will be huge. Gosch also seems intent on becoming more balanced offensively, which should create softer boxes. Reeds will be in an interesting spot from a scheduling standpoint. Seeing Mount Vernon and Cassville before opening conference play at Bolivar won’t be easy. Then, the Oct. 13 season finale at home against Catholic will help decide the fate of the league.
Is Catholic back?
After three straight losing seasons Catholic Football looks revived in the Ozarks after a 6-4 run in 2016. The crazy part is the Irish were two plays away from being 8-1 in the regular season, which would have slid them to the No. 2 seed and changed the landscape of their playoff run. We can chalk that up to inexperience. There won’t be a shortage of talent and there’s also some size up front, the question is can Catholic overcome a lack of depth? There will be minimal platooning going on which means staying healthy is imperative. Tyson Riley will be the key offensively, but also look for Nick Crites and Heath Southwick to take some of the pressure off of him. Southwick will also be the man defensively after coming into his own as a junior. The 200lb linebacker isn’t a huge hitter, but is slippery off blocks and doesn’t miss tackles. With so many key returners back, their growth in the offseason will dictate just how successful 2017 is.
The rest of the conference…
Remember when Hollister was the doormat of the COC? Not anymore. Jacob Hamon came in with passion and enthusiasm and that has translated into wins. Retooling an offensive line that was hit hard by graduation will be tough. However, Hollister will return one of the best quarterbacks in the league in Jackson Bekemeier… Rogersville has struggled to win games since winning state in 2011 behind the play of Dylan Cole. The good news for Doug Smith is he returns quarterback Bronson Tavenner, who seems like he’s been in high school forever at this point. The bad news is the ‘Cats must develop an inexperienced offensive line unit. Platooning the defensive line should help LogRog out defensively, but the question will again be can they get enough stops against the upper echelon of the conference…Cody Bull returns to the Ozarks and takes over at Marshfield. He’ll bring a physical brand of football to the Jays. Having some size upfront will do them favors with many of the top teams in the league being power football teams… Buffalo will also have a new coach in former Branson defensive coordinator Ed Phillips. He’ll look to revamp a defensive unit that allowed 42 PPG in 2016. Buffalo has struggled to win for years, it’ll be imperative for Phillips to change the culture and the mindset before worrying about wins and losses.
I just like what the Libs have returning. A steady dose of Lane Loomer with a solid defense led by Bradley Thomas and Zach Howard will allow Bolivar to play simple football. Games with Catholic and Reeds Spring should be dogfights, but the senior leadership should be enough to crown the Libs as COC Small champs, ending the conference the way that it started.
Player of the Year: QB/S Tyson Riley, Springfield Catholic
It’s fitting that Riley wears No. 8, because he’s about as dynamic as Louisville’s Lamar Jackson. There isn’t a better two-way player in the league; he’s the best running back in the COC Small but he just happens to play quarterback. He’s still getting comfortable making reads in the modified triple option which is run out of a base pistol set. He’s also getting more comfortable throwing the football and being a more accurate passer. But his pure, raw athletic ability made him must-see TV last year as a sophomore and that won’t change in 2017. The reason why he’s my preseason pick for POY is because Riley is also one of the best defensive players in the conference. He can chase down plays sideline to sideline and understands how to finish plays from his safety spot.
Offensive MVP: RB Lane Loomer, Bolivar
Talent and opportunities equates to huge numbers and those are two things Loomer has plenty of. As a junior he rushed for a conference-high 1,798 yards and 19 touchdowns. He’s a patient back, but once he finds a crease he hits it and his speed in the open field is serious; he doesn’t get chased down. Bolivar will be a little more reliant on the run this year and with some of the hogs returning up front there shouldn’t be a shortage of holes for him to find. Loomer has 2,000-yard potential this season.
Co-Defensive MVP: LB Bradley Thomas & DL Zach Howard, Bolivar
I get it, Thomas was the Co-Defensive POY last year but many of his 142 tackles come from the work Howard does upfront; they’re like Starsky and Hutch or Future and Metro Boomin. Thomas’ tape is unreal; he hits everything that moves. Multiple times he would tackle the blocker and ball carrier or quarterback and running back in a read situation. That’s not normal. He just has a nose for the football and finishing through people… I’ve been driving Howard’s bandwagon for years. The kid has been a two-way starter for Bolivar since Day One and at no point has there been a better lineman in the conference. Offensively he’s good, defensively he’s on another level. He can play either end or tackle and has great hand action that allows him to rush the quarterback, but has the pure power and leverage that makes him a beast against the run. When you have a kid with this physical package that also plays with a motor and mean streak, you end up with a standout like Howard.
Breakout Player of the Year: Logen Plum, Reeds Spring
There are several great players on Reeds Spring’s defense, but Plum might be the most important this year. The 6-foot-5 defensive end is long and athletic, which allows him to make a variety of plays, but especially against zone-read plays. Plum should build on a junior campaign that saw him record 55 tackles and a pair of interceptions. Also, look for the high-flyer to become a weapon in the passing game from his tight end spot as the Wolves look to become more balanced.