By Jordan Burton (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
The best small-school football in Missouri is played in the SCA. That won’t change in 2017. But, what could change is the order at the top. As MV-BT/Liberty and Mountain Grove attempt to reload from graduation losses, Ava and Thayer seem poised to give them a run for their money. You could see district champs from three classes yet again this year from the SCA, here’s what you need to know this fall.
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Preseason Fan Poll Results
1. Mountain Grove
6. Willow Springs
LISTEN: SCA FOOTBALL PREVIEW PODCAST
Justin Sampson & Matt Turer give their thoughts on the 2017 SCA Small Football Conference. Click play below to listen.
Liberty is still Liberty, but not the same Liberty…
You can’t talk about the SCA without starting at Liberty. The Eagles went undefeated in the conference last year and while they lose key pieces like All-World QB Josh Pruett and standout playmakers Brenton Bush and Marcos Rodriguez, Darin Acklin isn’t exactly starting from scratch. He returns 16 starters which includes nearly everyone along the offensive and defensive lines. That should scare everyone else. Liberty is never short on playmakers so the fact they’re big and experienced upfront makes this group as dangerous any previous Liberty team. With that being said, this team doesn’t have the same explosive, top-end playmakers as we’ve seen in recent years. Koel Orchard will become the next Liberty star with the question being where is he lined up. Acklin typically subscribes to the logic of putting your best athlete at quarterback. Doing that guarantees Orchard gets touches. However, having the flexibility to line him up all over the field would potentially make the offense more explosive. I’m intrigued to see how Liberty plays things offensively. Acklin has never been afraid to tailor his scheme to fit his talent and he’s hinted that he could spread people out and throw it or he may line up double tight and pound the rock. While the offense is a question mark, the defense is not. Chase Smith is still a stud and can line up anywhere in the box. Brodyn Kenaga is a long, rangy defensive end that forces everything back inside and makes running read stuff off of him difficult. Orchard is a ball-hawk with no real position, just understand that he always ends up by the ball and Andrew Holden is a name to remember.
The more things change, they stay the same in Grove…
Five seasons, three coaches and two different reclassifications haven’t stopped Grove from reaching double-digit wins. They continue to be one of the premier programs in the state at the Class 2 level and on paper there are only two programs that seem like they can push the Panthers during the regular season; Liberty and Ava. Carter Otwell is back for his third season under center and for the first time in his career he’ll have the same head coach for consecutive years. Otwell ran Rich Adkins’ veer like a pro last year, a large reason why Grove had three 1,000-yard rushers. Joining Otwell in the backfield is battering ram Chance Barbe (1,177 rushing yards, 20 TDs). He’ll be the feature back following the graduation of All-SCA back Trystan Short, who rushed for more than 4,000 yards in the last three seasons. Will Gourley should be joining the backfield and if you doubt his credentials, just go watch him run track. With receivers Gavin Veach and Patrick Lane also back, as well as defensive leader Trevor Thompson, there’s no shortage of speed and athleticism at the skill positions. The question will become can they piece together an offensive and defensive line to help those guys out. Latham Melton-Farmer and Steele Buttram were studs. They will be missed up front and replacing them will be imperative if Grove is to make a conference and/or district championship run. The other question is, are they mentally prepared to beat Liberty? They gave them a run in the district title game, but the truth still remains that no player on Grove’s roster has beaten Liberty as a varsity football player. The quarterback for the Panthers back in 2012 when Grove last beat Liberty? Bobby Otwell.
The sleeper in the SCA is Ava…
In fact, I’ve had several different Class 2 coaches tell me that the best Class 2 team in the Ozarks – not including Lamar – is Ava. If you ask Coach Swafford about that he’ll quickly remind you that the Bears got blanked by Grove twice last year and lost to Liberty too (which accounts for all three of Ava’s 2016 losses). However, the truth remains that the last team to beat Liberty in SCA play was Ava back in 2014. Ava also beat Liberty in 2012. The 2017 Bears should be as salty as any team Ava has seen in recent years. Caleb Johnson is back at quarterback after an impressive sophomore campaign. Classmate Stephen Copeland will take over the feature back role vacated by Kelly McDonald. Copeland averaged nearly eight yards per rush last year and if you take out the Grove and Liberty games, that number jumps to 10 yards per rush. Both Johnson and Copeland will benefit by the addition of standout lineman AJ VanValkenburg, who is back after sitting out 2016. Ava lost several key starters, but the talent of the upcoming junior class is largely the reason people look at this team as dangerous. One thing is for sure, the schedule does them no favors. The Bears will visit Liberty and Grove on consecutive weeks this September. Split and they likely force a three-way tie for the SCA crown. Go 0-2 and a conference championship is gone just three weeks into the season AND they’ll be hitting the road come district time.
Thayer is going to break someone’s heart…
Being one of the smallest schools in a bone-crushing conference is not easy, but the meat grinder of a schedule always has Thayer ready to go come district time. Again, 2017 will be no exception. Thayer brings back 16 starters and nearly its entire defense. They were a different team late in the season and the maturation of guys like Ayden Stone and Garrett Young will be huge to where this team is going. By district time they’ll be a legitimate threat to win a state championship in Class 1.
Rest of the SCA
Willow Springs didn’t name Logan Schwalm as head coach until July. He’s been on staff for three years so his and his team’s learning curve shouldn’t be huge. Willow has a chance to be dangerous. Last year they lost to Ava, Grove and Liberty, but were really competitive with everyone else and were one possession away from upsetting Diamond in districts. Dakota McDaniel is one of the best skill guys in the SCA and there are several playmakers returning defensively, a unit that was consistent outside of games against the top of the league… What to expect from Salem is up for interpretation. Nearly the entire cast of skill guys is gone, including standouts Eli Floyd, Zak Eplin and JJ McGowan. However, Salem does return some size and experience up front with big bodies Evan Howard and JD Bowling. There will be youth and inexperience all over the field for Brian McNamee, how quickly they adjust to Friday Night Lights will dictate how successful this season is… Eric Sloan continues to build his foundation at Houston. Returning 13 starters should help this fall, especially with everyone being more familiar with his system. Paydon Dixon returns at quarterback and you could see him becoming more comfortable with making reads quicker throughout his sophomore year. That should help things offensively, even without Chance Hunter. The biggest question is can Houston get stops after allowing 40-plus points six times last year? Going to a 3-3-5 stack could help… Greg O’Connor’s first year at Cabool was a grind. The Bulldogs got decimated by injuries and the team lost three games by less than a touchdown. With his expectations firmly in place and four starting offensive linemen back, senior back Kenton Coonts and Cabool should enjoy a smoother fall.
Ultimately, Acklin is the difference. You cannot deny his football genius. He’s the only guy from the Ozarks that has even touched Lamar. He beat a good Class 4 Cape Central team last year and he’s owned Mountain Grove. Again, he’s won seven straight against Grove and hasn’t lost at Grove since 2008. One SCA loss since 2013 is unreal. This is Liberty’s conference until someone proves otherwise.
Player of the Year: ATH Koel Orchard, MV-BT/Liberty
This guy is an Troy Polamalu-type; he just makes unreal plays. Some of the stuff he does is just purely instinctual, but his athleticism allows him to not just make the play, but usually turn it into a takeaway. So, Orchard is the guy that will jump a bubble screen, a pick off a pass over the top with one hand for style points. Or recover onside kicks regularly. He’s just a different breed. Defensively you might see him speed rush off the edge or you might see him lined up 15 yards deep. Offensively he might line up at running back, receiver or take a direct snap. And please don’t kick it to him, it won’t end well. More than 1,400 all-purpose yards with 14 touchdowns and six fumbles recovered, five interceptions, a blocked punt and 11 tackles for loss. Orchard is the real deal.
Offensive MVP: QB Carter Otwell, Mountain Grove
He’s the best quarterback in the SCA. He’s the best cover corner in the SCA too. He’s one of the best pure football players you’ll see in 2017. He’s the definition of a dual-threat quarterback with 2,048 total yards and 28 total touchdowns but he rarely has to throw it because most defenses can’t stop him from running the option. He reads the veer about as well as anyone you’ll see at the high school level and he’s elusive in the open field. Go back and watch some of the Ava and Thayer tape; he ran wild against two of the best defenses in the league. Every coach in the SCA will be happy to see this kid graduate.
Co-Defensive MVP: LB Chance Barbe, Mountain Grove & LB Quincey McDonald, Ava
Barbe plays football with physicality that most aren’t equipped to handle. In 2016 he forced seven fumbles thanks to his violent collisions and presence of mind to make plays on the ball. That also goes along with his 78 tackles and seven sacks.
McDonald is another SCA kid that doesn’t play a true position but just makes plays all over the field. He was second on the team with 74 tackles, seven of which were for loss, to also go along with a team-high six interceptions. He had three pick-6s which is an insane number. He also blocked a pair of kicks. He’s just a productive player.
Co-Breakout Player of the Year: WR/DB Dakota McDaniel, Willow Springs & LB Ayden Stone, Thayer
People in the SCA know who McDaniel is, everyone else should learn this year. He’s dynamic on both sides of the ball and his speed and quickness make him a tough cover. Against Liberty he caught a slant, broke a tackle and ran 90 yards to the crib. Big plays are just a normal part of his game. Willow will find a way to get the ball in his hands as much as possible
Stone was a large reason why Thayer was able to make a district championship run last fall. The 6-foot-5 linebacker can cover sideline to sideline and is athletic enough to cover or rush the quarterback. Thayer’s defense looks completely different when Stone is playing aggressive football as an edge rusher.